The cru­cial, but lim­ited, role of schools in keep­ing our youth on track

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - EDITORIALS -

Ev­ery one of the 150 or so stu­dents at Dr. Pe­dro Abizu Cam­pos High School had been la­beled a fail­ure. Yet here, in this unique char­ter school tucked be­hind and above a store­front steps away from Hum­boldt Park, they thrive.

The stu­dents, most be­tween 18 and 21 years old, hus­tle in and out of tiny class­rooms fur­nished not with or­derly rows of desks and chairs but with over­stuffed so­fas and color­ful ta­pes­tries, group work ta­bles and soft light­ing. “Heal­ing spa­ces,” in the school’s par­lance. They laugh with their teach­ers, they kid one another, some are hun­kered down over lap­tops, deep into their class­work. Hugs, hand slaps, fist bumps. Teenagers.

The ex­u­ber­ance be­lies the strug­gles that brought most of them to this school, one of 19 cam­puses across Chicago that make up the Youth Con­nec­tion Char­ter School. It’s a non­profit con­sor­tium of small com­mu­nity schools founded in 1997 and ded­i­cated to ed­u­cat­ing stu­dents who have dropped out, or are about to drop out, of tra­di­tional high schools.

“With­out this place, I’d prob­a­bly just be work­ing min­i­mum wage some­where,” said Wil­fredo Clau­dio, 21, who strug­gled to keep go­ing to classes at the nearby public high school, Roberto Cle­mente Com­mu­nity Academy. A coun­selor sug­gested he trans­fer to Cam­pos, where he’s now on track to get his diploma. With­out the switch: “Man, I prob­a­bly would’ve made some re­ally bad de­ci­sions.”

The role for Tri­bune read­ers

The Tri­bune Ed­i­to­rial Board’s “Chicago For­ward: Young lives in the bal­ance” ini­tia­tive is putting a spot­light on the chal­lenges of reach­ing Chicagolan­d’s dis­con­nected youth — the 16- to 24-yearolds at risk of be­ing out of school, out of work and far from the path to­ward a pro­duc­tive and healthy life.

We are call­ing on you, our read­ers, to sub­mit pro­pos­als for new ideas, part­ner­ships and so­lu­tions to this prob­lem, which ul­ti­mately costs Chicago up to $2 bil­lion a year in lost earn­ings, lower eco­nomic growth, lower tax rev­enues and higher gov­ern­ment spend­ing.

To­day, we con­sider the role of schools and ed­u­ca­tion.

Cam­pos High School, founded in 1972 by Puerto Ri­can ac­tivists in the neigh­bor­hood and later brought un­der the um­brella of the Al­ter­na­tive Schools Net­work and YCCS, ex­em­pli­fies the power of the school en­vi­ron­ment in con­nect­ing young peo­ple with ser­vices and op­por­tu­ni­ties lack­ing in other ar­eas of their lives.

Over and over, ed­u­ca­tors and re­searchers have em­pha­sized to us the im­por­tance of “wrap­around ser­vices” — coun­selors, men­tors, on-site child care, pro­grams to ad­dress trauma and de­pres­sion, meals.

Those ser­vices sup­port stu­dents emo­tion­ally and phys­i­cally so they can stay on track aca­dem­i­cally, grad­u­ate and live pro­duc­tive lives. Es­sen­tially, it’s us­ing the in-school set­ting to help kids deal with out-of-school is­sues, such as poverty, fam­ily tur­moil and gun vi­o­lence.

“There’s a bunch of stuff go­ing on out­side of school,” Cam­pos stu­dent Jes­sica Vazquez, 17, told us dur­ing a visit to the school in Jan­uary, “but then you come in­side and it’s peace­ful here. It’s like a whole big fam­ily.”

‘I lost my homie last year’

Last year, Gwain Brown, 16, who was a sopho­more at Cam­pos and a close friend of Vazquez’s, was shot to death while he and another male were stand­ing out­side a store on South Cicero Av­enue.

“I lost my homie last year,” she said, chok­ing back tears as she de­scribed how the school paused its nor­mal rou­tines to mourn her friend’s death. “They sup­port you emo­tion­ally.”

Be­yond the nor­mal strug­gles of be­ing a teenager, be­yond the added stress that poverty brings and be­yond the dou­ble threat of gangs and drugs on the streets, each gun­shot — no mat­ter the tar­get — causes a rip­ple ef­fect of trauma in our neigh­bor­hoods. For too many young peo­ple, school is their only oa­sis.

