Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

FAll 2014

Jenise Holloway
Photo by Steve Drey

Jenise Holloway, the new Project Excite adviser for high school students, counsels Clayton Daniels and Elly Freitas on precollege strategies.

Opening Doors to Success

By Julianne Beck
emy students participate in a summer class at Deering Library on Northwestern’s campus.

Competition for spots in top colleges and universities is increasingly intense. For students who may be the first in their family to plan on a higher education degree, the challenge of navigating the admission process is magnified. Northwestern University is helping to level the playing field with programs designed to aid first-generation, underrepresented students earn admission and gain the skills needed to go on to earn a college degree.


The first participants in the Northwestern Academy for Chicago Public Schools are just beginning high school, but they are already on their way to the nation’s top colleges and universities. The SESP college access program welcomed its opening class of 80 academically talented, low- and moderate-income CPS students in the spring of 2014.

Throughout a three-year program offering summer classes, tutoring, mentoring and other services, these students, who fall into a demographic that is often underrepresented at highly selective colleges and universities, will gain the information and skills they need to earn admission, and later, a college degree.


It is an investment in the future, according to Cassandra Geiger, director of Northwestern Academy for Chicago Public Schools. “The demographics of the country continue to change rapidly,” she says. “College-bound high school graduates are diverse, in terms of income, in terms of ethnicity, and we need to create pipelines to have leaders, to have people who are going to be engaged and transform institutions and meet workforce demands. Our future depends upon the collective of our youth navigating all of these complicated systems.”

The first step, according to Geiger, is to facilitate access to critical information for students and parents who are engaged in their communities and are invested in their future. What courses and activities should be pursued in high school to create a strong college application? How does the financial aid system work?

Despite their resource-rich urban surroundings, many families are living in an information silo, she explains. It is a situation she experienced herself, growing up in Chicago and becoming the first in her family to attend college. “There is so much out there, and it doesn’t have to be so complicated,” she says. Through the Academy, Geiger and her colleagues will open doors to local civic and education resources at Northwestern and in Chicago.

Academic enrichment, however, is the foundation for the program, with a focus on mathematics, science, reading and writing. “There are certain skill sets in each of those subjects that students need to master to be successful,” Geiger explains. Guidance on college processes is another major focus for the students.


Following an intensive recruitment period, during which eligible ninth graders from Chicago public high schools completed applications and participated in interviews together with a parent or guardian, the first class was selected.

Each enrolled student was assigned an adviser, and began receiving group and individual programming designed to work in concert with his or her ongoing academic and extracurricular schedule. Through group and independent experiences, participants make connections with each other and mentors as they expand their personal network and build their skills. They also nurture a passion for learning and develop leadership skills. “We will focus much of our course work and programming on self-regulation,” says Geiger. “There are all these other issues that come up socially and culturally that may or may not affect their academics, but we want them to be prepared.”

Experiences in college preparation programming, academic support and enrichment, and self-regulatory learning are conducted through a unique approach of multiple lenses. “Leadership development will be done through a student leadership curriculum,” she says. “We’re also going to employ angles like improvisational training,” which helps students learn to think on their feet, for example.


After school or on weekends, students will engage with resources via Northwestern and the city of Chicago through customized activities. “The ideal is that they learn to use those resources, that they see the city as a resource,” explains Geiger. For some, it may mean attending theater or musical performances; for others, it may mean learning to access their local library.

In addition, parents will receive programming to help them stay informed of priority activities and processes unique to each year of high school. As a result, parents will then be better equipped to help younger generations within their families navigate the education system.

The culminating project for participants will occur early in the third year of the program. Each student will complete an interdisciplinary study project that will culminate in a poster presentation.

The first class will graduate from the Academy in 2017. “I expect that when that senior class graduates, they will matriculate to top schools—not just feeling ready, but knowing they are ready and prepared,” says Geiger.

She and her colleagues will continuously evaluate and further develop offerings. New classes of students will enroll in the program each year, and two more will be well underway by 2017. Geiger anticipates that the program will adapt to the changing needs and circumstances of each class, as it grows and opens new doors into the future.


College access programming is the newest addition to Project Excite, a School of Education and Social Policy offering for talented Latino and African-American Evanston public school students. Project Excite has provided academic enrichment for third to eighth graders since it launched in 2000. Now it is also offering extended services and support to participants during all four years of high school.

The innovative initiative is growing with the times, according to SESP Dean Penelope Peterson. When Project Excite began, the program focused on preparing talented, underrepresented elementary school students for honors and advanced placement courses at Evanston Township High School (ETHS). This past year Project Excite expanded to include services designed to facilitate admission into competitive higher-education institutions.

Project Excite began as a collaboration of Northwestern University with Evanston School Districts 65 and 202. Program leaders select participants to enroll in third grade based on test scores and teacher recommendations.


Project Excite students receive academic enrichment offerings in their elementary and middle school years. These offerings focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics—the STEM disciplines. The first several classes have shown the model to be a success, increasing the number of students going on to the most challenging high school courses and reducing the local achievement gap between minority and non-minority students.

Early participation in Project Excite has positively impacted students’ academic achievement level in high school, as evidenced by an increased number of minority students qualifying for Advanced Placement and honors courses at ETHS. However, as expectations for college-bound high school students have intensified in recent years, the need for ongoing support for Project Excite students has increased. Extended support in high school is now needed to continue participants’ momentum.

“It’s a huge jump for these students in terms of the kind of writing and reading that they have been doing in middle school to what is expected of them in high school,” explains Jenise Holloway, who joined the Project Excite staff last year as a student adviser and coordinator at ETHS.


Holloway regularly meets with Project Excite participants and their parents in her ETHS office, and coordinates tutoring and skills training for them. In a special summer workshop, for example, teachers help students build writing and critical inquiry skills.

In addition, Holloway helps Project Excite high school students learn to balance their course work with extracurricular activities. “For the high school component, it’s about embracing the students wherever they are,” she says of her customized approach. For many juniors, this means a college preparatory workshop with guidance on writing entrance essays. Others require more unique assistance, from finding a college with both a strong engineering and theater program to identifying opportunities for summer study abroad.

Parent workshops also help bring families together in the process. “The parents should walk away with greater knowledge of what it takes to get into a selective college,” she says, so that they are prepared then to help others with admission, financial aid and related elements.