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Finding new paths

The Northwestern Academy increases college opportunities for underrepresented high school students

Madison Jackson had just finished her first year of high school when her mother’s cancer took a turn for the worse.

In August 2014, after many months of chemotherapy, Wanda Jackson, 52, was discharged from the hospital to spend what time she had left at home with her family. When she died three weeks later, everything in 15-year-old Madison’s life came to a screeching halt.

Though she would continue to struggle with grief and anger, Jackson soon found herself thinking less about the injustice of losing a parent at such a vulnerable age and more about injustices suffered by African Americans, women and other minorities in the United States.

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Madison Jackson fixes a bicycle at Starfish Learning Center in Rogers Park, where she regularly volunteered. Jackson, a graduate of Chicago Math and Science Academy, is now a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Photo by Alex Garcia '89.

“Before she passed away, my mom told me she wasn’t worried because she had planted a seed in me that would eventually grow,” Jackson said recently from the Chicago home where her mother’s memory inhabits every room.

“My mom would be proud that I am getting ready to start college and focused on what I can do to bring about change,” she said. “I think she would tell me to ‘keep the flower blooming.’ ”

A resilient young woman with a supportive family, Jackson went on to excel in high school. In the fall, she left her West Rogers Park home to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Jackson’s success is due in part to the Northwestern Academy for Chicago Public Schools, a four-year program that prepares highly motivated CPS students for prestigious colleges and universities. Launched in 2013, the Academy offers supplemental educational opportunities and support services to CPS students from non-selective-enrollment high schools.

Jackson is among 48 CPS students who began their freshman year this fall at 23 top-tier institutions around the country — from Northwestern to Brown University to Colorado College (see the full list). They are Northwestern Academy’s first graduating cohort and a powerful indication of what’s to come.

The goal of the Northwestern Academy, run by the School of Education and Social Policy, is to prepare Chicago high school students from limited financial means, and those who would be the first in their families to attend college, for highly selective colleges and universities. In addition to year-round academic support, the Academy also provides leadership development training, self-regulatory learning opportunities, college counseling and family workshops. According to 2008 research on “undermatching” from Melissa Roderick at the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research, only one-third of CPS students gain acceptance to the most selective college possible, based on their high school qualifications.

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Christine Ngo and Andrew Duarte began their freshman year at Northwestern in the fall. The Northwestern Academy “helped me to see I had the potential to get in here,” Duarte says. “They helped me feel like I actually belonged at a school like this.” Photo by Bruce Powell.

The program, according to recently retired School of Education and Social Policy dean Penelope Peterson, grew out of conversations between Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel ’85 MA and Northwestern President Morton Schapiro.  Both sought to create opportunities for high-achieving CPS students: Emanuel wanted to enhance support for students who just missed qualifying for the district’s 11 selective-enrollment high schools, which provide academically advanced students with an enriched college preparatory experience, while Schapiro wanted to increase the number of CPS students who enrolled at Northwestern and other top-tier colleges and universities. (Since Schapiro started as president in 2009, the number of CPS students at Northwestern has more than doubled. The class of 2021 includes 126 CPS grads.) The Academy developed as part of the University’s Good Neighbor, Great University program, which provides need-based financial aid to any qualifying Chicago or Evanston high school graduate who enrolls at Northwestern.

“There is nothing we do at Northwestern that makes me prouder than the Northwestern Academy for CPS students,” says Schapiro. “When you see that every single student who graduated this year will attend a four-year college — including two who are coming to Northwestern — it shows how important the Academy has been in opening the doors to opportunities for these incredible students from Chicago Public Schools.”

Chicago School Map
Chicago home neighborhoods of CPS students who attend the Northwestern Academy
The more than 260 students in the Northwestern Academy, chosen through a rigorous application and selection process, come from around 40 non-selective-enrollment CPS schools (see the neighborhood map at left). Almost all the students in the Academy come from low-income families, and four out of five are the first in their family to go to a four-year university or college. The program, which is free to participants, costs around $6,000 per student, funded by Northwestern.

The Academy is all about expanding opportunities, says director Cassandra Geiger. It offers complementary academic and cultural enrichment for the students while also supplementing their academic and college advising from CPS, where counselors sometimes serve as many as 500 students. The Academy also acts as a resource for the parents as they navigate — many for the first time — the college admission process.

Students attend summer classes taught by CPS teachers in reading, writing and math at the Academy’s state-of-the-art headquarters in Abbott Hall on Northwestern’s Chicago campus. The Academy also sends students to summer institutes around the country and makes the most of Chicago’s cultural offerings. For some students, the Academy serves as a sanctuary — a place to be with students who have similar dreams and goals.

An aspiring novelist, Lorena DeLeon is a rising senior at George Washington High School, a 1,700-student school in the largely Latino community of East Side near the Illinois-Indiana border. At her school, DeLeon says, “it’s hard to find students who are dedicated and motivated and striving for college.”

But at the Academy, she’s surrounded by people who have “the same passion for their future. You’re with this group of people who have the same kind of mind. Through them, you see yourself.”

A state-of-the-art center to house the Northwestern Academy is located in Abbott Hall on Northwestern’s Chicago campus in Streeterville, making the Academy’s programming and support services accessible to CPS students. 

A longer version of this story was originally published in the fall 2017 issue of Northwestern magazine.

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