Yet an en­vi­ron­ment as nur­tur­ing as the one we wit­nessed at Cam­pos — with mul­ti­ple coun­selors, small classes and the flex­i­bil­ity a char­ter school of­fers — isn’t pos­si­ble in most public schools.

Why not? Money.

Don’t count on City Hall and Spring­field

This is the point where we’d like to say that ev­ery school district should have end­less funds to hire count­less coun­selors and other trained pro­fes­sion­als to nur­ture each child with un­met needs through to grad­u­a­tion. We sup­port that dream. And we be­lieve that wrap­around ser­vices at more schools would make a pro­found dif­fer­ence for those youth most at jeop­ardy of slip­ping be­yond our reach.

So we should look to City Hall for more mil­lions?

If only. The enor­mous and legally en­force­able debts and un­funded pen­sion obli­ga­tions of CPS and City Hall are crush­ing other pri­or­i­ties.

Should we look in­stead to Spring­field?

Same story: State gov­ern­ment is drown­ing in pen­sion and other debts. Yes, law­mak­ers in 2017 passed a new statewide public school fund­ing for­mula that directs more money to need­ier districts, in­clud­ing CPS. But it took decades of po­lit­i­cal wran­gling to pull off. And the next re­ces­sion, when­ever it ar­rives, will threaten that new fund­ing.

The fierce ur­gency of now

Our most vul­ner­a­ble youth don’t have decades to wait for Spring­field to de­bate in­cre­men­tal changes to public pol­icy. They are in cri­sis now, mak­ing de­ci­sions each day about whether to go to class or skip again, to seek help or slip away.

That’s why char­ter schools such as Cam­pos and other non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions that de­pend on public and pri­vate grants, re­main so es­sen­tial. In Chicago, in Illi­nois, the public sec­tor can­not do this alone.

Only ex­panded in­volve­ment from the pri­vate sec­tor, in tan­dem with gov­ern­ment ef­forts, can make a dif­fer­ence for the most im­per­iled young peo­ple of this me­trop­o­lis.

Con­sider the wide-reach­ing Com­mu­ni­ties in Schools, a na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion that in Chicago part­ners with 175 CPS schools. It pro­vides a range of dropout preven­tion and stu­dent en­rich­ment pro­grams that have been proven to keep kids in school and, in some cases, boost math and read­ing skills.

Or ini­tia­tives such as WOW (Work­ing On Wom­an­hood) coun­sel­ing groups, man­aged by the Chicago or­ga­ni­za­tion Youth Guid­ance. WOW serves about 2,400 young women in sev­enth through 12th grades in 40 Chicago schools with sig­nif­i­cant risk fac­tors for drop out or delin­quency.

When we sat in re­cently with a WOW group of six ju­niors at Ben­ito Juarez Com­mu­nity Academy, a CPS high school in Pilsen, the young women be­gan with an ac­count­ing of the “thorns and roses” they’d ex­pe­ri­enced over the pre­vi­ous week — the good and bad that lifted them up or dragged them down.

The group ap­plauded when Juanita an­nounced her rose, her achieve­ment of a 3.6 grade-point av­er­age, higher than she’d ex­pected, and 100% at­ten­dance dur­ing the school year so far. Af­ter the group ses­sion, she told us that WOW had been in­stru­men­tal in pulling it off.

“There used to be times when I felt like I’d never be able to make it this far in my ju­nior year,” Juanita said. “If we didn’t have the WOW group here, I’d prob­a­bly be lack­ing in my classes, do­ing some of the work but not all of it. Now I’m think­ing about col­lege.”

ERIN HOOLEY/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE PHO­TOS

Stu­dent Jayy Mathias, 18, stands in a class­room at Cam­pos High School in Chicago on Jan. 23. The char­ter school aims to keep kids in school.

Ju­nior Emari thinks as she talks about “thorns and roses” dur­ing a WOW coun­sel­ing ses­sion on Mon­day at Ben­ito Juarez Com­mu­nity Academy. WOW serves about 2,400 young women in 40 Chicago schools.

Ju­nior Danae dis­cusses her per­sonal val­ues dur­ing a WOW coun­sel­ing ses­sion on Mon­day.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.