Last resort becomes a happy ending for dropouts

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Illinois state law requires public school districts to serve students under the age of 21. However, re-enrollment can be denied to dropouts who lack sufficient credits and can not graduate before their 21st birthday. Such students receive counseling on alternative education programs. CATALYST Associate Editor Maureen Kelleher talked to students at two such programs, Latino Youth Alternative and Garfield Alternative high schools. These are the stories they shared.

Latino Youth

Pedro Ramos, 20

From Farragut

Farragut High School dropped Pedro Ramos from its student rolls after he missed a month of classes to travel to Mexico. “A family member was passing away,” he says.

Like other no-show students, Ramos was handed a list of GED programs and alternative schools when he returned to Farragut. “They said, ‘You can go to any of these schools.'” His counselor suggested he contact Daley College and Latino Youth.

Ramos tried Daley first, but found he needed more support than he got. “I didn’t put a lot of effort into it,” he says. “They didn’t have anyone to guide me like here [at Latino Youth].”

Things were different at Latino Youth. The personal interaction students receive from teachers, for instance, is a big change from Ramos’s experience at Farragut. “They pay a lot of attention to students,” he says. “You really learn better here than in regular high school. You can always talk to someone here, not like in regular high school, where they’re like, ‘I don’t have time right now—come early or come on your lunch.'”

Fellow Latino Youth students agree. Students can call and talk to teachers on weekends and holidays. One former teacher—who no longer works for the program—distributed her home number to students and still keeps in touch.

“Where do you see that in a regular high school?” Ramos asks accusingly.

Juan Pablo Flores, 18

From Farragut

In March 1997, Farragut “dropped me accidentally,” says Juan Pablo Flores. But his story suggests he skipped classes at Farragut on a regular basis.

Farragut had put Flores “on contract,” a strategy schools use to keep tabs on class cutters and truants. Flores was required to get signatures from teachers in each of his classes and then deliver the list of signatures to the attendance office at the end of each day. “I got all of them,” Flores contends.

However, school officials presented Flores with a different story. “‘You missed 14 days since the contract, and you had 21 cuts,'” he recalls. “They told me I was gonna be dropped.” Still, Flores alleges the school got it all wrong. “I even had the signatures. They gave me the wrong record.”

Flores signed a withdrawal form, then went home and told his father. “My dad got mad,” he says. “He was just mad at me for not fighting for myself.” His father went to school to try to convince school officials to readmit his son. He failed, Flores says, “because I had signed the drop thing.”

After several months off, Flores followed in his sister’s footsteps and began taking classes at Latino Youth. “I like it a lot because I actually learn something,” he says.

Israel Huicochea, 18

From Farragut

Israel Huicochea admits he made mistakes as a student at Farragut. “I messed around like the first couple of years. I was in gang fights, I had my little record in school.”

During the summer of 1997, Huicochea got into trouble outside of school. As a result, he missed the first week of classes. When he finally showed up, school officials would not allow him to enroll: “‘You’re already 17. We can’t take you back with your record.’ I told them I was ready to dedicate myself to my education. The vice principal, that knew me, said, ‘You already had your chance.'”

After leaving Farragut, Huicochea tried to sign up for Latino Youth right away, but classes had already started. Huicochea spent two months out of school, “hanging out” and working afternoons at a mail-order company near Bellwood.

Now, he expects to graduate in March 1999 and has already been accepted for an auto mechanic training program at Lincoln Technical Institute. But Huicochea is undecided. “I’m still looking around.” He is also considering West Side Technical Institute and has visited DePaul University and University of Illinois at Chicago.

While Huicochea praises Latino Youth, he is ambivalent about how he got there. “I wouldn’t tell [other troubled students to] drop out and come to this school.” Instead, he hopes students will think ahead to college and career plans, “not just to settle for a high school diploma.”

Cristina Mora, 19

From Mexico

Cristina Mora attended a public elementary school in Chicago and then a high school in Mexico. When she returned to Chicago, school officials did not accept her credits and told her she was “too old” for a regular four-year program.

“I tried to apply for Farragut,” she recalls. “They told me, ‘If you would stay here, you would have to be here for four years, and you would be 22 when you got out.'”

Instead, the school gave Mora a list of alternative schools. Mora’s mother insisted Farragut accept her, but her efforts were in vain. “She didn’t want me to go to an alternative school.”

Mora first tried Truman Middle College. “I know a friend there from grammar school, and she said it was a good school.” Mora took the test, but never connected with Truman to get the results.

Latino Youth was closest to her home, but it had a bad reputation in Mora’s social circle. “People kept saying it was a bad school. All the dropouts were gangsters, gangbangers,” she says. Her experience proved otherwise. “When I came here, I found out that wasn’t true.”

What she did find at Latino Youth was an atmosphere that encouraged students to discover their strengths. “See that guy,” she says, pointing to a young man standing in a nearby knot of students. “Angel dropped from Farragut, but he’s number one in our math class here.” The first test they had, “he got a really high math score. He seemed surprised himself. He felt good about himself for the first time.”

Though she nearly completed high school in Mexico, Mora will be at Latino Youth for a couple years. Some of her records were lost at Truman College, and the hassle of getting new transcripts from her old school in Mexico was not worth it, she says. “So I just figured, OK, it’s two years [to earn a diploma]. I can get through it fast.”

