Olive-Harvey Middle College throws teens a lifeline

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How many high schools do you know where students call their teacher “godfather”? At Olive-Harvey Middle College, Robert H. White, professor of U.S. and Latin American history and team teacher of returning high school dropouts, has “adopted” the entire student body, about 100 16 to 21-year-olds finishing work for their diplomas. When he walks through the halls, his students inquire respectfully, “Good afternoon, godfather. how are you?”

“Fine, and you, my son?” he responds. “How are you, my daughter?”

Such exchanges typify Olive-Harvey Middle College, where students and alumni are free to drop in on the principal throughout the day and where, as one student said, “Not only in here, but on the streets, it’s like being in a fraternity.” This close-knit, family atmosphere has nurtured a program where 75 percent of graduates go on to further study and 55 percent go directly to four-year colleges and universities.

The idea of a middle college, where dropouts in their late teens could earn high school diplomas in a college environment, was born in the 1970s at LaGuardia Community College in New York City. In 1986, Olive-Harvey Community College on Chicago’s Far South Side became the second community college to establish such a program. Chicago’s City Colleges system also sponsors middle college programs at Kennedy-King and Truman. All three are small, with no more than 130 students each, and all offer diplomas but require students to take the GED as a measure of their skills. Most students spend two years completing the necessary credits to graduate.

The three middle colleges will share in a $366,400 alternative schools grant from the School Reform Board of Trustees; the money will allow Olive-Harvey to serve an additional 38 students.

Many middle college students arrive at Olive-Harvey with few or no credits, a history of attendance and/or behavior problems, and deep disillusionment with the educational system. Yet, most graduate—the dropout rate is just 15 percent—and take paths far beyond the typical experience of poor, minority youth.

“Alternative [education] is reclaiming students and asking them to do the best of their ability,” says Principal Helen Stanton Hawkins.

Student Nafeesah Lewis, 18, puts it more personally. “She’s like a mother to us,” he says of Hawkins, “and she’ll get on us like a mother would.”

Being at a junior college helps focus students and teachers on learning rather than discipline; students add that the environment helps people leave gang issues at the door. A day spent at the school supported the assertion: The only evidence of gangs was a tiny symbol added to a piece of student work on a bulletin board in a remote corner of the floor where the program is housed. Otherwise, nothing: no colors, no talk, no graffiti.

The setting also provides resources not available in a traditional high school, such as on-site access to college professors and college credit. For example, godfather White team-teaches a class in American social history with veteran English teacher Paulette Jones. The class offers students the chance to earn both high school and college credit at the same time. White also serves as president of the middle college faculty senate.

For students, initiation into the Olive-Harvey family begins with a class called Personal Development. Taught by Hawkins, it blends vocabulary development and writing with socialization and examination of ethics and behavior. The class focuses on 15 values, including dignity, decency and diligence, and explores how one can achieve them at home, in school and among peers.

As part of learning about dignity, each student must interview someone over 60. For the past few years, a graduate’s grandmother has come in to speak to the students, who frequently are reluctant to attempt this assignment. A poet and artist, she unfailingly changes students’ attitudes. Afterward, says Hawkins, “I ask them, ‘Is she worthy of your respect?’ They always say, ‘Yes, yes. Now I’m going to talk to my grandmother.’ ”

According to the principal, parents see how the class has made a difference. “They come in and say, ‘My kid is different. We have more conversation.'” The lessons learned in personal development are reinforced during division period, where students review personal development values and apply them to current events.

Hawkins also teaches a required class called Senior Exit, which explains the college application and financial aid process. Every year, students visit a number of historically black colleges and universities. Nafeesah Lewis finds the hands-on college information helpful. “When I was in regular high school,” she recalls, “it felt like college was so far away. I thought I had to have the very top grades, top everything, just to go. Now I know it’s not like that.”

Lewis arrived with “two or three” credits last year and now has 11.5. Her attendance, once so poor she was dropped from Fenger High School, is now “like 97 percent.” Olive-Harvey’s blend of academic expectations and family relationships turned her attitude toward education 180 degrees. With a current GPA of 3.3, she has made the honor roll three times and is applying to Howard University and Spelman College. “I have never experienced true learning until I came here,” she says. “The teachers are excellent. They are specialists in their fields. I can’t emphasize enough that this is an excellent, excellent school. It has allowed me to excel.”

Eighteen-year-old John Cummings tells a similar story. He previously attended Corliss and Julian high schools, earning one credit in two years. Looking back on those days, he says, “I was going to school to socialize and find someone to leave with.” Without giving specifics, he makes clear that his activities included more dangerous pursuits than mere socializing, summarizing briefly with the simple acknowledgment that he was “a little bad boy.” After Julian, he reports, “They said I couldn’t go to any more public schools.” Following his expulsion, he visited the Olive-Harvey program with a cousin who has since graduated, and decided he was ready for a second chance. By June, Cummings expects to have earned 16 or 17 credits. He has already taken the ACT and plans to attend Rust College.

Taking initiative

When asked what convinced him to change his behavior, he says, “One of the main things is Mrs. Hawkins’ talking. When somebody keeps talking to you for so long saying the same things, it starts to make sense. I realized I wasn’t doing the right thing and I needed to be doing the right thing.”

“That’s their biggest punishment,” Hawkins says of her lectures. “I’ll threaten to talk to them for two, three hours. Then they’ll say anything. … Just the thought of having to sit still that long will make them listen, and yet it’s not harsh. You keep talking to them until they are able to own their behavior.”

Students are encouraged to take initiative both in class and out, and their efforts often inspire the staff. English teacher Paulette Jones describes her experience at the student-organized Million Man March forum. Students created an archive and bulletin board display in addition to planning a discussion open to the entire Olive-Harvey campus and the community at large. One pregnant student stayed until 10:30 p.m. helping to rearrange tables afterward. The next morning, Jones says, “I ran to school to make sure she was OK.” That kind of dedication “make[s] me work more,” she adds.

Students also serve on the school’s Student Review Board, which meets monthly to discuss attendance and discipline issues with those who are having problems. Hawkins describes the board as “an alternative peer group counseling procedure. Students are giving the same type of counseling as you would. A lot of times, kids will listen to a peer. It becomes preventive.” Nafeesah Lewis agrees, saying, “It’s different when it’s coming from your peers than when it’s coming from a teacher.”

While Olive-Harvey Middle College has more financial resources than many community-based alternative schools, budgets are frequently a concern. This year the program took a $40,000 cut after the school year had begun, reducing its budget to $399,000. Says Hawkins, “Whatever our budget is, we try not to let money be the driving force in what we do.”

Average pay for middle college teachers is below average pay for Chicago public school teachers—the “mid-30s,” compared with $41,600 in the CPS—but the program attracts experienced teachers. “They’re not people who couldn’t get another job,” says Hawkins. “Here they can have the opportunity to do something outside the regular system. We had the forum last night, and we didn’t have the issue of whether we could be in the building at night.