After spending four weeks of his summer at Freshman Connection, a support program for Chicago ninth graders, Jacob says he’s ready to start high school at Roberto Clemente Community Academy.

Acquiring that drive and energy is especially important for students like Jacob — at 15 and having failed eighth grade, he can’t go back to elementary school. Now he’s got to make it through high school. 

“I have my goals,” he said on a recent Monday at school. He turned to Tresa Mueller, head counselor at Clemente, to ensure that she will have his back during the year: “You gonna check me Ms. Mueller,” he said. 

Chicago Public Schools, known nationwide for its focus on the freshman year, has been starting this emphasis earlier, to ease what can be a difficult transition into high school. Before students begin an experience almost like a new job, more high schools are investing in an onboarding process.

Jacob attended a monthlong Freshman Connection orientation, with half-day lessons in English, math, and other skills for high school such as organization and goal setting.

The program helps establish expectations, troubleshoot gaps in academic fundamentals, and most important, forge connections between teachers and students considered at risk of dropping out.

Chicago Public Schools runs the program at about 70 high schools with its share of a $12.5 million statewide grant. The district provides all the curriculum. However, neither the district nor Clemente has tracked how students who went through the program fare in high school compared with their peers. 

Freshman Connection is not summer school — which students who failed eighth grade had to take earlier in the summer — and it’s not summer camp, either. Instead, students spent Monday through Thursday mornings navigating Clemente’s eight-story building in Humboldt Park, enjoying meals with classmates, experimenting with poetry in English, recapping math skills from elementary school, and listing their goals for the year.

Once a week, the group went on an excursion to museums, colleges, and other sites around the city, connected to learning in the classroom. 

On a recent Monday morning, students joked and giggled with chemistry teacher Shelby Redman, who was subbing for an English teacher. Redman asked students to write poetry and letters to their friends and family and to share their work — although only two students agreed to do so. 

“Ask yourself, if this really was the school year, would I do well on this assignment?” Redman said. 

Research from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research has demonstrated performance in the first year of high school is the best predictor of eventual graduation, better than race, gender, family background, and middle school grades and test scores combined. Chicago schools seek to get a jump on two freshman-year fundamentals: attendance and grades in core classes, the measures used in a district data point called “Freshman On-Track.” 

Last year, Clemente’s Freshman On-Track score fell below the district average, and administrators are trying to move the needle up. They are redesigning a mentorship program to match students with campus adults they connect with rather than with homeroom teachers. 

They also require students who failed any classes in eighth grade to finish summer school, then join Freshman Connection. 

But the summer program has had a hard time getting students to attend. That Monday, only about one-quarter of the 70 students who registered showed up. 

Assistant Principal Amber Henderson wasn’t worried. It’s summer, and students are travelling from all over the city for a half-day program. If students arrive a couple times a month, she said, it still makes an impact. 

During the school year, Henderson said attendance is the biggest barrier keeping students from finishing high school. And Clemente has an 80% attendance rate, 13 points below the district average. Though the school does not enforce attendance during Freshman Connection, the program is an early touchstone for students to forge relationships with adults in the building, which will hopefully translate into better attendance during the school year, she said. 

Mueller, head counselor, said many ninth graders start school at Clemente already behind, and the program helps teachers identify student needs and mentor them throughout freshman year.

In a district that’s fully embraced the choice model, Clemente attracts freshmen with a wide variation in preparedness from all over the city, seeking the school’s International Baccalaureate or career tracks such as culinary education and broadcasting. 

“We want them to know we care about them as people no matter what it is that has held them back in the past,” Mueller said. “This is a fresh start…No one is holding anything you did in kindergarten through eighth grade against you, and you can be the best you can be in the building.” 

But with daily rotating staff, no measure of academic progress, and no attendance requirement, it’s hard to know what difference Freshman Connection will have made  once the essential first year of high school begins. 

Jacob said he wants to graduate and go to college, or at least get a good job. He’s already started thinking about how to stay organized and finish his homework, especially since he wants to play sports all year. He’s not worried about finding friends or making the football team — academics are his concern. 

“I can’t learn when I just sit and watch,” Jacob said. “I have to do it.”

Mueller said she’s already made a connection with Jacob, so she’s not going to let him slip through the cracks.