Impact: Mazza Foundation High School Support Program

It isn’t hard to realize that graduation season is upon us. The air is warmer and the helium shortage indicates that overjoyed parents, friends, and family are ready to congratulate their graduates. To many, this day is a culmination of hard work, sweat, and tears. A celebration of the overcoming of obstacles and adversities that previously seemed impossible. The great thing, I think, about graduations is that even though they signify the completion of an academic journey, they are really the start to a lifetime of learning.

With all graduations comes a moment when a choice was made that led to here. A moment that is often filled with uncertainty. Is this the right school? Can I afford this? How do I apply? These are all questions students and their families ask themselves when choosing a high school, often making the transition from eighth grade to high school feel overwhelming and daunting. In partnership with the Mazza Foundation, which has supported Big Shoulders Fund for nearly 30 years, we recognized the need to help families alleviate the challenges of this transition. Currently, 84 percent of Big Shoulders Fund eighth graders enroll at a Catholic, selective enrollment, or quality CPS high school. 94 percent of Big Shoulders Fund students graduate from high school and 85 percent continue to enroll in college. However, with an overwhelming number of school options, each with varying admissions processes and requirements, it has become increasingly difficult for students and families to make a choice.

Big Shoulders Fund Director of Leadership and Scholarship Support Dan Bennett conducted focus groups with elementary and high school administrators as well as teachers, students, and families to learn more about the challenges this transition brings. This led to the creation of the Mazza Foundation High School Support Program. This Program aims to educate and provide resources to not only parents and guardians, but also students themselves so that they can take ownership of their future.

As part of this initiative, Big Shoulders Fund held its first Early High School Bridge Program designed for rising eighth graders last June. Twenty-three students from four different grade schools participated in a busy week of activities, workshops, and trips. The weeklong program offered students workshops on how to identify and research high school options including Catholic and other high quality, selective schools, how to apply, how to get financial aid and scholarships, and how to successfully transition into ninth grade.

Throughout the week, students met and learned from Admission Directors from Josephinum Academy of the Sacred HeartHoly Trinity High SchoolCristo Rey Jesuit High SchoolDe La Salle Institute, and St. Ignatius College Prep as well as students from Leo High SchoolOur Lady of Tepeyac High School, and De La Salle. Big Shoulders Fund staff led one-on-one mock scholarship interviews, essay writing practice, and entrance exam practice. Some of the other rich opportunities for students included a visual note-taking workshop from Ink Factory, a fun class on meeting new people and personal creativity from improv actors, as well as lessons on using the CTA to get to high school with follow-up field trips on buses and trains to visit different high schools in the area. Transportation for students to attend the program and meals were all included making this accessible to all families. In a survey provided to participants at the end of the program, 100 percent reported being more knowledgeable about how to apply to different schools and scholarship programs and feeling more confident about the high school transition and succeeding once in high school. 

This year, two weeks will be added to the Early Bridge Program due to high demand. It will take place in June and July with a new group of students. Currently, there are 75 students enrolled from 25 plus Big Shoulders Fund schools!

From featured school visits, parent meetings, and the creation of a new interactive website to help students, families, and teachers, the Mazza Foundation High School Support Program is significantly enhancing the way families and students navigate through the high school admissions process. We are thrilled to be able to collaborate with the Mazza Foundation and continue to create a brighter future #paralosniños