Feature News

More students succeed in high-need schools, are college bound

Jul 13, 2017

Thirty years ago, Janis Fitzsimmons launched the Junior/Senior Scholars (JSS) program on the campus of North Central College with one goal—to improve the education of at-risk elementary and secondary students in Chicago area schools.

Fitzsimmons succeeded. Today, scholars in the program have higher scores and better graduation, on average, than their peers.

“We have created a culture where going to college is the norm in high-need communities,” said Fitzsimmons (photo, below), executive director of North Central’s Urban Education Laboratory. “Children see the possibilities for a life that fulfills dreams that previous generations never considered. Those possibilities become realities year after year as the scholars go on to college, complete college and graduate school, and become good citizens, parents, teachers and much more.”

JSS started as a three-week summer program with 30 K-12 students from James Weldon Johnson Elementary School in Chicago. Now year-round and expanded to include students at Oak Park Elementary School in Aurora, some 3,250 students and their families have been impacted by the academic programs, mentoring, outreach activities and college-bound message in these communities.

In the 2016-2017 school year, 90 percent of the scholars who were seniors in high school graduated and enrolled in college for fall. By comparison, high school graduation rates among Chicago students who turned 19 in 2014 was 74.8 percent, according to a 2016 report by the Chicago Consortium on School Research.

Last year, the average ACT of Senior Scholars was 21.25 compared to 16.5 among its school peers.

Also impressive has been the impact on the lives and careers of the teachers, mentors, coaches and directors from North Central College who work with the young scholars.

Erica Pang and Katie Flessner are this summer’s camp codirectors. Both are 2012 alumnae of North Central, full-time teachers and former interns and coaches in the JSS program.

In her ninth year with the JSS, Pang stays involved for two reasons: “to work with the mastermind of this great program, Dr. Fitzsimmons, who has been one of the biggest mentors in my life and teaching career”; and to witness the “pipeline of scholars as they start in first grade, progress through high school, attend and graduate from college and give back to their communities.”

Flessner agrees: “I believe in every aspect of the program. I love how it provides preservice teachers with an experience unlike any other and lifelong learning for the students we serve.”

Former summer camp director Michael Swanson is a coach to the summer interns. A 2012 alumnus, Swanson says his career path was charted by Fitzsimmons. “She told me I’d be a great teacher, especially in a high-need school because those students would benefit the most by my work. Today, I teach in a high-need school in Aurora.” He’s also pursing a master’s in education at North Central to become a school principal.

Every summer, Fitzsimmons chooses a theme for the reading, writing, math computations, geography, scientific investigations and cross-curricular learning the scholars explore. This year’s theme—iChallenge—encourages the scholars to learn all they can about worldwide health and wellness problems, especially for kids and teens, then discover solutions and careers that advance those solutions.

“My hope is that the scholars and teacher-interns who participate this summer will love learning so much that they return and look for more and more educational opportunities to grow as students and as teachers, year after year,” said Fitzsimmons. “Lifelong learning: That’s the goal.”

The DuPage County NAACP and Education Committee awarded Fitzsimmons with the 2016 Trailblazer in Education Award for establishing JSS and for her “passionate and visionary leadership in the field of education and training.” In addition, the Illinois State Board of Education has recognized the JSS program with two Exemplary Practice in Higher Education Awards.

The Junior/Senior Scholars program is partially funded through support from The Travelers Companies, Chartwells, Dart Foundation, Rotary Club of Naperville Sunrise, Fifth Third Bank, North Central alumni and friends.