Class of 2016

‘This the adult world, and now I’m in it’: How two young women took on real life before graduating high school

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Leigh Duignan (left) and Dorothy Slater (right) immediately before graduation.

Across most of her high school career, Leigh Duignan made steady progress toward college. She worked to improve her grades, took on a nearly full-time job at a local ice cream shop to start saving for tuition, and joined a computer programming club.

But in her senior year at the Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology in Manhattan, those plans threatened to unravel. Her dad had a heart attack, and other problems arose that left her without much support at home.

“This year was probably the hardest year of my whole high school career,” Duignan said. “All of these bad things just all happened at once and I really, really wanted to quit.”

Still, last Friday, donning a white graduation gown and a grin, Duignan joined about 100 of her classmates in a celebratory march through Midtown and into the auditorium of New World Stages on 50th Street, where her parents looked on while she officially graduated from high school.

Duignan, 18, is headed to SUNY Polytechnic Institute this fall, and even though her tuition will be covered by a state scholarship, she scraped together over $2,000 working at Eddie’s Sweet Shop in Queens – often staying until midnight or later.

“Financially, things weren’t really great this year. I’d be so tired [after work], but it’d be worth it,” she thought.

Duignan wasn’t the only student at UA Gateway who took on adult responsibilities to help propel herself to graduation. Her classmate, Dorothy Slater, 19, also worked nearly full-time this past year at Buffalo Wild Wings in Midtown to help pay for groceries and to have her own spending money since her mother has a disability and does not work.

Slater even earned enough money to file taxes, which she completed herself with some help from an Urban Assembly staff member.

“I just learned how to deal with it,” she said, regarding the extra responsibilities. “I was just like, ‘This the adult world, and now I’m in it.’”

Slater plans to attend SUNY Plattsburgh starting this summer as part of its Educational Opportunity Program, which helps motivated yet disadvantaged students who don’t meet traditional admissions requirements gain entry to SUNY colleges, and offers additional academic support.

The school’s administrators note that while many students overcome challenges, Slater and Duignan are unusual in the adult roles they’ve taken on without losing sight of school.

“They’ve taken advantage of all of the resources available to them,” said Alex Rigney, the school’s director of college counseling. “These guys have put in as much time as any students here.”

In addition to work and school, Duignan joined the after-school club Girls Who Code as a way of exploring her interest in programming outside of male-dominated spaces (roughly 80 percent of students at UA Gateway are men). Slater took on internships that let her explore her interest in graphic design – and both young women participated in College Now, which let them take community college classes while enrolled in high school.

“She’s usually the last one here when I’m locking up at 6 o’clock,” Rigney said of Duignan, noting that she often sticks around to get homework done before leaving for work. “Frankly, I don’t know how she balanced it all.”

Leigh Duignan walks to graduation with classmates from The Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology.
PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Leigh Duignan walks to graduation with classmates from The Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology.

School hasn’t always come easily to Duignan. Due to a learning difference, she didn’t master reading until the sixth grade, and has been supported by a learning plan geared for students with disabilities. “I used to look at a book and think, ‘I could never read that,’” she said.

Duignan attributes her high school success partly to extra counseling she got through her individual learning plan, staff members in whom she felt comfortable confiding, and her mentor from the Big Sisters program, who boosted her confidence.

On Friday, the school gave her one last push. In the middle of the graduation ceremony, the school awarded Duignan an extra $5,000 scholarship – the top prize offered this year.

“I’m just in complete awe,” she said moments later, surrounded by her family.

It’s not an entirely easy transition. Slater teared up when asked about the prospect of traveling across the state for college, and leaving her mother behind. “I lived in the city for my whole entire life. It’s an adjustment.”

And while Duignan is looking forward to moving away for school, and escaping the challenges associated with her family life, she still wonders whether she’s completely prepared for college.

