NU students help close the achievement gap at ETHS through tutoring program

Susan Du

While most employees dread the thought of losing their jobs, Project EXCITE coordinator Kourtney Cockrell embraces it.

She oversees a tutoring initiative that seeks to bridge the achievement gap between white and minority students at Evanston Township High School. The collaborative project also represents an ongoing partnership between Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy and Evanston public schools – one that will no longer be needed if that achievement gap is narrowed.

“The goal of our program is to put ourselves out of business,” Cockrell said. “We want to see all our kids succeed.”

Traditionally, fewer non-white students have achieved college readiness and above average standardized test scores, resulting in ETHS’ failure to meet No Child Left Behind standards in recent years. Administrative officials have implemented various educational initiatives in an effort to solve this problem, which includes Project EXCITE.

The tutoring began 11 years ago to increase the number of minority students enrolled in high school honors math and science classes.

Project EXCITE recruits minority third-grade students who score in the top 25 percentile on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. About 25 students per year then enroll in the program for the next six years, after which they are encouraged to transition to honors and AP classes in high school. The philosophy of the program is to instill solid academic habits in children at a young age, Cockrell said.

Though Project EXCITE has traditionally focused tutoring efforts on elementary and middle school students, it recently opened tutoring sessions to high school students as well.

“It is only one element working toward reducing the achievement gap in Evanston,” Cockrell said. “The work we’re doing is pretty significant and far reaching.”

The achievement gap at ETHS is such that minority students are scoring more than 50 percent lower than white students on the Prairie State Achievement Examination, Illinois’ standardized test for 11th graders across the state. In 2010, white students scored an average of 90.7 on the reading section while black and Latino students scored 39.6 and 43.0, respectively. In the math section, white students scored 93.7 while black and Latino students scored 39.3 and 44.3. The No Child Left Behind’s Adequate Yearly Progress standard was 77.5 for both categories in 2010.

June Cathcart Smith, ETHS PTSA co-president, said No Child Left Behind’s standards are not always a clear indication of achievement at ETHS.

“It not fair to say because of NCLB that we’re not accomplishing,” Smith said. “There would be a language barrier because of kids coming in from Mexico, China … and it’s naturally going to drop our test scores. We have a lower income situation than other suburbs. I don’t feel that ETHS should be lambasted by anyone because they’re not on the inside and they don’t see the positive side of things.”

However, Smith also said No Child Left Behind can help keep schools on target even if its standards may seem unrealistic at times. She cited Oakton Elementary School, 436 Ridge Ave., as a school that has implemented simultaneous Spanish and English immersion classes and an African-centered curriculum for the benefit of low-income minority children.

“Schools have to work more to achieve because they know they’re under the gun,” Smith said. “Oakton Elementary – I know they work their butts off. Yet Oakton is getting a bad rap because of NCLB and I know they’re working so hard. But schools gotta have something to push them. If there’s only NCLB, so be it.”

Project EXCITE’s success is measured in terms of the success of its students, Cockrell said, citing the case of one girl in this year’s graduating class who she thinks will go on to Yaleupon graduation from the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. However, as the students who are accepted into the program in the first place are overachieving third graders, it focuses more on encouraging good students to stay on the right track than on providing remedial services for minority students.

Cockrell said if given the resources, she would love to extend Project EXCITE to more children. However, the program is restricted fiscally, being primarily funded through NU.

Project EXCITE has partnered with various community organizations to increase resources for the children it serves, including the Evanston Public Library and NU.

Every Thursday, University student volunteers tutor middle school children on campus. Also, the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences runs annual labs and workshops for third and fourth graders.

District 202 school board member Mark Metz said the board has taken all necessary steps mandated by No Child Left Behind to address the achievement gap issue, such as restructuring. This fall, the freshman humanities course will be restructured to expose more students to an honors-level curriculum.

“Restructuring will serve as a springboard for more kids to take honors and AP classes,” Metz said. “We’re also trying to understand why the achievement gap exists. We’re making sure to treat all students in an equitable manner.”

As part of the Good Neighbor, Great University scholarship program, 19 Evanston kids of various socioeconomic backgrounds have received grants to attend NU.

“It’s something that we’re working very hard on, to make kids and families aware of that opportunity and apply,” Metz said. “It’s early but we’ve had some success.”

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