At Senn High School, Diversity Drives Education

From the outside, Nicholas Senn High School in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago looks like a mansion from antiquity. With roman columns, a long white structure and an American flag out front, its facade hardly looks like a representation of the diversity that runs through it.

Today, with nearly 1,300 students enrolled, 9.3 percent of its student body is white, 28.1 percent black, 44.8 percent Hispanic and 13.9 percent Asian. Almost 40 percent of Senn’s students were born outside of the United States; they hail from over 55 countries — including the Philippines, Afghanistan and Belize. The students speak 35 different languages at home. The school reports that Senn used to be in the Guinness Book of World Records for the “Most Diverse School in the United States.”

“Whatever is going on in the news internationally, we eventually see that in our students six months later, within a year,” Assistant Principal Carter Carey said. “The communities that we have always serviced are very much port-of-entry communities.”

Brenda Moreno was 11 when she illegally crossed the border from Mexico into America. For two days, her mother, stepfather, and 3-year-old brother walked across the desert led by two guides.

“My parents brought us here to make money for our family. During the walk through the desert to America, my brother and I got really dehydrated. My mom and my stepdad prayed for rain, and later some drops fell. It was a bad experience, but at same time, we are Christian and were able to see that God would walk us through,” she said.

Senn Principal Susan Lofton has watched and helped lead the turnaround of the massive school.
Senn Principal Susan Lofton has watched and helped lead the turnaround of the massive school.

Within a week, the Moreno family was in Chicago, not far from family members who had already settled in Illinois. Now Moreno is 18, a senior at Senn, and nearly 20 percent of her classmates are also undocumented citizens.

“I feel comfortable and safe at Senn because there are a lot of cultures,” Moreno said. “There is a unity. No one discriminates against anyone.”

Students have come from war-torn areas from across the globe. Edgewater is a part of the Far North Side of Chicago, and is commonly known as an immigrant destination.

“It could be what’s going on in Mexico with the cartel, it could be Middle East, Africa, South America,” Carey said. “Certainly we have students leaving en masse from Central and South America and Africa constantly. If you go back 14 years with what was happening in Europe with Bosnia, we got a very large Bosnian population.”

While many Chicago Public Schools have a depth of diversity within its student body, few have the types of programs Senn has. The school now offers an International Baccalaureate program and an extensive set of English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to fit the needs of the students and help them transition to America and the world beyond the classroom.

“You’ve got to meet them where they are, then try to take them where they go,” Carey said. “Where we’re successful is kids transitioning through the EL program and getting into regular education courses. Some of them go into the most rigorous IB courses.”

Principal Susan Lofton works hard to create a high school that fits the needs of the diverse student population. That means finding a way to teach ESL to kids who speak dozens of different languages.

“We have to get creative,” Lofton said. “There is no teacher that we could possibly find that could deliver ESL education as we know it, from the past. We have to look for ways the kids can communicate amongst themselves—non-verbal expression or acting out.”

The students at Senn learn English through a blended approach of formal ESL classes and individualized computer software. There is also a communal target list of vocabulary that helps the high schoolers develop their language skills together.

“One thing I will say is you really have an aspiration to acquire faster because you don’t have the comfort zone of everyone else around you speaking another language which is the same language you speak,” Lofton said. “When you’ve got 35 languages in a room, you’ve either got the Tower of Babel or you’re going to learn a common form of communication. So there is sort of a spur and impetus there.”

When Moreno first came to America, she spoke no English. Her first two years in public school were spent in ESL classes. What motivated her to learn English was fear: she was afraid her cousins were talking about her in a language she couldn’t understand.

“I thought they were laughing about me,” she said. “From that day, I told myself I had to learn English to fit in.”

In order to advance to IB courses, theater or any other classes, the students must first complete the ESL cycle, which means being able to understand all of the coursework in a regular class taught in English. This drives the students to advance quickly.

“There is a real desire on their part to move themselves forward,” Lofton said. “We aren’t talking assimilation because when you want to get out of ESL so you go into Band or IB Humanities—that’s not assimilation, that’s a desire for personal growth.”

Moreno was in the IB program her freshman and sophomore year at Senn, but she struggled in History because she couldn’t understand all of the readings. Moreno continues to take IB courses and she is currently enrolled in IB Math Studies.

“I like math so I think it’s pretty easy,” she said.

Since Lofton arrived as principal in 2010, the school transitioned from “an eyesore in the community” to a rising CPS star.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced in May of 2012 that Senn High School would become the first ‘wall-to-wall’ IB high school in Chicago. According to Carey, the IB program and Senn’s new success has attracted a larger population from its attendance area.

“For a period of time, Senn was not really attracting a lot of – I’ll be blunt – white students from the tenants area,” Carey said. “They were choosing to go to other selective enrollment schools, but that’s another change we’ve seen in the last four years.”

According to Lofton, when she started, the community had an “ABS rule” in place: Anything But Senn. With a background as a curriculum coordinator and literary specialist, she committed to academic success.

Slowly she gained the support of the community. Senn became a place of security away from local gangs or drugs: a symbol of change in the neighborhood.

“I have seen changes from my freshman year to senior year,” Moreno said. “There are no fights, and it feels safe. It has increased academically too. She has done a good job.

About 20 percent of Edgewater’s residents — as defined as living in the zip code 60660 — live under the poverty line, which is federally defined as an income of less than $11,670 individually. This is about one and a half times the poverty rate in the Chicago metro area. And at Senn High School, 88 percent of the students come from low-income families.

