Eric Knox was a fourth grader growing up on Chicago’s West Side in the late 1980s the day some North Central College students showed up at his school. The students were there to tutor pupils at James Weldon Johnson Elementary School in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood.
Knox was fortunate to be involved in the inception of North Central College’s Junior/Senior Scholars program, which changed his life and the lives of hundreds of other youngsters. “It started a lot of ideas about future thinking for us,” says Knox, a single parent who will graduate from North Central College in June 2009 with a degree in organizational communication and broadcast communication. “North Central College gave us a positive outlook on our futures. It gave us hope and inspiration to be whatever we wanted to be.”
Now 20 years after its launch, Junior/Senior Scholars has evolved into a multi-faceted program for 400 pupils in grades K-12, who benefit from tutoring, study groups, weekend retreats, work internships, an academic summer camp and events for their family members. North Central College students work with the scholars as tutors, summer teachers and role models and, along the way, learn their own lessons about how they can impact the lives of youngsters from high-need schools.
“We have many students who come to North Central to make a difference in someone’s life,” says Jan Fitzsimmons, director of the Junior/Senior Scholars program. “They make a difference just through the relationships they build with these children.”
The seeds for the program were planted in 1988 when an Amoco Research Center initiative designed to get elementary school students excited about math and science resulted in a three-week summer camp for 30 pupils from North Lawndale in Chicago. Over the years, North Central expanded the program into a year-round effort that also included pupils from Oak Park Elementary School in the East Aurora School District. Later, schools like North Lawndale Preparatory School in Chicago, Cowherd Middle School and East Aurora High School in Aurora were added since the goal is to maintain contact with participants from age five all the way through high school.
Now with a budget of $200,000 and more than a dozen corporate sponsors, the program has inspired a generation of kids from Chicago and Aurora public schools to think about going to college, and many of them are. The successful scholars are disciplined, self-motivated individuals. During the summer, they must be able to rise early and get on a bus by 7:30 a.m. as North Central transports the children from Chicago and Aurora to campus for a full-day summer school. The academic portion of the six-week summer program is complemented with social and recreational components, such as swimming and field trips.
Each year, nearly 200 North Central students participate as academic tutors and as summer teachers. During the school year, they tutor at the elementary schools in Chicago and Aurora, while other students meet with the middle and high schools pupils who are transported to campus once a week.
“This program brings our students in touch with very diverse student populations, in terms of race, culture and economics,” Fitzsimmons says. “I don’t think you come to college realizing how you can impacted someone’s life and make their life better just by being there for them.”
Students like Jill Bushman ’10 say the program dramatically impact her views on education and influenced her career goals. “It’s changed my life,” says Bushman, of Dixon, IL.
Cherrelle Blevins ’09 also wants to work in a high-needs school. In addition to teaching music for the summer program—her drum line with buckets was especially popular—she is the coordinator for the Junior/Senior Scholars middle school program on campus. Blevins has already completed her student-teaching in K-12 music education at Jones College Preparatory High School in Chicago and at O.C. Allen Elementary School in the East Aurora School District. “Kids are kids, they all want the same things, they all need the same things,” she says. “This program continually confirmed for me why I want to teach.”
“What started out as a typical tutoring program has grown into a partnership,” says Robin Hedrich, principal of Oak Park Elementary School in the East Aurora School District. “Jan [Fitzsimmons] is instrumental in keeping things going. It’s really crucial that up-and-coming teachers see that they have to make that connection with schools and parents.”
As a successful model for serving high-need schools and exposing future teachers to inner-city education, the program in 2003 was named an Exemplary Practice in Higher Education by the Illinois Board of Higher Education.
The success of the Junior/Senior Scholars program then led to the Pipeline to Urban Teaching, designed to increase the number of educators committed to working with high-need students.
“Through the Urban Pipeline program, all Education 100 students now get a clinical experience through Junior/Senior Scholars,” Fitzsimmons says. “They’re not just observers, but active participants … They learn about the culture, about economics and politics, see inequalities and learn more about social justice. As they get to know the schools and neighborhoods, we see huge changes in their perceptions about these communities.”
What makes Junior/Senior Scholars such a dynamic program, able to transform lives of teachers and students alike? Participants say it’s because of the connections developed between the pupils and educators who become actively involved in trying to improve the lives of their charges.
Programs like Junior/Senior Scholars reveal that “teacher educators can be powerful agents of change and not merely passive residents of an ivory tower,” Fitzsimmons wrote in a September 2008 progress briefing, “Transformative Partnerships, Authentic Change,” for The Associated Colleges of Illinois (ACI) Center for Success in High-Need Schools, of which she is the director.
“When teacher candidates benefit from hands-on experience in high-need schools, and when they complete coursework that introduces them to the history, sociology and psychology of high-need communities, their preference for teaching in schools serving these communities rises significantly,” Fitzsimmons wrote.
That sentiment is reinforced by past participants of Junior/Senior Scholars, like Joanna Novarra ’03, who teaches at Sherman School of Excellence in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood (see sidebar on page 15). “I’ve taught in Naperville, and I’ve taught in Aurora, but I’ve never had more fun than here because the kids need you,” Novarra says. “(Junior/Senior Scholars) dispels misperceptions that Chicago Public Schools are bad and prepares you for the realities of teaching … It puts you in the trenches, so to speak.”
Amber West ’06, now teaching a bilingual classroom in John R. Tibbott Elementary School in Bolingbrook, also found her calling as a tutor and teacher for Junior/Senior Scholars. “I’d never heard of bilingual education until I started working in the program,” she says. “Then I decided to double-major in Spanish and elementary education.”
It’s a win-win for everyone involved, including the young scholars. In 2007, 90 percent of the graduating seniors in the program enrolled in college immediately following high school, according to an independent evaluator. More than 140 scholars involved in the program have gone on to attend college.
And Eric Knox, one of the inaugural “junior” scholars of the program, is preparing to graduate from North Central College.
“They were the kind of teachers who were all eyes upon us. I still remember my mentors to this day. I plan to send them invitations to my graduation,” Knox says.
North Central NOW Winter 2009