After an unprecedented year, Chicago Public Schools students graduating from UChicago college readiness programs prepare for their next chapters

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Even as the COVID-19 pandemic kept them apart physically, Jones College Prep High School senior Marcus Russell and the diverse, close-knit network of peers he met through University of Chicago’s Collegiate Scholars Program (CSP) made a point to support one another in recent months, setting up their own extra study sessions over Zoom to ensure everybody could keep up in such a challenging year.

“We each have our own different strengths, so we decided, okay, we should work together and teach each other different subjects to help each other,” Russell, who lives in Edgewater, says.

The Office of Civic Engagement’s college readiness and access programs provide free, year-round academic and enrichment support to nearly 250 Chicago Public School students in grades 9 through 12 each year. This year, all 77 graduates of the programs were admitted to post-secondary institutions, receiving a total of $13 million in financial aid.

All three programs prepare students to gain admission to and thrive in college by providing on-campus summer programs and enrichment activities such as college preparatory workshops and courses outside their “everyday” school curriculum taught by UChicago faculty. Each of the programs has a special focus, with the Collegiate Scholars Program (CSP) centering on preparing high-potential, underrepresented Chicago public high school students like Russell for highly selective colleges.

marcus russell

Russell, a first-generation college student, has been participating in the program since 2018 and was accepted at UChicago and Cal Tech, in addition to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he’ll head in the fall to study mathematics. In total, 51 percent of this year’s CSP graduates were accepted into highly selective colleges or universities, with Russell’s fellow Scholars enrolling in top-tier universities including Harvard, University of Michigan, and UChicago, to name a few.

“It’s really empowering being [on UChicago’s campus through CSP] and taking these classes,  putting in the effort and doing well and seeing you’re capable of learning this and keeping up, ” Russell says. “It’s a really big confidence boost, like yeah, I can handle this.”

Lindblom Math and Science Academy senior Kaylee Flowers’ love of science and engineering drew her to the UChicago STEM Initiative (UCSI) in 2018. The free, multi-year science enrichment program for 9th and 10th grade CPS students gives participants the opportunity to interact with University faculty, staff, students, and labs; engage with college-level math and science course work; and take part in industry and lab tours.

With support from UCSI’s college readiness workshops and essay writing courses, Flowers, who lives in Bronzeville, earned a total of nearly $1 million in scholarships and financial aid and was accepted at seven universities, including leading STEM schools such as University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Worchester Polytech Institute, in addition to Washington University in St. Louis, where she plans to study biomedical engineering starting this fall.

This year, participants of UCSI and UChicago’s Upward Bound program — which focuses on first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students in neighborhoods and schools near UChicago’s campus — earned a combined total of more than $6.3 million in financial aid and scholarships.

“What really stood out about this program was the number of opportunities — not just to learn more as far as STEM activities but also the college readiness aspect,” Flowers says. “They have a whole bunch of resources to really help students with the college process and to help students get to whatever goal that they have. They really helped in terms of getting me ready for the overall process and making sure that I was completing all the steps that I needed to and just keeping me on track.”

kaylee flowers

For students like Flowers and Russell, participating in UChicago’s college readiness and access programs gave them an outlet to fuel their passions outside of regular school hours and build their confidence alongside like-minded peers they never would have otherwise met. The experience also set both up for success as they prepare for their next chapters in college.

“Not only did I take my classes, but I also made the effort to talk to the professors and the grad students who are teaching — that’s opened doors like [working with a UChicago professor on] my research project and also being able to learn things at an accelerated pace and get ahead in my classes,” Russell says. “They told us on our first day, you get what you put into it, and I agree, if you put in enough, you get multiple times that back. I definitely got much more than I ever could have anticipated.”

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