News & Politics » Neighborhood News

A public-school success story: 12 students and the teacher who made them count



In October 1988 the students of Lake View High School were marched into the auditorium for what they thought would be just another boring assembly--watching some movie about math. "It was Halloween," says Martin Halacy, a math teacher at the school, "and we were hoping that if the kids saw something constructive, it might reduce the number of egg-throwing pranks."

So the teachers turned down the lights and turned on Stand and Deliver, the upbeat story of several Hispanic students from a poor inner-city high school in Los Angeles who worked so hard during summer school that they were able to pass a college-level exam in calculus. By the end of the movie--to almost everyone's surprise--many of Lake View's students were inspired. "We had no idea this would happen when we showed the movie," says Halacy. "The movie grabbed the kids. It showed that it was cool to do well in school. It had a maturing effect--the kids thought, "God, it would be stupid to throw eggs.' The next day some juniors wanted to spend their summer taking a math class so they could be ready for calculus, too."

The result one year later is the kind of success story generally overlooked in the usual recital of public-school woes. Twelve juniors enrolled in a summer math class, despite the taunts of less-inspired classmates. For two precious months during summer vacation, they studied college algebra and analytic geometry. All of them passed the class and are now enrolled in college-level calculus. It's an inspirational example of what Chicago's much-maligned public schools can do with smaller classes and more-inspired students.

"Martin taught the kids math, but he also taught them something much more important about themselves," says Donna Macey, Lake View's principal. "He taught them that they can do what they want to do. These kids were not the so-called gifted students. They were ordinary students. And yet none of them failed and no one got a D. They wanted to succeed, and they did. It's a great lesson in terms of self-confidence."

Not many observers would have predicted such success. Lake View--located at the intersection of Irving Park and Ashland--does not limit its enrollment to high achievers. Its student enrollment is roughly 55 percent Hispanic, 22 percent white, 20 percent black, and 3 percent Asian and Native American. At least 45 percent of its students come from low-income families. No more than 50 percent will go to college. The average ACT score is 13; the state average is 19. And, like all public schools in Chicago, Lake View has been hammered hard over the years by teacher strikes and budget cuts.

"I've been here for 28 years now, and I've seen it go through some changes," says Halacy. "There was a period when morale was down, and we didn't have a good principal. That changed about seven years ago when [Macey] came aboard."

Teachers applaud Macey for allowing them to experiment with the curriculum. Lake View's art program is among the area's finest. The school is also developing a new program in urban studies. "The urban-studies program combines regular studies, like English and social studies, with an opportunity to explore Chicago, see plays, visit museums, and study architecture," says Halacy. "We have one teacher named Bill Peterson who gets a list of his incoming students, and then goes out and takes pictures of where they live. When he's introducing basic styles of architecture, you hear the kids saying, 'Hey, that's my house.' It brings the message home."

Halacy's summer math class, however, was perhaps the first program created by student request. It almost died at birth. "There's a rule that says you can't have summer-school classes in a building without a principal," says Halacy. "Lake View doesn't have an assigned principal during the summer. So we had to work out a special arrangement where the classes met at Lane Tech."

In addition, the board of education charges a $60 fee for summer-school enrichment classes, although summertime remedial classes are offered for free. But after hearing the pleas from Lake View's parent council, former school superintendent Manford Byrd Jr. waived the fee.

Finally, Halacy had to keep his students motivated after their initial burst of enthusiasm waned. That wasn't easy, for they had no formal reason to take the summer course. They did not need it to graduate or apply for college. It simply made them eligible to take calculus during their senior year. As it is, most high school students--including those at Lake View--take algebra as freshmen, geometry as sophomores, advanced algebra as juniors, and college algebra and analytic geometry as seniors. A small group of high achievers who score well on eighth-grade achievement exams are enrolled in an accelerated program that prepares them for calculus as seniors. To receive college credit for senior-year calculus they must pass a standardized national exam. "Usually, there's about a dozen students in the calculus class," says Henry Jaskowiak, who teaches the course at Lake View. "These are the high-achieving kids who have been on the so-called honors track since they were freshmen."

