Charter school students get a preview of college life during campus visit

Claire Brown

Students from Amandla Charter School in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood could be heard singing Northwestern’s fight song during a visit to NU on Wednesday.

“Most of them knew the fight song,” said Shadra Smith, director for African-American Student Affairs. “It was cute.”

The 43 fifth- and sixth-grade students visited NU to get an idea of life on a college campus. Amandla is a school composed almost exclusively of African-American students, 94 percent of whom are low-income.

Many students enter fifth grade two to three years behind grade level, said Meredith Buse (Medill ’05) who teaches fifth grade at Amandla and helped organize the NU visit. The field trip shows the students, most of whom had never been on a university campus before, what college is like and motivates them to work hard in school, she said.

“We want college to feel like Disneyland to them,” Buse said. “We want them to think college is a magical place so they will work hard to get to college.”

Amandla began teaching students in fall 2008. Currently, 220 fifth- and sixth-graders are enrolled, but administrators plan to expand every year to include grades five through 12, Buse said. The school’s ultimate goal is to get students to graduate from college, she said.

According to Public School Review, only 10 percent of Englewood residents ages 25 and older hold college degrees. Despite the statistics, teachers and parents of Amandla students have big plans for their future.

Natasha Williams’ son, David Rozier, is a fifth-grader at Amandla.

“I want David to be a prosperous student,” she said. “I want him to do well in whatever endeavors he has. He loves cars, so we’re looking for a good engineering program.”

Linda Johnson’s daughter, Nakia Flemming, is also a fifth-grader at Amandla. Flemming formerly attended Marcus Garvey Math and Science School, a public grade school in Chicago, but Johnson said she was not satisfied with the program.

As a Marcus Garvey student, Flemming didn’t understand the assignments and always had to ask for help, but Amandla has made her more independent, Johnson said.

“Her reading has come up magnificently and her confidence is building,” she said. “She does her homework on her own and actually explains it to me, which is excellent.”

Although progress has been made, teaching at Amandla is challenging, Buse said.

“I can be a great teacher and can inspire them to want to go to college and give them the tools to get there, but a lot still go home to really awful situations,” she said. “My power only extends to the doors of the school.”

The NU visit consisted of a session at the house of African-American Student Affairs that included talks with current students and Adina Andrews, a financial aid representative. The students also took an informal campus tour and ended the day with lunch in Allison Hall’s dining hall, Buse said.

“A highlight was definitely the all-you-can-eat nature of the dining hall,” she said. “Many of our students got multiple servings of ice cream.”

The best aspect of the trip was showing students what a college campus actually looked like, Buse said. She said the students were overwhelmed by the size and kept asking, “Is this still it?”

Buse said she is hopeful Amandla will continue to visit NU to inspire more students to attend college.

“This could potentially be an annual tradition,” she said. “It’s just such a great thing for our kids.”[email protected]