Dawn Ramos, principal at Tilden Career Community Academy High School on Chicago’s South Side, is frank about the impact the Network for College Success (NCS) has had on her and the school: “I don’t know if I would have made it as far as I have without their leadership and support,” she says. “They do a wonderful job building the capacity of adults to help students succeed.”
NCS, an initiative of the UChicago School of Social Service Administration (SSA), provides innovative, research-based solutions that help public-school educators and leaders prepare their students for success in college and careers. Created in 2006 after principals frustrated by academic and graduation outcomes approached SSA Professor Melissa Roderick for ideas to tackle challenges in their classrooms, NCS now works with 18 high schools and 350 educators serving more than 18,000 students.
The program translates research into practical professional learning aimed at building principals’ leadership, improving instruction, making sure students are on track to graduate, and helping students apply to college and succeed when they get there. Participants receive individual coaching and connect with other educators to share data and discuss what works.
“NCS helps schools network to learn from each other and better understand how other schools are approaching the work,” Ramos explains. “That has been a key lever to our success.” Coaching is also crucial to the experience, she says, with coaches helping principals use their own expertise to apply research to real-world situations. “They help schools realize we have our own answers — they won’t tell us what to do, but they will come in and support us.”
“I felt the impact immediately on me as a leader — the ways I was asked to engage with the work were unlike any ways I had been asked before.”
In 2012, before Tilden began to partner with NCS, 64 percent of its freshmen were on track to graduate. In 2019, according to Chicago Public Schools data, 73 percent were on track, and Tilden’s graduation rate has increased from 51 percent to nearly 61 percent in the same time frame. The University’s To&Through research also shows that the percentage of Tilden students graduating with a GPA of 3.0 or higher rose from 6 percent in 2012 to 14 percent in 2018.
In early 2019, NCS received a grant of nearly $12 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “What made the difference in Chicago—and what other school districts can learn from Chicago—was how the schools acted on the data,” said Bill Gates about NCS. “School leaders and teachers worked hand in hand with researchers to apply it in ways that would help improve student achievement.”