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A School Once Known for Gang Activity is Now Sending Kids to College

At Benito Juarez Community Academy, students begin each day by scanning their ID cards, sliding their backpacks through an X-ray machine and walking through an airport-security-style metal detector. In a city that recorded 762 murders in 2016, the most in the nation, security measures like these were authorized years ago for every public high school. At Juarez, they reinforce a long-held reputation for gang violence at the school and in its predominantly Latino, Southwest Side neighborhood.

Yet, inside the building, a new vision for the education of low-income students of color has taken root. It’s built around a skills-based model that prioritizes student mastery, extensive community outreach and a culture that views college enrollment as an expectation rather than a long shot. The results have been dramatic.

Since 2013, when the school switched to its skills-based curriculum, Juarez has seen gains in graduation rates and college acceptance that seemed unlikely for a school that had been on academic probation since 1996. Today, Juarez is ranked 49th out of 658 Illinois public high schools based on test scores and college readiness. And it’s made these gains without the wholesale turnover in staff that often characterizes school turnaround efforts.