Math teacher Natalie Johnson raised more than a few eyebrows last fall when she suggested Waubonsie Valley High School offer an all-black ACT prep class.
But one year later, her efforts to close the achievement gap between white and minority students at the Aurora school seem to be working.
The roughly two dozen juniors who took Johnson's class during the 2007-08 school year raised their ACT scores by an average of five to six points on a 36-point scale.
"It definitely far exceeded my wildest imagination in terms of overall success rate," Johnson said.
But the triumphs were more than academic. Discipline problems went down, attendance went up, and students, parents and educators alike say they see an increased confidence and maturity in those who took the class.
For the past five years, black students have been Waubonsie's lowest scoring racial subgroup on standardized tests and, at times, have contributed to the school's failure to meet federal No Child Left Behind standards.
On average during that time, only 29.6 percent of black students met or exceeded state standards in math while 38.5 percent met or exceeded standards in reading.
During that same period, 72.7 percent of white students met or exceeded standards in math and 74.1 percent met or exceeded them in reading. Scores for Asian students showed 84.3 percent met or exceeded standards in math and 78.1 percent in reading.
Tired of the stigma, and concerned with the scores, Johnson, who is black, started thinking about ways to address the problem. She thought if she could get some of those struggling black students into one class she could not only help them academically but get to the roots of some of the other challenges they face.
While most ACT prep classes cover one semester, Johnson's class spanned the entire school year. Her classroom invited open and frank discussions, offering both a comfortable environment for students and one that constantly reminded them of the high standards to which they would be held.
"Ms. Johnson tells us we should conduct ourselves as if someone is watching us because we never know who is watching," student Geremie Savoy said.
Throughout the year, the class worked on the ACT test subject areas of math, science, English and reading and took several practice tests - including a four-hour simulation of the real deal one Saturday - before taking the official test in April.
Students also learned about leadership and responsibility. They went to college fairs, worked on their resumes and interviewing skills, talked about stereotypes and worked to build self-esteem.
"We kept it real, we shared some hardships, we also shared how you get past things," Johnson said. "This is life. You're always going to be thrown a curve and (you need to know) how to deal with it."
Members of 100 Black Men of Chicago, a group that mentors at-risk youths, came into the class on a regular basis throughout the year and talked about everything from team-building to starting a business.
"One of the other key aspects of being involved is the ability to share with them our stories or our testimonies of where we came from and how we arrived at where we are," group member Al Demming said. "I think a lot of students may have seen things they were dealing with presently and going through and saw how we were able to conquer some of those obstacles or hurdles."
Academics and life
In the end, the results were staggering. Students' ACT scores rose an average of five to six points over the practice test they took at the beginning of the school year.
The ACT is taken as part of the Prairie State Achievement Examination, which is used to determine whether schools meet state and federal standards. Those schoolwide results typically are released in the fall.
But standardized test scores were only one measure of success. Johnson says students made the honor roll who had never done so before, they received fewer detentions throughout the year, and their attendance rates rose.
"Closing the achievement gap is a byproduct of the whole thing," she said. "It goes beyond that. It's taking care of the whole child."
Waubonsie Principal Jim Schmid backed Johnson when she suggested the class a year ago, feeling it was time to try something new. He visited the class throughout the year and said it was apparent "something good was happening."
"Number one, you have to have a passionate, charismatic instructor who drives students to their full potential," Schmid said. "We have a lot of those, but certainly Natalie fits the bill and students who want to be ready and willing in the classroom used the opportunity to the maximum, and that was encouraging."
Student Richard Upshaw saw his ACT score go up about two points, and his grade-point average was the highest of his high school career.
He said writing numerous papers for the class helped him, along with Johnson's math lessons, which caught students up on some of the algebra and trigonometry they hadn't reached in their regular math classes but appeared on the test.
He also enjoyed working with members of 100 Black Men.
"We had people come into the class and sit there and explain how they started businesses and how they felt throughout life as they grew and leadership they wanted to pass on to us," Upshaw said. "A lot was gauged toward the ACT and also to be more of a leader and know where you're going with your life and help people out."
And Upshaw now knows where he wants to go next in life - to college for a business degree.
"For Richard, I think the fact that he had adults who were positive role models helping with that class and coming in and doing some of the things they did ... helped him see there are good positive African-American role models out there and that's something to strive to be," his mother Gwen Upshaw said.
Geremie Savoy also hopes to study business in college after he graduates from Waubonsie next spring, a goal spurred by taking Johnson's class.
"Before I didn't really think about going to college ... but after taking the class I know what I need to do to get though college, and think I can make it all the way through instead of being a freshman dropout," Savoy said.
He saw one of the most dramatic increases on his ACT - a nine-point bump - and also was one of two students chosen to attend a recent 100 Black Men conference in Florida.
Both Upshaw and Savoy say they didn't feel as though being in an all-black class made the difference in their success as much as the overall structure of the class and Johnson's guidance.
Johnson, in turn, says the hard work students put into the class and the involvement of their parents were crucial components to achieving results.
One more time
Students who took Johnson's class will be seniors this fall, but that doesn't mean they'll be far from her watchful eye. Johnson says she plans to keep tabs on them not only while they're at Waubonsie but beyond, at least until they have college degrees in hand.
Meanwhile, a new round of Waubonsie students will be under her tutelage in the coming school year. Roughly 20 students already have signed up and she hopes for a class of 30.
"I said I would originally commit to one year but it's infectious," she said. "The short-term rewards are there. I see the drive and initiative in them to want to be better."
Together: Focus on blacks not the only key to success