Chicago school program focuses on students most likely to get shot
CHICAGO — The bonding moment between Veronica Tinajero and the student she calls Big Sunshine came in one of their first meetings.
“Have you ever been shot?” asked the student, a high school senior.
When Tinajero replied no, he looked genuinely amazed and said, “Wow, almost everybody I know’s been shot.”
Later, he ticked off a list of his own bullet wounds: upper thigh, left hand, scalp.
“I should have been dead already,” he said.
With that, Tinajero, 24 and a public school employee, gained a fuller understanding of what she was up against. She is in Big Sunshine’s life for two reasons: to help keep him alive and on track to graduation, and now college.
She is part of an ambitious project born of crisis, a project that may take on added significance after a Supreme Court ruling Monday that appeared to doom Chicago’s ban on handguns.
Last school year, 258 public school students were shot in Chicago, 32 fatally, on their way to or from school, traveling through gang-infested territory and drug wars on the South and West sides. In an effort to get ahead of the next killings, the schools conducted an analysis to identify the 250 students most at risk of being shot (by studying profiles of 500 recent victims). Since December, each of those students has had an advocate like Tinajero on call to offer caretaking and support 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Students in the high-risk category — mostly black and Hispanic boys, some homeless dropouts and some formerly gang-affiliated — are also given jobs. The array of interventions is financed by federal stimulus grants through 2012, part of a $60 million safety plan developed by Ron Huberman, the schools chief who was appointed last year by Mayor Richard Daley with a mandate to improve safety. There are 409,000 students in Chicago’s 675 public schools.
The 60 advocates hired so far function like a highenergy amalgam of parent, tutor, friend and life coach, sometimes tackling simple assignments like homework. But often they delve into the heart-wrenching details of students’ lives. More than one has sat bedside in a hospital emergency room after bullets tore through a charge’s body.
Of the 210 young people reached so far, about half weren’t in school. Now all are enrolled. Although three students with advocates were shot in the school year that ended June 18, there were no deaths.
Systemwide, 218 students were shot this school year, 40 fewer than last year, and 27 of the shootings were fatal.
Compared with a year ago, this is success. Officials were so encouraged by the results that the program will be expanded next year to include 1,500 students.