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Building High School Communities

Louis Gomez


Litter covered the hallways of Roberto Clemente Community Academy High School in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. Hundreds of the school’s more than 2,300 students skipped classes and roamed the halls, and technology facilities were rudimentary at best.

Unsurprisingly, student test scores ranked well below city and state averages.

That was the scene in 1997.

It is a different story now.

The hallways are well scrubbed and classrooms are full of students during the day’s seven periods. The school also has a building-wide computer network and 700 computers distributed in classrooms and 10 laboratories throughout the eight-story building. Although still lower than citywide averages, ACT test scores have inched upward in math, English and reading, increasing during the last three years even though the scores of entering freshmen have dropped during that time.

Louis Gomez, Aon Professor of Learning Sciences and professor of electrical engineering and computer science, deserves a major portion of the credit for this improvement, according to Clemente Principal Irene DaMota.

To boost Clemente’s technological capacity, Gomez has helped the school extend its computer network and secure funding for consistently high-quality technical assistance. On the curricular front, he has encouraged teachers to carve out space for dozens of multiweek interdisciplinary projects and recruited liaisons from Northwestern such as Sam Kwon (GSESP03) to help the teachers incorporate new technological and content developments into their classrooms.

Gomez has assisted DaMota for nearly seven years in transforming the school from a single entity into six smaller learning communities — schools within a school — designed to provide greater curricular consistency and more ambitious instruction. The communities began with the Math, Science & Technology Academy and now include academies dedicated to journalism, communications and law; the fine and performing arts; world languages and careers; dual language and bilingual; and the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps.

William Conard, Clemente assistant principal, says that the interdisciplinary projects have helped students make valuable connections between the materials they are studying and their lives. He adds that the University’s collection of qualitative data has encouraged teachers to view their students in a different light.

“There are other ways of collecting information about our students than traditional tests,” says Conard, who has worked at Clemente since 1997. “The more we look at other signals, the better our teachers are going to be at meeting students’ needs.”

Gomez’s partnership at Clemente is just the latest in his nearly 15-year effort to improve urban schools and the life chances of the students who attend them. Although the areas on which Gomez has concentrated his efforts have varied, his underlying objective and engineering-based methods have remained the same. “We don’t study or give advice on the implementation of social service programs,” he says. “Our focus is on learning as a vehicle to improve students’ lives.” — J.K.L

SESP researchers meet at Roberto Clemente High School
From left, current and former Northwestern SESP researchers in the library at Roberto Clement High School in Chicago: Ken Rose (GSESP04); Peter Wardip; Margie Pligge; Martin Block, a former Northwestern reseracher who later joined Clemente's teaching staff; and liaison Samuel Kwon (GSESP03) Photo by Andrew Campbell