Story posted April 13, 2012
When Margo Clark ’09 began teaching at Chicago Bulls College Prep in 2009 as a 9th-grade algebra teacher, she was assigned a group of first-year students to advise. Three years later, she remains their advisor, helping them navigate the challenges of high school and readying them for college.
To encourage her students, now juniors, to consider attending liberal arts colleges, Clark recently took six of them on a six-day trip to Maine, her home state. Besides spending a day each at Bowdoin, Bates and Colby colleges, the group ate lobster and blueberry pancakes, visited the Casco Bay islands, took a hike and visited the Portland Museum of Art.
“They had no idea what to expect," Clark said. “When we got to Maine, they were furiously calling friends back in Chicago to say, ‘No, she doesn’t live on a farm,' and that 'she didn’t go to a one-room schoolhouse.'”
Clark says she and the girls stayed at her parents’ home in Portland. “During the trip, one of their favorite things was being in my house and seeing how our family operated,” Clark observed. “What my home life looked like was eye-opening for them."
To afford the college tour in Maine, Margo Clark’s advisees relied on donations. Two of the most generous donors were Katherine Finnegan ’09 and her father Paul Finnegan, who’s on the board of directors for Teach for America in Chicago. "This is a testament to the strong and supportive community that Bowdoin alums have with one another,” Clark said.
The students, who had to meet rigorous expectations to qualify for the trip, come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Clark says 90% of the students at Chicago Bulls, which is part of the city network of Noble Street charter schools, live below the poverty line, and 90% of them are minorities. The Noble Street schools were founded in the 1990s as an alternative to public schools and have a college enrollment rate of 91%, compared to a citywide average enrollment of 41% , according to Clark.
Clark said that as she’s grown closer to her advisees, “getting to know their home lives has helped me understand the achievement gap. These students have significantly greater obstacles when trying to achieve higher education, such as being the first in their families to do so."
When the girls were at Bowdoin, they toured the campus, lunched at Thorne Dining Hall with women leaders from campus, and attended a wellness session. They also each sat in on a class, including “Labor, Gender, and Immigration in the United States-Mexico Borderlands,” “Educating all Students,” and “Of Comics and Culture.”
“They were so inspired by the academic work going on,” Clark said, “a couple of them volunteered answers and contributed to the discussions."
She said her advisees reported being impressed by how welcoming and friendly the Bowdoin community was, and that “they loved the facilities; they loved the food.” Clark added, however, that she had “takers” with Colby College as well, which they visited two days later. “Colby was another fan favorite, unfortunately,” Clark said, tongue-in-cheek. The good thing is that following the Maine trip, “a couple girls are considering a liberal arts education when they weren’t before."
Clark was trained by Teach for America and was hired at Chicago Bulls College Prep the autumn following her graduation from Bowdoin. While she was a student at Bowdoin, she substitute taught at the local high school on Thursday and Fridays and “got really hooked.”
She said she plans to stay at Chicago Bulls to at least see her advisees through graduation, and will help her girls through the college application process next fall — which she hopes will contain some Bowdoin applications.
“I think Bowdoin will be a reach school for all of them, but I think their applications will be seriously considered given their academic talents and how much they’ve grown since freshmen year,” she said.