Schools need community connections

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Jack Wuest, executive director of the Alternative Schools Network, lists five requirements for a successful program for hard-to-reach adolescents: small size, self-governance with a distinct identity, strong internal leadership, students who choose to attend the school, and comprehensive programming that combines academics, support services and career preparation.

Maureen Kelleher’s reporting this month on efforts to serve dropouts who want a second chance suggests another requirement, a strong community connection. To Wuest, that’s probably self-evident. But it bears mentioning now that the Chicago Public Schools bureaucracy is working to create more second-chance programs.

Second-chance students themselves speak to the importance of community connections.

“Everybody’s from the neighborhood. That’s what makes this place good,” David Hernandez, 19, says of the new Irene Dugan Institute, the first of three new alternative schools the school system is creating. “We feel more comfortable because we all know each other.” Having just opened, Dugan has yet to prove itself. But the story of its grass-roots beginnings makes the school look like a winner.

Meanwhile, in a neighboring community, another inside-the-system alternative school closed its doors for good. After decades in operation, the Industrial Skills Center is no more. In one of its first acts, the School Reform Board moved the center to Phillips High School, where dwindling enrollment had brought repeated threats of closure by previous school boards. While Phillips may have welcomed the bodies, it had so many problems of its own that neither it nor its community was ready to embrace the program.

Nicole Brooks, 18, one of the center’s last students, is now enrolled at Garfield Alternative High School, a 25-year-old program of Catholic Charities. She has 15 credits, expects to graduate in August and has lined up financial aid to attend Chicago State University.

In addition to supporting alternatives like Dugan and Garfield, the Reform Board also is helping pay for the expansion of the City Colleges of Chicago program that prepares adults for the General Educational Development (GED) certificate. The operative word here is “adults.” With part-time classes, part-time instructors and few support services, the City Colleges GED program is only for students who are focused, motivated and disciplined— which pretty much excludes most recent dropouts. Even so, putting GED programs in 12 high schools is potentially a good move because they offer a way for regular high schools to reach into their own communities. If high schools indeed see them as a resource, there’s reason to hope they will work to make them more effective, as well.

Catalyst ON THE AIR The Oct. 11 edition of City Voices on WNUA-FM, 95.5, will continue the discussion we begin in this issue about giving dropouts a second chance. The show now starts between 6:50 and 7 a.m.

CORRECTION I’m still not sure where my head was when I announced last month that Susan Ross would be covering developments in Springfield for Catalyst. The first name of our new Springfield correspondent is Diane, not Susan.