Altgeld Gardens: Home-grown mentors inspire students

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When Judge Michael Stuttley, an alumnus of Carver Middle School, returned to his alma mater three years ago to deliver the commencement address, Principal Ida Stewart tossed him a challenge.

Don’t be like others who say they’ll come back to help, then don’t. Come back, get involved with students and show them that they can be successful, she urged.

Not only did he accept, he promised more. “I told her I’d bring back other former students and residents of [Altgeld Gardens], too,” says Stuttley, a juvenile court judge in south suburban Markham.

And he did. Stuttley returned to the school as a mentor, and each year, for the last three years, has brought with him close to 90 mentors, enough for every 8th-grade student in the school, including those in special education.

Christened Alumni Contributing to Success, or ACTS, the program aims to help students stay in school and steer clear of gang activity, drugs and alcohol. Stuttley says the answer is to point students in the right direction, help boost their confidence and give them hope that they can have a positive future.

“Many of our kids have no self-esteem,” he says. “They say to themselves, ‘We are from the projects and we can’t be anything.’ But some of these kids are just as smart as we are. They need someone to say to them, ‘You are somebody.'”

“At a dinner dance [last year], mentors stood up and told students what they did and what block they lived in,” says Stewart. “And the kids would say, ‘Hey, that’s my block. This person lived in my block and he’s successful.'”

Mentors talk to students weekly by phone or e-mail—Stuttley sets up an e-mail account at school for each student. Mentors also get together with students every month for social activities like Chicago Bulls basketball games, plays or roller skating. Last year, students also met with mentors every other Saturday at school for board games and movies and then received tutoring.

Students also participate in 20 hours of service learning in the community and agree to read a specific number of books throughout the year.

The program, which runs for nine months each year, has raised $35,000 through grants from ComEd and CPS’ specialized services office. It also receives in-kind donations like tickets for basketball games and plays.

This year, the program was scheduled to begin in October and, for the first time, will also include 7th-graders. However Stuttley has not yet secured funding.

Garden alums come back

While a sprinkling of mentors are from outside the neighborhood—like teachers, assistant principals, and other school staff—”Garden” alums predominate.

“I wanted mentors who were raised in Altgeld or went to Carver. If you are a judge or a doctor and you say I’m from Block 5, children feel like they have a connection,” says Stuttley, who lived on Block 9 with a single mother and 12 siblings.

(Altgeld is comprised of 17 “blocks.”)

Mentors range in age from 23 to 68 years of age and are executives, lawyers, doctors, police, firefighters and educators.

“These are people who have jobs, families and responsibilities and they take the time out to do this,” says Stewart.

Many are also teachers and administrators for Chicago Public Schools. Sheryl Cheatom, who directs CPS’ Education-to-Careers Office, not only became a mentor but helped Stuttley put the program together.

“We’ve been friends since we were 6 years old,” says Cheatom, who helped train mentors. “So when Michael said he wanted to do this, he wouldn’t let me rest until I helped him put something together. We wanted people who could show the children that they could take a different path and be successful.”

‘We could be best friends’

Students love the program.

“My mentor was a [minister] and he made me feel confident that I can be whatever I want to be,” says Jerrade Dixon, a freshman who currently attends Carver Military Academy and is interested in law.

Carver Academy freshman Charles Chapman says his mentor was Stuttley, who coached him on what to expect in high school and what he needed to do to get to college—like studying, joining the student council and getting involved in extracurricular activities. “It was good advice.”

Ashley Allen, now a freshman at Carver Academy, sees herself as the reflection of her mentor.

“Her block is behind my block. We like a lot of the same things and she was so easy to talk to. She made my life easier,” Allen says. “She has a son my age, but if we were the same age, we would probably be best friends.”

School staff love the program, too. “We have a lot less misconduct with kids who are in the program,” reports mentor and acting Assistant Principal Brandi Barrett. “They are much more respectful.”

To contact Debra Williams, call (312) 673-3873 or send an e-mail to williams@catalyst-chicago.org.