North Lawndale: Charter gives kids a vision for college

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North Lawndale

photo by John Booz

North Lawndale

In late January, 13 seniors from North Lawndale College Prep Charter High School sit seminar-style around a group of tables, talking with deans Chris Kelly and John Horan about how to stay focused through senior year.

“All my brothers and sisters, when they were in senior year, they dropped out,” one girl recalls. “I feel like I’m tuned into their vibrations, so I need to stay focused on my goal.” She adds that her entire family is planning to attend her graduation.

“Do you feel some pressure because of that?” Horan asks her.

“Yeah, a lot of pressure to stay in school,” she replies.

Horan asks the class how many will be the first in their families to go to college. Six or seven hands go up.

“I’m the first son to go to college,” Obi Henderson notes with a smile. His older sister was in the first graduating class at the school and is now a sophomore at Hampton University.

Another boy jumps in to say he’s also feeling a lot of pressure from his mother. “I’m gonna be her only child who goes to college,” he tells them, saying his two sisters got pregnant at a young age and his brother is not pursuing education.

Such issues are what sparked the creation of North Lawndale College Prep. The school’s founders initially envisioned an elementary school but switched gears when parents and local principals told them that what the neighborhood really needed was a college-focused high school, one that would help teens address the problems that could easily sidetrack them from college.

Now, word is spreading through North Lawndale and into other West Side neighborhoods that the school offers young people, regardless of their test scores, a solid chance at a high school diploma and a college degree.

The school, which enrolls just 350 students, got its start as an idea floated by the board of Chicago’s I Have a Dream Foundation, which provided support to elementary students throughout their high school years, with the goal of getting them into college. (I Have a Dream is no longer operating in Chicago.) Horan, then executive director of the foundation, says the board asked him where he’d like to be in five years. “I’d really like to work at a school,” he told them. Horan recalls board member Burt Kaplan of National Bedding/Serta Mattress suggesting I Have a Dream start a school.

Limited high school options

North Lawndale surfaced as a likely location because I Have a Dream had three projects underway in the vicinity. The proposal for a charter elementary was accepted in January 1997, but word from the community spurred the founders to retool it.

Principal Mattie Tyson of Johnson Elementary was among those pushing for a high school. Some of her students had been adopted by United Airlines through I Have a Dream, and she wanted them, and all her students, to have better high school choices. “I saw it really as an opportunity to grow a high school for my graduates,” she says. “I don’t like throwing my kids to the wolves. That’s what I think happens when they go out there and they don’t get the support they need.”

Horan recalls that 100 to 150 people showed up at focus meetings at Johnson about the proposed school. “They felt the grade schools were pretty good but there were limited high school options,” he says.

The only high school within North Lawndale’s official borders is Collins High, one of five high schools put on intervention in 2000. North Lawndale’s youth also live in the attendance areas for Manley High, just north of the border in East Garfield Park, and Farragut High to the south in Little Village. Both have been on academic probation since 1996.

Collins and Farragut are both within walking distance of the home of North Lawndale College Prep parent and board member Shari Johnson. “If North Lawndale hadn’t opened, my child wouldn’t have gone to either one of those,” she says, though she herself graduated from Farragut. (In recent years, Manley has significantly increased the number of seniors going on to college through a partnership with the Umoja Student Development Corp. However, last year’s dropout rate was 27 percent.)

The community input spurred the partners from I Have a Dream and the Steans Family Foundation to become the only group in Chicago to ever return a charter. “Greg Richmond asked, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? People are killing for these things,'” Horan recalls. But their retooled proposal for a high school sailed through in December 1997.

The board spent the summer of 1998 scouring the neighborhood for an alternate site after Tyson pulled out of a plan to open the charter inside Johnson, citing lack of space. Chair Greg Darnieder, then Steans’ executive director, found one in an unlikely place—Howland Elementary, a deteriorating school where the principal was one of 11 suddenly removed by Paul Vallas that summer.

Darnieder approached brand-new interim Principal Millicent ReChord, from Disney Elementary on the North Side. “I had nothing to lose,” he says. “I didn’t know [ReChord] from a hole in the wall. I thought maybe in the absurdity of it all there [could be] a mutual vision.”

Miraculously, there was. “They had the vision, and I welcomed them,” says ReChord, who now works for the city’s youth arts program, Gallery 37, but remains on the charter’s board. “I just saw where it was going to be a miracle place for these kids.”

“About two weeks before school started, we found out it was going to be at Howland,” says Shari Johnson. “I was really happy then.” Howland is across the street from her home.

ReChord says it was a tougher sell to convince the Howland community that having the charter in the building was a plus. “They saw it as an invasion, as a loss,” she says. “I would sit up at night thinking of ways to help them understand this is not a takeover.”

Meanwhile, rumors ran rampant that Howland would be closed. There was even talk that the building was going to be torn down so Pacific Garden Mission, a homeless shelter, could be relocated there. “That was a big slap in the face,” says Richard Townsell, the executive director of the North Lawndale Christian Development Corp., who sits on North Lawndale College Prep’s board and lives in the neighborhood.

ReChord credits the charter’s board for pushing CPS into renovating Howland, which needed work in the west wing, gym and auditorium. “They’re an active group of people who believe in the mission. There is nothing that will stop them. … The push was unrelenting to provide a safe and clean space for these kids to learn,” ReChord says

Meanwhile, Lawndale Community Church allowed the charter to use its gym for basketball and its sanctuary for assemblies. The charter’s board itself spent about a million dollars in rehab money, some borrowed from the Illinois Facilities Fund, says board member Robin Steans.

Though fixing up the facility was a hard fight, creating a workable leadership structure was an even greater challenge. The school cycled through three principals in its first two years and finally settled on sharing leadership among three deans: Horan for student life and community affairs, Kelly for operations and finance, and Anika Spratley for curriculum and instruction. Last year, the school also hired Josephine Gomez, formerly a teacher leader at Manley, to provide additional curriculum guidance.

The charter’s greatest strength has been to give students social support and challenging life experiences to help them stretch and grow. Through Phoenix Rising, students get summer opportunities targeted to each grade level. Freshmen attend outdoor wilderness experiences in places like Colorado, where they are exposed to a drastically different environment and learn survival skills.

Sophomores attend college summer programs, and juniors are placed in internships with major businesses, law firms and other companies.

The counselor-student ratio is 1 to 105, significantly lower than in Chicago Public Schools, and counselors stay with their students for four years. Students also take a course called College Prep for four years, which gives them a chance to explore college choices and develop insight into themselves and their lives.

Parents of early graduates say they are delighted with their children’s experience. “I am really happy she was a part of that,” says Rosie Patton, whose daughter Jackie graduated in the first class and now attends the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. “She received a lot of opportunities she would not have gotten from the quote-unquote, regular public high schools, and that I’m proud of.”

North Lawndale’s staff says frequent turnover among elementary school counselors hinders efforts to forge tighter relationships with the local elementary schools, although Tyson and other area principals and counselors do encourage their students to apply.

When former students from Dvorak Elementary returned to tell Principal Leonard Moore about the charter’s college counseling component, Moore was impressed. “They told me it really helps them stay focused,” he says. “I thought that was unique.”

To contact Maureen Kelleher, call (312) 673-3882 or send an e-mail to kelleher@catalyst-chicago.org.