Alternative safety net programs pick up slack for city’s public schools

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Erie House

photo by Jason Reblando

Erie House

On a frigid night in January, the chapel of a 156-year-old church in West Town is overflowing with teens and adult tutors huddled in small groups over tables covered with notebooks, papers and textbooks.

The scene is typical for a Wednesday night meeting of TEAM, which stands for Tutoring to Educate for Aims and Motivation, an alternative tutoring and career counseling program run by the Erie Neighborhood House. TEAM is one of dozens of local programs run by non-profit groups that encourage low-income, mostly minority students to finish high school and go to college.

In many ways, such programs pick up the slack for CPS counselors, who often are unable to meet all students’ needs for college and career preparations.

Some programs—University of Illinois at Chicago’s Early Outreach, for one—begin working with students as young as 8 to improve their science, math and language skills, and expose them to health and science professions.

“We see an awful lot of students in the middle who would consider college if they had someone to push them,” says Joan Klaus, a Bank One Corp. vice president who works with Saturday Scholars, the bank’s 14-year-old college readiness program.

“Counselors’ work load is so large that it’s humanly impossible to reach all the students that might need that extra push. There’s a gap.”

Five years ago, Klaus founded an organization to help fill that gap. The College and Career Readiness Network is comprised of programs that offer college preparatory services to low-income students. About 140 corporate and nonprofit groups have joined the Network, which meets four times a year.

Klaus estimates that Readiness Network members serve roughly 5,000 students a year. “Just a drop in the bucket. We need to reach so many more,” she adds.

CPS officials welcome the assistance provided by the outside groups. “Any program that gives our kids assistance is valuable,” says Jean Perez, who oversees CPS guidance counselor programs. “It takes more people than those in our schools to assist our students.”

The following snapshots offer a glimpse into two alternative college and career counseling programs, and illustrate how they can make a difference in students’ lives.

TEAM

TEAM is a collaborative effort between Erie Neighborhood House, a West Town social service agency, Northern Trust Corp. and 12 CPS high schools. Created in 1984, TEAM offers support services that promote academic achievement and encourage teens to go to college. TEAM also holds workshops on college admission, scholarships and entrance test preparation. It also sponsors an annual college fair.

Weekly small-group tutoring is the foundation of the TEAM program. This year, 77 students, most of them from Wells High School, and 67 volunteer tutors meet every Wednesday evening.

“We see many marginal students who have really blossomed,” says TEAM director Maria Matias. “They’re doing well in school, they’re anxious to make something of themselves and they appreciate what the volunteers do for them.”

TEAM has a strong track record: Overall, 98 percent of participants graduate from high school and, in the last five years, 97 percent have enrolled in college. TEAM staff did not provide data on the number of students who complete college.

Northern Trust supplies the majority of TEAM’s tutors and, along with other corporate and foundation funders, provides scholarships for students going to college.

TEAM and Erie House supplement CPS counseling efforts, Matias says. At Wells, a predominantly Latino school with close to 1,200 enrolled, counselors are “so swamped, they don’t have the time to find many resources,” she explains. Two years ago, Erie House opened a satellite office there to support TEAM students and serve as a resource for immigration, health issues, adolescent boys and other services requested by the school.

For Ana Padilla, a Wells sophomore honor student who joined as a freshman, TEAM is more than just a tutoring program. The program, and her tutor, Northern Trust computer programmer Sam Riseman, lend support, encouragement and an ear. Riseman is a good listener and a friend, she says. “If I have a problem at home or at school, he listens and gives advice. We talk about homework, what’s happening during the week, the future, college—everything.”

One of five children, Ana finds it difficult to study at home. “Erie House is my second home—it’s easier for me to concentrate here,” she explains.

Wells sophomore Isaac Castro says Riseman has helped him resist peer pressure to smoke, drink, do drugs and join street gangs. Although his brother and many of his friends have chosen that path, “my friends respect what I do,” notes Isaac.

“Being a teen [boy] isn’t easy, but he has a quiet determination that is admirable,” says Riseman, who concedes that urban youth often struggle with negative influences.

As both students move closer to graduation, Riseman expects to help Ana apply to college and Isaac join the U.S. Marines. “I’m not an expert, I’m here as a resource,” Riseman says. “They don’t have to be concerned that I’m judging them. It’s nice having an opportunity to take my perspective on life and share it with them.”

Early Outreach

The Early Outreach Program of the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) offers a variety of academic and college-career supports to underprivileged minority students. The program has two components: a math and science education initiative for Latino students, and Saturday College, an academic enrichment and college-career prep program for 3rd through 12th grade students. About 370 students from public, private and parochial schools participate.

Classes for both programs are held for four hours on Saturdays during the school year, says Deborah Um’rani, Early Outreach director. Students and their parents must sign a contract to commit to the programs, students must maintain a B average, and parent involvement is a prerequisite, she says. More than 95 percent of Early Outreach graduates go to college.

Participants in the Latino math-science program attend Juarez or Clemente high schools, where counseling staffs are overburdened and have little time to help kids prepare for college, Um’rani notes. “Early Outreach is the only structured college prep program at the schools,” she says. “We’re doing the whole job.”

Arturo Ortiz, chair of counseling at Juarez, concedes that five counselors and a social worker juggle a multitude of tasks to serve the school’s 1,646 students. He estimates that 40 percent of the school’s graduates go on to two- or four-year colleges.

Juarez students benefit from Early Outreach, but Ortiz says he is disappointed that its staff and his counselors don’t have more contact. There is no relationship between the program staff and Juarez’s counseling staff, and only once was he asked to distribute flyers about the program, says Ortiz.

“These programs come in thinking that there’s something missing,” Ortiz says. “The general philosophy is that high schools aren’t doing these things, but they are.”

But students appreciate the help. While counselors have helped her choose classes every year, Yessica Mercado, a Juarez senior, says she has relied on Early Outreach for an academic boost and for help navigating college admissions and scholarships.

It is eight o’clock on a recent Saturday morning and Yessica is one of hundreds of students carrying bulging book bags into the Behavioral Sciences building on the UIC campus. She has attended Early Outreach classes since she was a freshman and hopes to become a nurse.

Yessica and her younger sister Yesenia, a Juarez junior who is also in the program, will be the first in their family to go to college. Her parents—mom is a housekeeper and a dad is a mechanic—completed school only through 7th-grade.

“My parents are happy that we’re here,” says Yessica. “They’re proud of us because we’re trying to succeed.”