Mora says she enjoys both the academic subjects and the personal values she is learning at Latino Youth. Beyond the usual work ethic schools typically preach to students, Latino Youth encourages self-discovery, she says. “When we came here, they asked us, ‘What would you like to study?'” A recent camping trip went even further in breaking down barriers between students and teachers. “Our problems came out around the fire. We started communicating, not the teacher teaches us but the teachers learn from us.”

Eva Solis, 19

From Mexico

Eva Solis never attended high school until she found Latino Youth. Like Mora, she attended grammar school in Chicago, but left for Mexico near the end of 8th grade. When she came back to the city, her only option was to attend her neighborhood school—Tilden.

She never went. Tilden had not only a poor academic record, but also a reputation for tough students. Solis was afraid to go. “The tough girls there, they’d beat me up,” she asserts. “My mom was afraid they’d beat me up.”

Instead, Solis and her mother tried applying to other area schools. Kelly, Juarez and Farragut all declined to enroll her because she lived outside their attendance boundaries. “So then after that I stayed home, and I ended up pregnant,” she says. Her son was born in September 1994. “That was two years right there. I didn’t go to high school at all.”

Solis first came to Latino Youth in 1996. “I was thinking that I needed to get an education, a better future.” She was thinking of her son, too. “What can I offer him when I’m at home?” she asked herself.

While taking her son to a clinic on the North Side, she saw a sign for the Alternative Schools Network. “They had it on a board, and I wrote down the number.” When she called, they referred her to Latino Youth, which provides on-site child care among its support services. “That was the closest one to me. What was great was the day care was next door, and it was only a dollar a day.”

At first, Solis attended class “on and off” and eventually was told to take a trimester off, then try again. She came back in 1997 and expects to graduate next spring. Her career goal is to become a social worker, and she plans to attend Daley or Malcolm X college.

Garfield Alternative

Nicole Brooks, 18

From Industrial Skills Center

In the spring of 1997, Nicole Brooks’s doctor put her on bed rest. She was pregnant and, as an asthma sufferer, at high risk. She applied to Chicago Vocational High School for home schooling services.

“Here’s my note from my doctor,” she says she told CVS. “They still did not give me my homebound.”

So she transferred to Phillips, but the school denied her request too. Instead, Brooks enrolled in Phillips’ Industrial Skills Center. It offered the opportunity to stay home and do school work, Brooks says. But “your attendance didn’t count” on Phillips’s rolls, she adds. So many kids missed classes, the center was shut down. Too bad for Brooks. “I liked it there. You only had to have 16 credits to graduate. That would have been fast.”

After the center closed, “I was calling around to schools. I didn’t want to go back to CVS or Harper or Tilden,” she says. A counselor gave Brooks a list of alternative programs; only three offered diplomas, and she was not interested in a GED program. Garfield was not mentioned.

“I really don’t remember how I found out about Garfield,” Brooks says. She arrived last February and immediately connected with the program. “I loved school,” she says. “They wouldn’t let me come here while I was pregnant. I waited until I had the baby.” The school wanted her to wait three months after delivery, but she persisted and started class a month early.

Brooks now has 15 credits and expects to graduate next August. “I got accepted to Chicago State with an $11,000 grant,” she says. She plans to major in computer science.

Everett Berry, 17

From Gage Park

Berry admits he goofed off a lot and earned few credits during his first year at Gage Park. “I made it through halfway of my second year, halfway.” Then he was ambushed in a school fight, he says.

“Before I got jumped on it was all good,” he says. “Then I went to a military school.” The school was Lincoln’s Challenge, a residential program in Rantoul, Illinois, which also receives funding from CPS. Although Berry chose to enter the program, what he saw there convinced him to head home in less than a week. “Ain’t take me long to make up my mind,” he says. “I’m straight. I’ll go to regular school.”

Berry’s reason for leaving? Fighting. “More stuff was happening out there than in the schools,” he says, still amazed. “They’re fighting over nothing. Put me on a team where nobody’s going to fight,” he chuckles.

Next, Berry tried enrolling at Tilden. “They said I had to go to a neighborhood school.” But his was Harper, and he wasn’t going there.

A family friend told him about Garfield. At first, Berry clowned around in class. His grades showed it. “I was failing,” he says. So he decided it was time to get serious. “I was asking the teachers ‘What can I do to help my grades?’ I stayed after school. Even though I was a problem in the beginning, I learned from my mistake.”

Although Berry says his grades now are good, the road to his diploma may yet hold a few bumps. Berry recently moved in with his father, who lives in a better neighborhood, and commutes several miles to school. “It was a struggle trying to come here every day. If I don’t have carfare, I can’t come,” he says.

Evelyn Perot, 18

From King

King High School dropped Evelyn Perot after her sophomore year for excessive absences. She didn’t like school at the time and says she had to travel too far to get there after her family moved out of the area.

She tried to transfer to a school closer to her new home, but failed. “I tried to go to Morgan Park, but they wouldn’t take me,” she says. Julian was overcrowded and also refused her request to enroll.

When she left King, a counselor gave her a list of alternative diploma and GED programs. A King counselor suggested Perot attend Kennedy-King College GED program. “They put that on my sheet,” she says. “I had a transfer.”

She didn’t go. Instead, , Perot did a bit of soul searching. “What I’m staying out of school for?” she asked herself. “My sister was going to Chicago State. I’m the only one doing nothing with my life. I want to go to college and have a life, a successful education and career, to take care of myself.”

So Perot began to hunt around: Olive-Harvey, another “school on the north side.” Neither worked out. Then her sister, a former Garfield student, intervened on Perot’s behalf. “I felt good when I got back in school,” says Perot with a smile.