It’s just after 9:00 am when Rachel Bennett greets her third period students as they file in for class. Bennett is a high school Spanish teacher at Perspectives Leadership Academy in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood of Chicago. But this is the one class she teaches each day where nobody learns Spanish.
“Mostly what I do, I feel, is harass my kids to be their best selves at all times,” Bennett says.
What Bennett does is teach a daily, 40-minute course designed by a nonprofit educational organization called OneGoal. What’s interesting about OneGoal is that it pinpoints and targets low-income, underperforming students in non-selective Chicago Public Schools; students who are least likely to graduate high school, let alone college.
Jeff Nelson, co-founder and CEO of the program, lays out its impact thus far in Chicago.
“We’re taking underperforming students that typically have a less than 10 percent chance of earning a bachelor’s degree,” he says. “And right now, 85 percent of our alumni in college are persistent.”
OneGoal focuses on these students because, nationally, only 8 percent of ninth graders in low-income communities are expected to graduate college by age 25. That’s in stark contrast to students in the top quarter of income, where 32 percent can be expected to finish college.
Nelson says the cornerstone of OneGoal’s methodology begins with recruiting and training exceptional teachers – who in turn identify underperforming students with the least opportunity and the most potential.
“We believe and have seen empirical evidence that teachers matter most in education reform,” he says.
And so, OneGoal has partnered with the Chicago Public Schools and is currently running courses in 23 of the district’s schools. Their hope is to be inside 40 to 50 percent of all high schools in Chicago by 2017, and eventually, to expand nationally. The organization already has permission from the Board of Education in Houston, Texas to begin setting up shop in the city’s schools.
Here’s how it works. A teacher – who OneGoal has identified as somehow “exceptional” – takes on a group of 25 students and sticks with the same group for three years, beginning in junior year of high school. The teacher’s instruction focuses on three pillars: prepping students for the ACT exam, guiding them as they apply to college, and helping them develop specific leadership skills.
“The five leadership principles that we spend time working on are professionalism, ambition, resilience, integrity and resourcefulness,” Nelsons says. “The reason those five skills are important to us is because those five working in concert are predictive of success in college.”
These character traits, Nelson says, often come naturally for students who’ve grown up in the city’s roughest neighborhoods, and already have an inner strength unusual for their age.
“Oftentimes though those skill sets are not pinpointed as assets,” he says. “Kids think that they walk into this environment with liabilities. We think it’s completely opposite.”
Once the students move on to college, they stay in regular contact with their OneGoal teacher through their first year. The aim here is not just to get the kids into college – but to equip them with the support system they need to finish.
“We’ve seen 20, 25 years of education reform in the United States,” the young CEO says. “Almost all of it has been directed in pre-K through 12. So, we’ve seen a proliferation of charter schools, we’ve seen early childhood intervention work, we’ve seen human capital providers, we’ve seen big city mayors like Rahm take on education. Yet almost none of it has spilled over into higher education. And so, our country has begun to get college access right – but we see huge dropout rates in college.”
Cynthia Barron is a coach with the University of Illinois at Chicago’s principal training program. She has over 40 years of experience in Chicago Public Schools, including years as a principal herself. She says OneGoal’s model works because, on a practical level, it helps students anticipate “what college life is about, what career readiness is about, what that life is going to be like when they graduate.” Beyond that, she says, it gives kids a built-in network to turn to for support on the road to college graduation, despite obstacles that may stand in the way.
OneGoal student Anthony Halmon knows something about obstacles. Last year, his South Side community – Greater Grand Crossing – ranked fourth among 77 for the number of violent crimes. According to the latest census numbers, nearly 26 percent of households here are below the poverty line – and nearly one in five residents is unemployed.
By sophomore year, Halmon was getting into trouble. With a “C” average he was doing the bare minimum to get by – and he was a new father.
“Outside of school, I didn’t do nothing,” Halmon says. “[I] sat on my butt, played games, you know I didn’t use a computer, I didn’t use my time wisely. I just did ignorant things.”
Rachel Bennett, Halmon’s teacher, says that through self-motivation and the support of OneGoal, he’s turned everything around.
“Last quarter, he had a 4.1 GPA with the weight of his AP Lit class,” Bennett says. “So he’s doing that all as a young father. [He] still takes care of his 2-year old, sees her every day, takes her to all her doctor’s appointments.”
Halmon says that OneGoal helped him connect the dots and approach his future with more intention.
“My OneGoal teacher, she always encouraged me, like, if you don’t want to do nothing for yourself, then do something for your baby, make a life for her,” he says. “You always want your child to have a better life than you already have, so it’s like she’s part of my motivation.”
Today, Anthony is in the final running for a full-ride scholarship to Cornell University. It’s the kind of ambition OneGoal hopes to instill in all of its students.
“If I don’t leave and I stay here, it’s still not going to do nothing for my family,” he says. “So I’d rather go get an education and go start on my career, and bring that back towards them, so I can actually raise a family and take care of my daughter, take care of my mother also. I’m doing this for myself – [but] I’m also doing this for my family and people that I love.”
Note (5/2/13): OneGoal student Anthony Halmon was accepted to Cornell University with a full scholarship. He’ll begin his undergraduate studies there in the fall of 2013. In addition, Halmon recently met President Barack Obama at the White House’s fourth-annual student science fair. The invention that got him there? A pacifier with a built-in thermometer and soothing gel, inspired by his young daughter. For more, read this story by The Root.