University of Chicago Charter School honors first graduates at Woodlawn campus

Among the 51 proud seniors who walked to the front of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on Tuesday, June 8, to receive the first high school diplomas awarded by the University of Chicago Charter School was Shani Edmond. Enrolled in UCCS in first grade, Edmond has taken an educational journey that in many ways parallels the charter school's growth.

"Shani and her peers are powerful proof that when we get leadership, instruction, teacher support, school culture and parent engagement right, children rise beyond what some believe is possible," said Timothy Knowles, the John Dewey Director of the Urban Education Institute, which operates the charter school.

Edmond is one of three Woodlawn charter school seniors who maintained a GPA of 3.7 during all four years of high school. Ninety-eight percent of this year's graduates were accepted to colleges and universities, and the students' scholarship awards total $1.5 million.

When Edmond began school at UCCS, it had recently opened its first campus, North Kenwood Oakland. She would eventually rise through the grades to become a high school student at its third campus, Woodlawn.

Deborah Muhammad, Edmond's mother, said she chose the charter school for Shani because she was impressed with the curriculum. "I wanted her to have critical thinking skills. I wanted there to be creativity in the way she was taught and that was all part of what was going on in the charter school."

Edmond said, "Though I was not the best student in my early years, the teachers at North Kenwood Oakland were a big motivating factor for me to keep my head as much in the game as I could. They always cared, not just academically, but emotionally and socially."

It was in middle school at North Kenwood Oakland that Edmond had a learning breakthrough. Shayne Evans, now Director of the Woodlawn high school campus, taught English at North Kenwood Oakland. He had a reputation for demanding much from his students. He gave Edmond tutoring once a week before school, and before long, her near-failing grade became solid and she became an "A" student.

"Mr. Evans makes you hate him so you can learn to respect him. And when you learn to respect him, you come to love him. Mr. Evans turned me completely around. He made me a true student. I no longer like anything but A's." As proof, Edmond was named valedictorian of her eighth-grade class.

As Edmond grew, so did the charter school. In 2005, the school added a second elementary campus: Donoghue. In 2006, the Woodlawn secondary campus opened to serve students in grades 6 through 12. In 2008, the school expanded to its fourth campus, Carter G. Woodson, to serve an increasing need and focus on the middle years.

"When I learned there was going to be a high school, I was so excited, because there would be continuity for Shani and the curriculum would be strong," Muhammad said.

Edmond overcame challenges and growing pains as a student. She also learned to leverage her network of teachers, administrators and mentors until she became an academic worthy of a full Posse scholarship to the selective Oberlin College, where she wants to study film. That interest grew out of the video-making skills Edmond had learned at UCCS, where she created presentations on history, science, and literature, her mother said.

Through rigorous academics, as well as Woodlawn's college-readiness programs-a yearlong senior thesis project, the 6to16 college readiness curriculum, and mandatory college tours-Edmond has been prepared to succeed in college.

"The goal from the very beginning, when we opened the doors of Woodlawn, was for our students to graduate from college," said Nycole Buckner, a college counselor. "Not only do we want them to attend college, we want them to persist through college, hopefully go on to graduate programs and, most of all, become great citizens of the world."

A school grows up

The University of Chicago Charter School has grown in many ways since it first opened and the work of the students shows the impact of that growth. Ninety-eight percent of all of the graduates at Woodlawn have been accepted to attend college in the fall, compared with approximately half of all Chicago Public Schools students. The staff members who have been with Woodlawn from the beginning are both thrilled and proud of these achievements.

"The students and families who joined us in 2006, had to put a lot of trust in us. We were new-untried and untested. They had to take a leap of faith and believe that this new innovative endeavor would do its best to truly prepare each student for college," said Victoria Woodley, director of academic and social supports at the Woodlawn campus. "Seeing our graduates doing what many of them thought they couldn't and looking back at what was once just an idea, it is a surreal and incredibly rewarding experience."

For Rob Lane, dean of students at Woodlawn, who has watched Edmond and her classmates rise from ninth graders to graduating seniors, a proud moment came when he witnessed students confidently discussing their senior thesis projects with faculty members at the University of Illinois during a fall visit.

"I saw a student talk about his cost analysis of high speed rail. The university faculty were amazed," Lane said. "Another fascinating project centered on the psychological effects of neighborhood violence. I was so proud of the level of these projects."

The senior thesis project and a rigorous academic trajectory that includes algebra in eighth grade play an instrumental role in preparing students for college, as do college visits, which begin as early as sixth grade. These trips have become tours of some of the nation's leading universities, exposing students to schools they might never have considered.

In addition, the students take part in a college readiness initiative called 6to16, which engages them early in planning for college, in grade six, and supports them through college graduation, grade 16. The program helps students understand what makes a college selective, how a student's academic record impacts one's options, how to navigate a federal financial aid application, and how to prepare a strong college application. Additionally, 6to16 offers a Web-based network for school success - a support system of mentors who can help students succeed along their path through high school, and then through college.

"We hope that in the years ahead, our graduates will be able to depend upon the Woodlawn charter school for continued support, motivation and encouragement", said Evans. "We look forward to the members of the Class of 2010 coming back to share their stories, successes, and challenges in their new endeavors. Ideally, they'll be able to lean on us for assistance while, at the same time, have the ability to act as role models for the Woodlawn neighborhood."

It is fitting that the first-grader, who started a bit wobbly at the University of Chicago Charter School but with the hope that her school could help her realize a promising future, is marking the end of her charter school career as its salutatorian. Edmond's academic development reflects a school that placed itself on a challenging path, which it populated with hard work, dedication, commitment, faith, and the message that college is an option for every student who enters through its doors.

"What began as just a plan on paper has now become a living reality for our students and their families," said Woodley. "It is one thing to have a dream, it is quite another to be able to say that we can prepare urban youth for college and beyond. We can say that now."

-William Harms and Katelyn Silva

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