“I have no idea,” she said. “I guess we’ll see.”

look up

Memphis high school’s prized planetarium still needs upgrades, but students are already fascinated by what it can do

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Principal Tisha Durrah, left, inspects a part of the planetarium that projects constellations and planets onto the large white dome screen at Craigmont High School.

Keshawn Glover remembers hearing his dad talk about field trips to Craigmont High School’s planetarium decades ago, but last week the high school senior got to experience the school’s crown jewel for himself.

Sitting back in chairs built in the 1970s, Glover leaned back with his class to watch a video that took them deep into the inner workings of a plant cell on a large immersive dome-shaped screen that spreads out above and around them.

“It feels like you’re in a roller coaster,” said Glover, a senior. “I was just amazed because it was my first time seeing it work full speed.”

The planetarium, nestled behind a door near the school’s gymnasium, shut down in 2010 after a longtime instructor retired. The equipment languished, but last week, $100,000 in restorations were completed. The work still isn’t done — a stronger audio system and better lighting are still needed. In addition, some of the features are still analog and not digital, and the huge screen desperately needs cleaning. But the school’s prized possession is up and running.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Craigmont High School senior Keshawn Glover, left, with science teacher Wayne Oellig at the planetarium’s control center.

The planetarium is more than just a nice feature, educators say. It helps garner student interest in careers they might not have known about before, such as astronomy and aerospace engineering.

“I don’t feel like our kids are exposed to all the opportunities out there for them,” said Wayne Oellig, a science teacher at Craigmont High School who has been the school’s point person on finding ways to connect curriculum to the planetarium.

“The space industry is really growing now,” he continued. “I tell my students, ‘You might be able to have a job in space when you’re older.’”

Paying for the project has been a collaborative effort. Shelby County Schools covered the startup operational costs from money allocated to school board members to fund projects of their choice. Teresa Jones, whose district includes Craigmont High, also galvanized other board members to use some of their school project money. Finally, alumni of the Raleigh-area high school continue to raise money to cover the nearly $25,000 needed to bring the theater up to 21st-century standards.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Planet rotation around the sun are projected through here to the large white dome screen.

Oellig compared the planetarium experience to the 1990s cartoon TV show “Magic School Bus,” where a class of students learned from experience — from venturing inside a human body to understand a cold, to traveling to the Amazon River to study frogs. “It’s kinda like Ms. Frizzle, but all around you.”


From our archives: With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students


Oellig said the planetarium’s benefits extend far beyond science. History teachers can show videos designed for the giant screen that take students onto a historic battlefield as if they were there. A Spanish teacher wants to show what the night sky would have looked like to ancient Mayans and how those constellations informed culture.

And that matters to students like Glover.

Usually, “we’re either looking at a textbook or a presentation on a projector,” he said. “But to get out of the classroom but still be in a learning environment would really capture our attention, whatever subject it is.

“It will make students even more interested in it. And the more interested we are in it, the better our grades are and we’ll do better on tests,” he said.

Are Children Learning

Chicago is sending more high schoolers to college — but how to get them to graduate?

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel / Chalkbeat
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, CPS CEO Janice Jackson, and other city officials convened at Michele Clark Magnet High School in the Austin neighborhood to announce the latest college enrollment statistics.

Senior Tanariya Thompson, 17, said she and her friends at Michele Clark Magnet High School are constantly asking each other about where they want to go to college. But they’re not just talking, they’re doing their research, too.

“In a lot of our seminar classes I see more kids on the computers applying for colleges instead of just sitting there looking or saying, ‘I ain’t going to college,’” she said. “We’re serious: We want to go to a college so we can become somebody. Next week, I will have my top three.”

Chicago Public Schools released data today showing that more students than ever before are enrolling in college. The mayor and district officials announced the encouraging figures on the West Side, at Michele Clark High School, where students said they’ve seen more energy, excitement and urgency among their peers around the idea of enrolling at college.

The data shows that 1,000 more Chicago Public School graduates from the Class of 2017 enrolled in college compared with 2016, a 4.8 percent increase and the biggest one-year jump in nearly a decade.