“A lot of these kids, wherever they come from, there is no safe environment,” said Edward Cyra, ESL coordinator at Senn High School. “This is the safest place for them. They’re being nurtured by their teachers. Giving them hope.”

Many of the students that go through Senn do accomplish the ultimate goal — attending college. Without the ESL program, for many immigrant students, that dream would be impossible. Only 57 percent of graduated students from Senn go on to college within a year compared to 66 percent in the rest of the state. According to Senn’s state report card, the Illinois State Board of Education estimates that only 25 percent of Senn’s students are ready for college coursework, based off of students who achieved at least a 21 on the ACT.

Moreno proudly received a 20 on her ACT. Teachers passed out practice worksheets in every class starting at the end of her sophomore year to prepare for the test.

Senn has a graduation rate of 81 percent, which is on par with the district average but is a large improvement for the high school. In 2010, the graduation rate was 54 percent.

“We still a lot of students that go through the curriculum here and get accepted to colleges, so they do have that American dream,” Cyra said. “They fulfill it. I think that’s what we do a good job of.”

According to Cyra, many students are “literally straight off the boat,” and must learn to acquire the English language and the American culture. Using the ESL program, these students are given the opportunity to succeed in a new home.

The Next Step

For millions of high schoolers in America, the next step is college. But at Senn, with many children attempting to learn complex subjects while also not fully grasping the language, it’s difficult to stand out on the ever-more important standardized tests.

Some universities are working on bridging that gap. (story continues under graphic)

Denise Hayman, Ph.D., the director of the Counseling Help and Assistance Necessary for a College Education (CHANCE) program at Northern Illinois University, identifies people who may fall below the academic requirements because their high school experience or prior education didn’t maximize their potential.

For NIU, the minimum requirement is a 2.75 GPA and a 19 on the ACT. Hayman recruits students who may fall below one or both of those markers. From there, the department reviews the whole student, looking for signs that his low scores were a product of the environment, not actual ability.

“So, a student might be in an impoverished school and have a 3.75,” she said. “That points to resiliency and what a student is doing in the certain environment.”

The students of Senn High School are much like those who Hayman recruits to NIU. In the 2014 school year, Senn’s average composite ACT score was just 17.9, falling slightly below the CPS average of 18.0 and the state average of 20.4. Although Senn’s average falls below NIU’s minimum, Hayman believes that ACT scores are not accurate reflections of a student’s academic potential.

“There are some institutions which are already pulling back from standardized test scores,” Hayman said. “The two best predictors for me are high school grade point average and high school percentage rank, in terms of predicting resilience and persistence.”

These types of students that actually have gone to NIU and through the CHANCE program have transitioned well to the university, even though their high school academic standing might not have been up to par.

To Hayman, the biggest indicator of how prepared a student is for the university level is where he or she lives. Someone from from a district like New Trier in Winnetka, Ill., that has a large tax base, is typically going to be better prepared than someone from a more impoverished area. The average listing price in Winnetka is $2,038,356, but only $220,000 in Edgewater. The near-two million dollar difference puts Senn at a disadvantage.

Talented students often slip through the cracks at under-performing schools that don’t receive the kind of funding that they need.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2010-11, the total expenditures on schooling was $632 billion, or $12,608 per student nationwide. Though Chicago’s average was only slightly lower than that ($11,931), still many schools in the city require a boost in funding because of demands such as a rising student population and new programs.

“[CPS] does a good job, but the way the funding formula works, we could have additional support,” Cyra, the ESL coordinator, said. “We are always working on supports for the kids.”

In addition, CHANCE applicants are required to have an interview and write a personal statement that talks about their life experiences.

“We are open to all students of all ethnicities, colors, and backgrounds,” Hayman said. “We have a diversity of students in our program: black, Latino, Asian, veterans, single parents—so it’s a diversity across the board, not just in terms of economics.”

In Hayman’s experience, she has seen a discrepancy between students from high- and low-resource high schools.

“Typically, high schools that are located in residential areas where there is a high tax base like Lake Forest,” she said. “Usually those high schools have a lot more resources because tax dollars are used to fund schools.”

Those schools that have more financial stability historically produce more students that meet NIU’s minimum academic requirements than those in neighborhood with a lower tax base.

According to Hayman, NIU has a wide array of academic or life assistance available to students, in addition to an overnight orientation program to get them acclimated to university life. To her, most students can handle the academics if they are put in a situation that encourages learning. Academic prowess isn’t the problem—paying for it is.

“If I had to identify — and I’m going to talk about this in terms of students in general — the biggest challenge for any student, unless your family is in that top 10 percent of the socio-economic level, the biggest challenge right now is paying for this higher education,” Hayman said.

Despite the monetary challenge that all students must overcome, those graduating from Senn have gone on to attend some of the most rigorous and prestigious universities in the country, including the University of Notre Dame and Northwestern University. And, many of them have done so while speaking English as a second or third language.

“We’ve had kids go through the ESL program and go straight to the University of Chicago,” Carey said. “They’ve done some amazing things.”

Moreno hopes to be one of those students. As an undocumented immigrant, Moreno does not have the social security card needed to apply for college; however, a few universities offer DACA scholarships (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.) Moreno applied to Loyola University Chicago’s nursing program through DACA, which is her most affordable option. She also applied to a few other schools with similar programs.

When her family came to America, they left behind Moreno’s older brother and sister in Mexico City. If she doesn’t get into college, or if her family cannot afford it, Moreno will be forced to move back to Mexico where her siblings are.

“I am not afraid of being deported, but it’s something I wouldn’t like.”

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