The kids enrolled in Halacy's summer class, however, were not honors math students. For some, math wasn't even a favorite subject. "I kind of messed up during my freshman and sophomore years," says Ricardo Badea, who took Halacy's class this summer and plans to attend college next year. "I had problems with math, particularly fractions. To this day I have a mental block with fractions."

As school dragged on, the thought of summer school lost its appeal. Originally, 38 students had expressed an interest in the program. By the time summer school began in June, Halacy had 13 kids in his class. After a few days one student dropped out, and Halacy was left with the final 12: Carlos Arevalo, Badea, Loan Dang, Raul Diaz, Caroline Ferraren, German Manrique, Maria Mendez, Mirna Ortiz, Michelle Perez, Jesse Stutler, Wanda Torres, and Maricela Vargas. "I didn't think it would be that hard to give up my summer," says Jesse Stutler. "But then when the weather warms up you start thinking, "I got to go to school again? No, that's not right."'

Halacy says he tried to sustain enthusiasm by "sending them notes throughout the school year, reminding them to keep us in mind as they made their summer plans. But kids would change their minds. Some said they had to work--one told me he had to spend the summer with his grandmother in California.

"I didn't know if we would keep all the students after a few weeks of classes, especially after one student dropped out. According to school rules, I could keep the class going with seven students. But I didn't want the kids knowing that, so I told a little white lie. I said, 'As long as we have 12 kids, we can keep the class.' Immediately, Jesse turned around and said to the others, 'How much are you going to pay me not to drop out.' Everybody laughed. They had a good spirit. You could tell they wanted to meet the challenge."

A few days after class started its personality developed. Stutler, a football player with shoulder-length hair, kept the class loose with jokes and wisecracks. Math came easy to him; he usually scored at or near the top on tests. "Class ran from 8 to 11 in the morning, and it was hard for me to get up to make it on time," says Stutler, with a sheepish smile. "I'd roll out of bed at 7, maybe 7:30. Usually, I'd make it on time."

Then there was Raul Diaz, who spoke no English when he moved to Chicago from Mexico four years ago. "When I got here as a freshman, I was afraid to talk to people," he says. "My English was bad, and I thought they were going to ask me something. They put me in a bilingual class for kids who only speak Spanish. As a sophomore I asked to be taken out of bilingual and put into the regular programs. My English wasn't great, but I decided that was the only way I would really learn. When I heard about this summer class, I knew I had to take it. I wanted to be even with the best--I didn't want to be left behind."

In general, the students liked the summer-school class. It was less formal. On hot days they wore shorts. They joked with Halacy, and he encouraged them to figure math problems together. Most important, with only 12 students (the average algebra class has about 30) Halacy had time to give students individual attention.

"One of Mr. Halacy's tricks is that he would tell us who got the first, second, and third best scores on tests," says Wanda Torres. "It became a challenge to be the best."

"One day I came in late and everyone clapped," says Badea. "I didn't know why, and then Mr. Halacy told me. I had got a 96. It was the number-one score in the class. The thing is that they clapped for me. They cared about what I was doing."

That summer they were the only students voluntarily taking classes. "Some of the other kids were in summer school because they had flunked a course that they needed to graduate," says Stutler. "I heard a lot of stuff. My friends called me 'nerd' because I was taking a class I didn't have to take. I'd say, 'Yeah, I'm a nerd, but you're gonna have a lower income than me.'"

"We talked about it and decided that nerds are what losers call winners," says Maria Mendez.

In the end Halacy awarded 6 As, 2 Bs, and 4 Cs. All 12 students are enrolled in calculus this year, and each plans to attend college.

Halacy hopes to offer another class to incoming seniors next summer. "Most kids have the capability to succeed if we don't tell them that they can't," he says. "If you tell kids they're special, after a while they will feel special. Last summer's class was listed as a gifted class, and all the other summer-school teachers thought I was lucky to have it. This one fellow was teaching geometry to 40 kids who had failed it at least once. One day we were standing in the hall watching my kids pass, and he said, "You can always tell the gifted kids.' I didn't have the heart to tell him that they were just regular kids working hard--the same as anyone else."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

Add a comment