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Can Chicago student beat the educational odds?

By Jen Christensen, CNN
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Fixing America's schools
  • U.S. Department of Education plans to spend some $4 billion on nation's worst schools
  • In Chicago only 37 percent of African-American males graduate from its public schools
  • Jordan Norwood, 14, has seen two of his schools close and faces long odds

(CNN) -- Jordan Norwood dreams of becoming a neurosurgeon. The 14-year-old Chicago boy is smart and hard working but because of the school he attends, he would have to defy nearly insurmountable odds to get into college, let alone make it through medical school.

"There isn't one urban school district in the country -- Chicago, L.A., New York, D.C. -- you could go right down the list -- Philly, Baltimore -- there's not one urban system yet, where the dropout rate is low enough and the graduation rate is high enough," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a recent interview with CNN. "There's been lots of progress, including in Chicago, but no one is satisfied. We have to get better faster."

U.S. schools chief: We're in 'educational emergency'

Duncan and the Obama administration plan to spend some $4 billion to improve the worst of the nation's schools -- schools that have been called "dropout factories" by some experts. To qualify for the funding, districts have four radical options:

-- Close the school and send the kids to a better one
-- Fire at least half the staff
-- Change principals
-- Turn the school over to a charter operation

These were tactics Duncan tried when he ran the Chicago district, a district with its share of challenges, particularly for African-American males.

In Chicago only 37 percent of African-American males graduate from its public schools, according to Elaine Allensworth, the co-director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago. "It's an absolute tragedy that we're facing right now," Allensworth said. In Chicago "only 2.5 percent finish college by the time they turn 25 -- it's beyond inexcusable."

The graduation rate at the high school Jordan is set to attend next year isn't as bad as others in the city -- roughly 70 percent of students graduate. But what worries Jordan's mother most is the number of kids who fail to meet grade-level academic standards set by the state. Some 93 percent of students at Dunbar Vocational fail to pass the grade-level assessment tests.

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Jordan's mother, Josephine Norwood, said the Chicago Public Schools have thrown up a number of barriers to her son's education. One of the biggest problems is that they keep closing his schools. Jordan, who will be a high school freshman next year, has seen two of his schools close in the past. The disruption in his education has had a lasting impact, she said. She wanted him to attend a better high school, but he didn't qualify to apply because he didn't do well on a state test he took in the middle of a school closing. She said it was no wonder the normally good student was struggling. She saw the chaos herself.

"I visited his school right after the closing announcement and went to check in at the office. Nobody was in there -- nobody," she said.

When she found her son's class, she said, "There were maybe six kids there and it was like a freak show: They were beating on the desk and boom-bopping and there was no teacher."

Norwood says one teacher told her: "I know school is almost over, but do you have anywhere to take Jordan? ... It's terrible up here."

Some say Jordan is one of thousands of Chicago students who became unintended victims of the district's school closing policy -- a policy that was meant to help students at failing and under-attended schools.

"The short story of the Chicago school closures were that children were in schools that had been failing for generations and the district made a sensible decision to close them," said Timothy Knowles, director of the University of Chicago's Urban Education Institute that released the school closing study late last fall. "However, they were surrounded by equally failing schools and some of those children were transferred into those schools."

Not just some, but most students ended up in schools that weren't much better. There was no district policy that required students from shuttered schools be transferred to better ones. So they weren't.

"Incremental change is not the solution," said Duncan, who ran the Chicago district before he was the nation's school chief and closed dozens of schools, displacing thousands of students. He admits there is little benefit to children who are sent to schools that don't perform any better.

In 2006, he shifted the school closing policy to focus on "turning around" academically weak schools. Instead of closing the building, the district replaced the school's staff. "The status quo isn't the answer," he said. "We have to think about something that's going to help students today, not 10 years from now. Our students have one chance to get a good education."

Marilyn Stewart is the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, which has opposed the closings and turnarounds. "When you turnaround or close a school you create instability. Our children in Chicago already have so much instability in their lives," she said. "In a school turnaround you say 'everyone has to go' --you're talking about the janitor, the lunchroom lady, the school clerk, -- you're getting rid of everyone with any institutional memory or support for that child. How does that help?"

"Turnarounds" are still too new for experts to say if they've been successful, although the Consortium on Chicago School Research plans to release a study on the turnarounds this June. The district is still closing some schools, but not as many. And now there is a caveat to the closing policy.

"We've made some pretty significant changes to how the process works," said the new CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Ron Huberman. "Under our new student bill of rights, a student and family can hold our city school district accountable to ensure when we go through the turmoil of a closing, we can guarantee them a seat in a school that is significantly better. We believe this is a critical part of the process to improve our schools."

The district is also offering additional resources to help students ease their transition to a new school. Unfortunately, these changes don't come soon enough for Jordan Norwood.

His mom is still upset about it. "What happened in seventh grade for him may not have anything to do with how he could do on a test right now, but now he cannot even test to get into a better high school -- all because of how this closing system worked. That's where my anger comes in," she said. "We might not be the wealthiest people, but we care. We want what's best for our children and we want equal opportunity. That shouldn't be too much to ask for from the Chicago Public Schools."