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Grassroots success at Dyett High

[UPDATED] As CPS struggles with low graduation rates, a program at Dyett High School guided by the Grand Boulevard Federation — and led by students — has succeeded in doubling the school’s graduation rate, and raising the college attendance rate by 41 percent.

GBF’s “Education To Success” program, aimed at increasing graduation rates for African-American males, will be featured at a Chicago Urban League forum (Tuesday, December 2, 6 p.m., 4510 S. Michigan) as part of the League’s campaign for high school equity.

It was student ownership of efforts to address discipline issues and promote college preparation that helped make the difference, said Andrea Lee of GBF.

A peer jury program based on principles of restorative justice — with the goal of preventing students from dropping out due to discipline problems — grew out of discussions led by students. And instead of having a few school staff members trained in the process, thirty Dyett students — including kids with histories of disciplinary problems — underwent three days of intensive training.

The students got to name their organization — Justice Youth Advisors, or J-YA — and they got a Peace Room which they decorated and furnished as a venue for peer juries and a place where kids can go if they need to cool down.

J-YA almost doubled in size as students who were referred to the peer jury asked to become involved, Lee said. And the numbers were dramatic — a 46 percent decrease in misconduct reports and an 82 percent decrease in in-school arrests.

“Dyett became the poster school for peer juries,” Lee said — and Dyett students were asked to conduct trainings at other Chicago high schools; the Milwaukee schools paid for a group of Dyett students to go there to train educators and students.

The opportunity to really develop public speaking and leadership skills was key to inspiring students to raise their aspirations, Lee believes. Efforts to develop those kinds of skills “are mostly missing in neighborhood schools,” she said.

Now GBF is helping to establish a student group to promote the importance of college — again, not aiming at the school’s top students. The group Men At Work (which has come to include young women too) meets in a new college and career lab and has attracted widespread involvement from other students.

While CPS has the goal of each high school student applying to five colleges, GBF found many points beyond submitting an application where the process breaks down. “We found out a lot of kids don’t know how to do the research to determine if a school is a good fit,” Lee said. “We found a number of students who were accepted but couldn’t afford to attend” and “didn’t know what to do to get financial aid.”

So the group goes step by step through the entire process — what is an appropriate college; what questions to ask on a college tour; role playing interviews; how to get a letter of recommendation — and what to do when you get an acceptance letter.

One issue that has emerged was the reluctance of many low-income parents to send financial information necessary for aid applications. So GBF and its Peer Parent Education Network are working with parents to allay concerns.

One result is that Tuskegee University is reserving a dozen seats for qualified graduates of Dyett — and is paying to fly a group of Dyett students to visit the school in January.

Students who need community college to get their grade point average up develop a plan to continue to a four-year school. Students who may find themselves for the first time among very few African-Americans are prepared for what to expect. Families where no one has been to college are prepped to support a child who calls home depressed or homesick. Plans include finding a mentor at college and having a college-educated mentor back home.

“The culture has shifted” at Dyett, said Lee, citing the strong support of principal Jacquelyn Lemon, along with the focus of program coordinator Cornelius Ellen on building trust and relationships with youth, and the help of CPS and several community partners.

Lemon and Ellen will join three Dyett students, including a special education student who is going on to college, at the Chicago Urban League forum, speaking about barriers to graduation and college for African American males — and how they can be overcome.

“There’s a horrific graduation problem in Chicago,” said Leslie Drish of the Chicago Urban League. “We wanted to look at one grassroots organization that’s had remarkable success with graduation rates in their school and talk about how to replicate their efforts.” Another forum on the subject is planned for January 13.

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Category: Bronzeville, CPS, education

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