Regional Roundup: Chicago Partnerships "Connect Dots" to Improve College Access

One of the best parts of working in one of ED’s regional offices is being where “the rubber meets the road” as the national agenda comes together with the people it affects. That’s what happened when Greg Darnieder, Secretary Duncan’s senior adviser on college access, joined with me to co-host “Creating a College-Bound Culture: Reaching Every Student,” with Elev8 Chicago, a national full-service community schools initiative that helps to transform the educational achievement and life outcomes of disadvantaged middle school students in five Chicago schools. Held at ED’s Regional Training Facility in Chicago on March 19, 2012, the
forum was led by Darnieder.

As the creator and former head of Chicago Public Schools’ Department of Postsecondary Education and Student Development, Darnieder was the ideal choice to lead the discussion both because of his expertise and his strong relations with key local leaders. External participants included Deputy State Superintendent of Schools Darren Reisberg, City Colleges of Chicago Vice Chancellor Alvin Bisarya, and Chicago Public Schools Chief of Staff Andrea Saenz, as well as other local education leaders, representatives from community-based organizations, and business and foundation executives. Rich Blasen, a Chicago-based member of Federal Student Aid’s outreach team, also attended and added a valuable perspective.

Students added a dynamic element to the dialogue. One eighth-grader, Kristopher Moore of Chicago, said he once was “a hothead,” but the Perspectives Middle School student credited a school-based program called Life Gets Better with helping him to build self-discipline and seek calm solutions to problems. He’s now a straight-A student, and focused on going to college someday. At right, Darnieder laughs with Moore (left) and Jose Nunez of Ames Middle School following the event.

“Lots of kids have attitudes that keep them from doing what they need to do to change,” said Moore. “This program really helps them to change those attitudes.”

Elev8 Chicago Program Manager Jennifer Doeren and I developed the program to help “connect the dots” between community-based organizations and Chicago-area resources aimed at engaging K-12 students in college-bound thinking. The event grew out of a conversation that she and I had when we first met last December. We discussed the president’s plan to make the U.S. first in the world in percentage of adults completing college by the year 2020 and the challenges in helping the neediest students and their parents view college as an achievable dream. We both were aware of ED grants, local resources, and programs that help schools to develop a college-focused atmosphere. Yet, community-based organization leaders in some of Chicago’s most troubled neighborhoods consistently had told Doeren that they didn’t know where to turn for help to build the type of college-bound culture that often is taken for granted in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods.

While the simple goal of the March meeting was for each participant to gain at least one new connection for helping students, the underlying issues addressed were anything but simple. For example, Darnieder discussed the expansion of an innovative ED pilot project to increase the number of students completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). While applauding the pilot program, Maria Trejo, Elev8 director for Ames Middle School, said that the bigger barrier for some students and parents is overcoming their initial reaction of “Whoa….what is FAFSA?”

In response, several other participants discussed programs that could help. For example, Robert Lee of Illinois State University’s College of Education discussed how his Chicago Teacher Pipeline Program matches pre-service teachers with middle-school students to help address those basic issues and develop a college focus through mentoring.

Blasen also offered FSA materials to increase awareness and understanding of college funding terms. Other regional ED participants were Noel Hammond of OCR, OCO’s Shirley Jones, and 2011–12 Teaching Ambassador Fellow Dexter Chaney II, who now is an assistant principal in Chicago.

“There is so much power in this room,” said Darnieder. “To leverage that power, we have to first build trust among ourselves.”