A second chance: Mentoring, better discipline steers Dyett teens away from trouble

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At Dyett High School, the stories told by four students show how the work of a community organization can bring in resources to help schools.

The students—all African-American boys—explained how the Education to Success Initiative and a restorative justice program helped them re-engage in school. They spoke recently at the Chicago Urban League as part of its High School Equity Project.

At Dyett High School, the stories told by four students show how the work of a community organization can bring in resources to help schools.

The students—all African-American boys—explained how the Education to Success Initiative and a restorative justice program helped them re-engage in school. They spoke recently at the Chicago Urban League as part of its High School Equity Project.

Dyett, like many CPS high schools, has struggled with low test scores and high dropout rates, especially among black boys. The Grand Boulevard Federation won grants to combat the problems: $210,000 from the 21st Century Foundation for Education to Success, which provides a counselor and mentors to encourage African-American males to stay in school; and $15,000 from the Vision Foundation for staff and student training in restorative justice, a strategy that, instead of punishment, focuses on helping students understand the consequences of misbehavior and having them repair damages they have caused.

While test scores at Dyett haven’t yet improved, Principal Jacqueline Lemon said the two programs have had an impact on discipline: the number of arrests has declined by 65 percent, she said, and the number of discipline code violations dropped by 85 percent. Also, the number of students who graduate has increased over the past two years, Lemon said. 

Kenny Rainey’s story shows how these efforts have worked together to make a difference in his life.  

When Rainey got into a big fight at Dyett earlier this year, he knew that he was on the brink of expulsion. A few years ago, he might have even been headed to jail, since the school’s former administration often called police for back-up when fights broke out.

In truth, Rainey says, he might not have cared much about being expelled or going to jail before participating in the programs. For a long time he had struggled in school, getting into trouble and earning low grades. He’d been in foster care since age 5, and got little support with school at home.  But right before the fight, Rainey saw a light at the end of the tunnel when Education to Success Director Cornelius Ellen pointed out a simple fact, one that a student from a more stable background might hear routinely and take for granted: If Rainey could get a diploma, he could go to college. 

“I didn’t think I had much of a future before that,” Rainey said. So when he landed in Lemon’s office, he was desperate to stay in school.  

Lemon fully embraces restorative justice. “It makes no sense to suspend students,” she said. “Especially for African American males, it is often a straight path to jail.” Instead of kicking Rainey out, she let him stay.

 “A second chance,” Rainey said. Then he corrected himself: “One last chance.”  

Posted by: Sarah Karp