Youths Testify for Alternative Schools

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“Without funding schools like Bronzeville that are central to the development of the city’s youth, we’ll fail. There won’t be a future without us,” said Keidra Williams, a junior at the Bronzeville Academic Center, to State of Illinois officials during a public hearing on January 9 at the Chicago Urban League.

Bronzeville junior high school student Keidra Williams, (right) talking to Illiniois legislators about the importance of funding alternative high schools for students who dropped out of public schools, during the public hearing on the national youth joblessness and high school drop out rate at the Chicago Urban League on January 9, 2009.
Photo by Mary C. Johns

Williams was one of several students to testify on national youth joblessness and the high school dropout crisis. A student at Bronzeville, an alternative high school at 220 W. 45th Place, Williams added that schools like hers “need more funding to promote achievement of its students.”

John Joyce, a teenage ex-offender, attending Ada S. McKinley High School, asked the panelists of Ilinois State legislators to provide summer jobs for youth who have felony records as a deterrent to crime for those who dropped out of high school and became idle, during the public hearing on the national youth joblessness and high school dropout rate at the Chicago Urban League on January 9, 2009.
Photo by Mary C. Johns

The hearing was jointly convened by the Chicago Urban League, the Illinois State Council and Alternative Schools Network to explore ways to stem the two ongoing problems which are afflicting Chicago and other cities. The hearing also was designed to encourage elected officials in attendance to support meaningful and sustainable solutions for the youth joblessness and dropout crises.

At the meeting, the group of community, civic and educational leaders talked about how the high school drop-out rate added to the youth homeless population and how half of the homeless youth had been turned away from jobs and educational services. They talked about the importance of special education programs and alterative high schools, and how more money was needed to fund them. There was also a call for tax reform and potential solutions to the two issues.

In Illinois, 1 in 4 high school students do not graduate in 4 years. Since 2005, there was an annual service and funding gap for out-of-school students: Just $0.59 was spent on re-enrollment for 101,835 young people who dropped out for every $100 spent on 640,597 enrolled high school students, according to the Illinois Task Force’s September 2008 Final Report, “Re-enrolling Students Who Dropped out of School.”

The report also noted that dropout students and the State of Illinois would benefit more by re-enrolling them so they can earn a high school diploma since it costs Illinois $470 million each year for the 101,835 students who dropped out of high school.

A re-enrolled graduate would see an increased lifetime earnings of $355,000, and their re-enrollment would save taxpayers $221,000 annually.

“The youth jobless crisis is worse now than ever before. An analysis of 1.7 million jobs, civilian jobs lost between October 2007 and November 2008, shows young workers to be the hardest hit by America’s economic meltdown,” according to data provided at the hearing by the Center of Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston, Mass.

The Center also found that of the approximately 700,000 youths aged 16 to 19 who lost their jobs between October 2007 and November 2008, 10 percent fewer of them were employed in November 2008 versus October 2007. In all, young workers under the age of 30 lost more than 1.2 million jobs, “a staggering 70 percent of the job reductions since October 2007,” according to the Center.

More Student Testimony
Williams was just one of the many young people who addressed their concerns to the several elected officials who attended the event, including State Sen. Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago); Aldermen Walter Burnett (27), Ray Suarez (31), and Toni Preckwinkle (4); Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown; Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and former Alderman Barbara Holt.

Students mainly from alternative high schools provided personal testimonies about their experiences dropping out of high school and the effects on their families. Some of the youths shared stories about how they turned to crime because they couldn’t find legal employment. Many of the youths talked about the importance of alternative schools and urged the nation’s leaders to provide more financial assistance to educational institutions.

Aaron Therman, who recently began attending the Sullivan House Alternative High School, said most alternative school students are like him. He dropped out of the “unproductive” and “uncaring” Chicago public school system.

“Most of us couldn’t help who we were because we were a product of our environment in CPS high schools,” Therman said.

Therman added that using the free, alternative route to continue his education should show the public at large that he and other high school dropouts were willing to learn.

“So now we aren’t afraid of failing or falling because what truly matters is not that you fall. It’s how long you stay down. And by us being here today, it just shows that we are fighters.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way. And with the right motivation and time, together we can defy all odds,” he said.

Gerayle Young, a student at the Charleston Huston Alternative High School, located at 9035 S. Langley in the South Side Chatham neighborhood, said he grew up in a “rough” West Side neighborhood.

