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Earning That Diploma: Eighth Graders Reach Graduation

Graduation day is a time of excitement for students across Chicagoland. Graduates don caps and gowns, walk across stages, wave to family and friends, and receive their diplomas, after years of hard work and dedication to their studies.

Graduation day is also a time of reflection, for the journey to commencement is not always a linear one. Many students encounter obstacles to reaching their academic and attendance goals, and some even question their motivation for finishing. They must find the strength to put aside their doubts and push forward to achieving that diploma.

At CIS of Chicago, we believe in the potential of every student to reach graduation day. That’s why we pair students who are off-track in their attendance, behavior, or grades with a caring adult who supports their success. In the vignettes below, we chronicle three eighth-grade graduates who conquered various challenges, with the help of a CIS of Chicago Student Supports Manager. This spring, they will finish their elementary school careers, with bright hopes ahead for high school.

Research shows that if students are academically and socially on track in ninth grade, their odds of graduating improve significantly. As ninth grade is such a critical year, it’s all the more important that our elementary school students graduate well-prepared for the next step in their academic journeys. Our team wishes a heartfelt congratulations to these students — and all our graduates — on a job well done.

Melisa

Two years ago, sixth grader Melisa felt distracted at school. She was in the middle of repeating the grade and felt disconnected from her new classmates, which affected her self-esteem. Melisa had other things on her mind, too, like the boy she was dating. One day during English class, Melisa read a passage that triggered her emotions, and she left the classroom in tears. Melisa ran into CIS of Chicago Student Supports Manager Jessica Juarez in the hallway, who encouraged her to connect with the services and supports she needed.

Melisa and Jessica began meeting individually ​during that sixth-grade year, and they’ve been working together consistently ever since. They discuss everything from processing Melisa’s emotions to revisiting her academic goals. Jessica believes in commending her students for even the smallest wins. So each week, they review the progress that Melisa has made, and they celebrate her growth.

In eighth grade, Melisa set an ambitious goal of being named Chavez Elementary School’s Student of the Month, a recognition determined by her peers. This spring, Melisa achieved her goal. She received Student of the Month, maintained a perfect attendance, and earned As and Bs in all her classes. She is also part of Jessica’s Art Xpress group, which provides her with a way to express her feelings through art when she doesn’t feel like talking.

After George Floyd’s murder last year, Melisa produced a work of art that was both beautiful and provocative, and Jessica encouraged her to participate in a Black Liberation Art Contest sponsored by Lurie’s Children Hospital. According to Jessica, it has been remarkable to witness Melisa’s growth over the last few years. She knows that Melisa will continue to shine this fall when she attends Juarez Community Academy’s IB program.

Camila

Camila was one of the first students enrolled on Juanita Herrera’s caseload at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy. A CIS of Chicago Student Supports Manager, Juanita works with students individually and in groups on their social, emotional, and academic needs. For Camila, grades were never an issue, but she often walked out of class, frustrated with her peers and angry with her teachers. Since her sixth-grade year, Juanita has been meeting with Camila regularly to discuss how to better regulate her emotions and claim her own identity, one outside of her older sister, whom she often felt compared.

Camila is an active member in Juanita’s Girl Talk Group, Wonder Women Group, and Makeup Group, and she’s grown tremendously in her ability to relate with her peers and express herself. But when her elementary school shifted to remote learning this past schoolyear, Camila fell behind, and her motivation started decreasing. She would sign in for her classes and then not participate. And she started feeling overwhelmed by the schoolwork she needed to catch up on.

During third quarter this year, Camila asked Juanita to attend her parent/teacher conference, and Juanita sat down with Camila, her mother, and her teacher to discuss finishing the year strong. Juanita reminded Camila of her goal — graduating from elementary school and making a smooth transition to high school. And she encouraged her by reflecting on how far Camila had come in the last three years. With a renewed sense of motivation, Camila will graduate this spring, focused on her next step: attending Thomas Kelly College Prep come fall.

Kristy

Eighth grader Kristy has a lot on her plate. She is responsible for watching her younger siblings, assisting her mom with running an at-home daycare, and completing chores around the house, in addition to staying on top of her schoolwork. Kristy’s anxiety and stress can sometimes pique when she’s trying to balance these various obligations. But when she’s struggling with coping, Kristy knows that she can lean on Daniel Hasak, the CIS of Chicago Student Supports Manager based at her school, Acero — Brighton Park.

Daniel started meeting with Kristy two years ago, and together, they set goals around improving her academics and her social-emotional learning. Daniel worked with Kristy on decreasing her stressors by using grounding and gratitude techniques, and most importantly, by developing coping skills. This includes creating a schedule so that Kristy has dedicated times for reaching out to teachers when she needs extra support, completing her assignments, and making time for self-care. According to Daniel, Kristy has grit. She tackles problems with a can-do approach, he said, and perseveres through her struggles. Next year, Kristy will attend UIC College Prep for high school.

When graduation celebrations come to mind, most consider those in high school and beyond, but for many of the students that CIS of Chicago supports, elementary school graduation is just as significant of an accomplishment. Our team recognizes this important milestone for our eighth graders and wishes them much success as they begin their next step in their academic careers. Congratulations once again, 2021 graduates! You did it!

*Note: Names have been changed to respect student privacy.

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