Chicago still has a problem with public school graduates staying in and completing college. In 2016, just 18 percent of ninth graders were projected to attain a bachelor’s degree within six years of high school graduation, and four-year college graduation rates have remained pretty stagnant since 2009, according to a fall 2017 report by the UChicago Consortium on School Research. (The report didn’t calculate two-year degree attainment).

But Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the latest enrollment data “an incredible statement about where Chicago Public School students are,” adding that nearly 90 percent of high school freshmen were on track for graduation.

“Every time they walk around and say, ‘not those kids, not from that school, not that background, not that ZIP code, not that family’ — you come here to Michele Clark and you tell these kids that,” Emanuel said, knocking on the wooden podium before him for emphasis.  “You guys have proved them wrong every step of the way.”

From 2010 to 2017, the college enrollment rate increased from 53.7 percent to 64.6 percent, according to the school district.  Officials credited everything from partnerships with OneGoal and other organizations focused on getting kids to and through college, to a summer text messaging campaign to nudge graduates toward completing action items along the enrollment path, and scholarships to city colleges for students who attain a B average or higher.

They also noted a shift in perspective.

“I think it’s because people have become more serious,” said Michele Clark Principal Charles Anderson. “I’ve seen it in action with people doing more college trips, people getting out to scholarship fairs, students having a different mindset.”

From 2016 to 2017, college enrollment rates for African-American and Latino students improved by 2.3 percentage points and 7.2 percentage points, respectively, according to the school district. The African-American college enrollment rate increased from 55.4 percent in 2016 to 57.7 in 2017, and the Hispanic college enrollment rate leaped from 59 percent in 2016 to 66.2 percent in 2017, according to district data.

Flanked by Chicago schools chief Janice Jackson and City Colleges Chancellor Juan Salgado, Emanuel said, “it used to be as a system, we were done just getting you to high school graduation, and our responsibility was over,” but now it’s different. The mayor added, “the biggest transformation is the mindset not just of our kids, but of the system.”

“It’s why we’re also making sure we set a goal that by 2019, every child has a plan for what comes next,” Emanuel said, alluding to a new CPS graduation requirement that demands every student “has a meaningful planning conversation with an adult, and graduates with a plan to map out their future.”

The data indicate more students are enrolling at City College of Chicago.

The district said 5.8 percent more students enrolled at city colleges in 2017 compared with the previous year. Of district graduates who attended two-year colleges in 2017, 84.5 percent enrolled at city colleges compared with 78.7 the previous year, according to the district. City Colleges Chancellor Juan Salgado praised the mayor and schools chief’s leadership, saying CPS’ gains were strong steps toward officials’ goals of “a more inclusive economy,” in Chicago.

“We also want to make sure that each of you has in a role in this economy, whether it’s downtown, or in our health-care centers, or at a logistics company, or engineering or manufacturing company or a tech company,” Salgado told the students. “This city will have a place for you.”

Officials said the climbing college enrollment rate mirrored the increasing number of district students earning high school diplomas, and also reflected district students’ overall strong academic progress. Yet the percent of students who enrolled in college in 2015 and were still enrolled the following year, 72.3 percent of graduates, is actually down slightly compared with 2010, when it was 72.8 percent.

That — and the low rates of Chicago Public School students who eventually graduate with a two- or four-year degree — are worrisome figures.

Furthermore, African-American and Latino students and students with disabilities still graduate from high school, enroll in and graduate from college at lower rates than the general population. It’s a sobering reminder of inequities in the school system.

Officials acknowledged that work remains to get more students to and through college.

That point that wasn’t lost on Michele Clark senior Naquanis Hughes, 17, who wants to study business in college but is still undecided on where. Hughes said staff, students, and even alumni offer this encouragement about getting through the hard knocks that some students encounter in higher education:

“If you come to a hard place, don’t just fall down, don’t just give up, keep pushing yourself.”