Last-chance school closed, kids, parents cry foul

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This summer, the School Board closed one of its own alternative high schools, UrbanYouth, also known as “Double E” (Education and Employment), citing low test scores and poor attendance. Data suggest the school also had an extremely high dropout rate. “We owe it to you and your parents to help you do better,” Reform Board President Gery Chico told Urban Youth students at the July board meeting. “The math scores are at 2 percent [of students at or above national norms] and the reading is at 12 percent. The idea is to offer a better education to students.”

The decision sparked protests from students and parents, who claimed the board was trying to placate downtown developers opposed to minority teens in the Loop—the school is housed in an office building at 65 E. Wacker Drive.

Parent Felecia Leslie says parents were blindsided by the closing. In early July, she says, they had “one very good meeting” with Wilfredo Ortiz, the new high school development officer, and staff to discuss relocating the program to 600 W. Polk.

Chico says the school’s location had nothing to do with its closing. “The issue is not about kids running through the Loop. Jones [High] is in the Loop,” he reminded students at the board meeting.

Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas said the school’s “very poor academic performance and attendance problems” led the board to its decision. “I have a pile this thick about closing Urban Youth since we came in,” he noted in the same meeting. “It should have been closed two years ago.”

Urban Youth is one of a handful of CPS in-house programs to which high schools transfer students 16 and over who are not making it in the traditional setting. As with most programs for “at-risk” youth, student turnover is high.

Students, parents and advocates like Lucille Dobbins argue that students who commit to the program achieve. “It was working, even without a lot of resources,” says Dobbins, foster parent of an Urban Youth graduate and a former chief financial officer for the City of Chicago under Mayor Harold Washington.

For evidence, she cites the school’s first-ever academic decathlon team and says that over 300 students graduated this year. Principal Yolanda Wallace says 183 students graduated in June.

Other data, however, suggest these students were a distinct minority in a revolving-door environment.

For many years, Double E/Urban Youth was a work-study program for dropouts wanting to work and finish school. (See Catalyst, June 1992.) Four years ago, the Reform Board converted the program to a full-fledged, diploma-granting high school. In the wake of that change, the school’s enrollment roughly doubled; since 1996, the fall student count has averaged about 680, according to the Office of Accountability. However, Accountability also reports that the program had sky-high mobility rates, ranging between 200 and 300 percent annually from 1994-95 to 1997-98.

Dobbins says about 100 students were transferred to Urban Youth in late spring, just prior to TAP testing. “I firmly believe—I can’t prove this—that those hundred students were gathered up, and automatically those [sending] schools’ test scores rise,” Dobbins maintains.

“The stability of enrollment and the increased scores [indicates] that that probably didn’t happen,” says Chief Accountability Officer Philip Hansen.

Hansen says Urban Youth had stable enrollments for April, May and June—744, 736 and 734, respectively. In general, boys drop out at higher rates than girls, but the male-female balance for April, May and June also remained stable, he says. It could not be immediately determined whether the same students were enrolled each month.

Hansen adds that the school’s reading scores doubled this year, rising to 12 percent at or above national norms, from 6 percent in 1997-98. “If the schools were dumping kids that they thought weren’t performing well, that wouldn’t hold true,” he says.

No recent public report gives a dropout rate for the school. As a special program, Urban Youth is not part of the state report card program. And the board’s own reports on dropouts from 1993-94 through 1996-97 do not cite Urban Youth. The board has not released its report for 1997-98. However, since Urban Youth is a last-chance school, it’s likely that the high percentage of students leaving the school are dropping out rather than transferring to other schools.

Since 1994-95, the school’s average daily attendance rate never topped 70 percent, compared with a CPS high school average of 82 percent, according to the Office of Accountability.

Although the decision to close Urban Youth was not announced until late July, the administration was preparing for it in June. Sheila Venson, executive director of the Youth Connection Charter School, says the charter agreed in June to take 250 Urban Youth students into its dropout retrieval programs as part of its contract with the board.

  • ChoppaKing

    I know this is an extremely old story but I went to urban youth and was devastated when it closed. I got my G.E.D after it closed and now have an A.A.S in Automotive (Truman college) B.A.S (Southern Illinois University) and will have a B.A in Justice studies (Northeastern Illinois University) soon as I complete my internship. I didn’t appreciate school until I got to Urban Youth, because the environment better than the High School I was at. Hearing that it was closing was one of the saddest days of my life. I’m in contact with the majority of the people that I went to traditional high school with and I became more successful than most of them.