With the highest graduation rate in years and test scores on the rise, student achievement at Chicago Public Schools is moving in the right direction. In fact, CPS had the most POSSE Foundation Scholars ever this year – of the 94 total, 84 were CPS students. Forty-one high school students were named members of the Golden Apple Scholars, a 40 percent increase from 2011.
Among Gates Millennium Scholars, the District had 65 candidate finalists – more than we've had in previous years and the highest candidate finalist number in the nation (click here for a list of all CPS CPS Gates Scholars).
Among that group of 65 is Gates Millennium Scholar and recent Paul Robeson High School graduate Brianna Lockett. When she entered Robeson in 2008, however, Lockett did not start out as the student she was destined to become.
Like so many kids, she was smart, but not reaching her academic potential. That changed when she met AVID teacher, Elsie Jones, whose favorite quote is Ralph Ellison's "Education is all a matter of building bridges." Harnessing Lockett's already strong will, Jones helped her focus on her studies, which allowed her to achieve straight As throughout her high school career and become one among an elite few in the country to earn the revered scholarship.
"She was already a good student…she just needed to be pushed with more rigor and to believe in herself," Jones said. "I established a relationship with her to build bridges of trust and develop her as a learner."
The Gates Millennium Scholar (GMS) program – founded by Microsoft magnate Bill Gates and his wife Melinda – was established in 1999 to provide opportunities to low-income and high-achieving minority students via full tuition scholarships and other types of support. The foundation selects 1,000 students every year to receive the scholarship.
"I cried when I got the letter in the mail. I couldn't believe it," Lockett said. "After all this hard work, I'm glad that God saw this in His plan for me."
The process of applying for the scholarship is lengthy; among other things, potential applicants must answer nine questions in essay format.
"As she worked on her scholarship essays, Brianna was able to look deep inside her so she could more effectively express her experiences," Jones said. "Using that approach, piece-by-piece, she put everything together."
Lockett's experiences growing up were not always the best; she was born and raised in Englewood, the South Side neighborhood. Lockett said that attending "more funerals than graduations" has fueled her resolve to be different.
"I don't like to see the same negative pattern play out over and over again," she said. "If I have the state of mind that I'm going to be better than something, then I will be."
Though quiet and somewhat shy, it was that tenacity of spirit – and an overt appreciation for her mother – that sometimes made things difficult for Lockett with her peers.
"Most [peers] around me really lacked that family love at home. Just for me to have a little more, it made me an easy target," she said. "I told people my mother was my backbone, and they thought I was trying to make them feel bad about themselves."
In fact, it's her mother that Lockett said drives her to succeed.
"She expects the best from me," she said. "I live to make her happy with all I got, and that's my education."
Lockett plans to use her scholarship to major in biology at Texas Southern University in Houston, a historically black institution and her first choice when she applied to schools.
"They graduate some of the best doctors and nurses, and that's my plan -- to be one of the best," she said.
Her desire to go pre-med – she's interested in brain surgery – was stoked by her AP biology teacher, Aisha Weaver, who said that Lockett always found creative ways to complete her work, including turning science assignments into spoken word poetry.
Lockett and Weaver worked together on a science project entitled "Can you learn while texting?" that made it all the way to the Citywide CPS Student Science Fair at the Museum of Science and Industry in 2010.
"I was able to actually use material from her science project to teach lessons in my class," Weaver said. "She just comes up with the most innovative topics to cover."
This summer before leaving to school, Lockett will continue working as the vice president of a youth group offshoot of historically black sorority Zeta Phi Beta, which she plans to pledge at Texas Southern. Through the program, she has worked service projects and fundraisers, including volunteering for a nursing program at Trinity Hospital.
Weaver believes that what separates Lockett from many of her classmates are the same qualities that made her a Gates Scholar.
"She's a leader, not a follower," Weaver said. "While other students might get distracted or are simply not enthusiastic, she just gets started and it gets done. She doesn't complain -- she just goes for it."