Back of the Yards: Alternative school gets second chance

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It was a first for both the city and the Chicago Archdiocese when Francis Cardinal George and Mayor Richard Daley joined forces last July to raise money for CPS’ Second Chance Alternative High School.

“They may be at odds about other stuff,” says the Rev. Bruce Wellems from Holy Cross/Immaculate Heart of Mary Church. “But they have been together on this one.”

The fundraiser, held at the Chicago Club downtown, raised $100,000 to help finance a permanent home for Second Chance. The Archdiocese matched that amount, and Chicago Public Schools agreed to pick up the school’s operating costs. Funds raised will go toward construction or rehab work.

“Never in the history of time has the mayor co-chaired a fundraiser with the church,” says Sandra Traback, the principal of Chavez Elementary, where Second Chance is housed. “The mayor is tough on crime, and he knows we have to give our kids a light to shine them down the right path. The cardinal has visited us twice, so he knows what’s going on, too.”

Second Chance was created in January 2001 when a gang member approached Wellems about going back to school. But rival gang members attended the area’s only alternative high school, making that a risky option.

“I told him if he was seriously interested and knew other kids who were interested, to come back and we’d talk” about opening another school, says Wellems. “This gang-banger came back with 60 other kids.”

Wellems approached former schools CEO Paul Vallas, who liked the idea, and Traback found space at her school to house the program.

In January 2001, Second Chance opened it doors. So far 32 students have completed the program. Students receive diplomas from Richards High School. This year, 52 students are enrolled, and there’s a waiting list.

“We turn kids away every quarter,” says Traback.

Besides accommodating more students, another building would alleviate the confinement of Second Chance students, whose space at Chavez has been limited to a community room, a special education room and a science lab.

“They need their own identity, their own space,” explains Traback. “They need stuff that is high school-like—regular-size classrooms, a computer lab, their own gym room, lockers—just space to be teenagers.”

Wellems says he approached the mayor with the problem. “I told him we didn’t have a building, and he asked me what I needed. It was his idea to do a fundraiser.” The cardinal, who had visited Back of the Yards, also offered his services.

By November, community leaders found two possibilities: an old pickle factory at 49th and Racine, and a shuttered church and school at 51st and Elizabeth.