At 13 years, shortly after his mother died, Young dropped out of high school. He talked about how excited he was to attend his free alternative high school, which he hoped would lead him to attend Chicago State University and study computer technology.

“When this year started, I thought I was the man and I was on the verge of dropping out. For three weeks, I didn’t come to school, and within those three weeks, the dean of my school was at my door at least twice a week talking about, ‘Gerayle, what are you doing? Why you ain’t been to school?’ At Charles Huston, they push you to strive to be the best that you can be. At our school, one thing that I like is, in order for us to graduate, we need 20 credits, 40 service learning hours and we need six college acceptance letters to get out of Charleston Huston. Three from inner state and three from out of state. And it’s not just us that’s got to get it. They’re actually helping us with everything that we need.”

Another youth sang about the importance of having an education and a job. “Alternative schools we need,” he sang. “To give knowledge for a degree. And if I can get a job while I’m in school, I can live a better life and I can make it through.”

Chicago’s dropout crisis is particularly severe, according to the “Taking Youth Off The Streets” information sheet provided by the Chicago Urban League. Currently more than 220,000 youth have dropped out of school in Illinois, with almost half of that number in the Chicago area. The drop-out rate and youth joblessness “may have led to the waves of youth violence that swept Chicago and other US cities throughout 2008,” according to the information sheet. The growing numbers “may be the reason for Chicago’s summer 2008 wave of youth-on-youth violence as un-engaged teens turned to illicit activities.”

There were 479 murders from January through November 2008, up 16.8 percent from that same period in 2007. The majority of the murders were gang related. Thirty-two of the murdered victims were between the age of 10 and 16; 196 were between the ages of 17 and 25; and 238 were 26 years old and older. 345 of the victims had prior criminal records, and 179 of the 187 offenders charged with the murders had prior criminal records. The majority of the murders took place in the South Chicago, Englewood and West Garfield, predominantly low-income African American and Hispanic communities in the 4th , 7th, and 11th Police Districts, according to Chicago Police Department Crime Summary statistics released in December 2008.

In his testimony, Tony Munos, a teenager from El Cuarto Ano Alternative High School, 1116 N. Kedzie Ave., and other youths agreed with the notion that the lack of jobs for youths and the dropout rate contributed to the city’s increased violence.

“I dropped out for about two years. My mom had kicked me out the house. I didn’t know what to do with my life. My brothers look at me like I’m nobody right now. I just wanted to show them that I could be somebody because my mom told them the negative part of life about me.

“In the streets, I couldn’t find a job so I was on the streets and on drugs and everything. And going to jail is not the life I want to live no more. But if you guys can help us find jobs and everything, I will be thankful and grateful to everybody. We do need help you know,” Munos said.

John Joyce, a teenage ex-offender, told the panelists that he was grateful to God to have survived 2008 due to the lifestyle in which he engaged as a dropout before re-enrolling in Ada S. McKinley High School. Joyce wanted to know from the legislators how many summer jobs would be available to the youths who have felony records. He maintained that jobs would deter youths with records from continuing their life of crime.

“All I came to say is that we need help,” Joyce somberly said.

Possible Solutions to the National Problem
The advocates at the event presented a number of potential solutions for public, private and government sectors to attack the two crises facing our nation’s youths.

The advocates urged the creation of year-round jobs programs along with more summer youth programs for low-income kids 16 to 21; and provide more transitional jobs for the homeless and other ex-offenders to help them develop employment experience. The advocates said education and job training must be linked.

Also, congressional leaders need to “earmark monies from the expected 2009 federal economic-stimulus package to address both issues,” including the creation of federal matching-grant programs to help implement re-enrollment and youth-employment programs across the country.

LaShaun Jackson, principal and director at Bronzeville Alternative School, told the legislators that despite presidential administrations’ “lofty things” like “It takes a Village” and “No Child Left Behind” policies, “the village is still struggling and we still see our kids left behind.” Jackson said he had high hopes for President-elect Barack Obama’s administration.

“I’m hoping that this Barack Obama spark helps the politicians see that this is very necessary and that we cannot blame the students for what they do. They’re kids. They’re students….I look at the adults. And so I’m looking at you guys because you’re the adults with the power. So, you need to do something about it,” said Jackson.

David Thigpen, Chicago Urban League vice president for policy and research, said at the conclusion of the event that the group needed to “take this knowledge, spread it around, and realize that the change we want to make is here in the room.

“So we need to go out and advocate both to our legislators, many of whom are here today. Write letters to the editor and do what we can to keep these issues in the news,” he said.

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