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Upton Sinclair Alternative High School Art teacher Alicia Herrera, 32, says smaller classes allow her to build close relationships with students, which she says contribute to the school’s high retention rate. “It’s pretty small and intimate and it really gives us a chance to consider the students as a whole,” she says.

In Back of the Yards, an alternative high school flourishes

by Adam Wren
Oct 22, 2009


 Adam Wren/MEDILL

Sinclair Alternative High School Steve Hermann, 39, says he tries to make his teaching relevant to his students, many of whom face violence on a daily basis.



Students descend the steps at Sinclair at the end of the school day. The school days starts later, at 9:55 a.m., and runs to 4:15 p.m. to give students more time to get to school, which teachers say improves attendance.

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Steve Hermann reads Robert Graves' World War I era poem "When I'm Killed," to his third period social studies class at Upton Sinclair Alternative High School.

When I’m killed and dead, don’t mourn for me.

“What are you supposed to do after he’s killed?” The teacher, Steve Hermann, asks his students as they focus their eyes at the black words of the poem projected on the wall at the front of the classroom.

The question hangs in the air.

“Don’t mourn for me, don’t just be sad that I’m dead, but tell my story so people can understand what’s going on and stop this crazy war,” Hermann, 39, breaks the silence to answer his own question, “and if we can stop this war, we can save your friends from the grave.”

It’s third period in Hermann’s social studies class at the Upton Sinclair High School campus of the Peace and Education Coalition Alternative High School at 4946 S. Paulina St., one of the city’s four non-charter alternative high schools.

Hermann’s question was about the meaning of Robert Graves’ World War I era poem “When I’m Killed,” but for the students, the question could have just as easily been about the death of one of their fellow Chicago Public School students claimed by a different war – a tide of youth violence across the city that seems to be rising.

“It’s all around us here,” says Alexandria Davila, 18, Gage Park, as she eats lunch with her friends in the school’s cafeteria, where the walls are decorated with graffiti imparting positive messages to students.

In the wake of the brutal beating death of 16-year-old Derrion Albert last month, some are pointing to schools like Sinclair, with its innovative approach to educating former dropouts, as a model for future public schools proponents say could also play a role in combating youth violence.

Hermann has taught at the school – formerly known as Dugan Alternative High School – since it first began in the Back of the Yards in 1998. He says he tries to make his lessons relevant to students’ personal experiences.

“Everybody in here knows people who have been violently killed,” Hermann says of his students. “They may not have been best friends with them, but they know them. They hear gunshots. It’s a place where death impacts them. You sort of have to know how some of this comes across while you’re teaching it.”

For his students, he says, violence is an everyday reality.

“Some of our students dropped out of schools because they didn’t feel safe in those schools or walking through the neighborhood in the first place,” Hermann says. “Those kinds of issues are on our mind.”

Teachers and students say innovative lesson plans such as Herman’s – smaller classes, shorter grading periods, a later start to the school day, daycare for pregnant mothers, summer jobs, conflict resolution –are keeping young adults in school who would otherwise be exposed to violence in their homes or on the streets.

“One of the reasons violence happens with young people is they don’t feel like they have a lot of alternatives,” Hermann says. “What we try to do here is provide that kind of alternative, that kind of opportunity to say, ‘look where education can take you.’”

Shades of gray

Sinclair students wear black, white and gray clothes – their neutral uniform in a neighborhood occupied by rival gangs with rival colors – and their lives are lived mostly in shades of gray.

About half the students in the school, Principal Brigitte Swenson estimates, are distantly affiliated with a gang, neither an insider nor insulated from a gang’s influence. Many of the students are older than the traditional high-school student, some as old as 21. Many are also first-generation Americans, with immigrant parents who aren’t familiar with the American education system.

The Rev. Bruce Wellems, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, says the school is helping the surrounding community by targeting at-risk students.

“Sometimes it’s that aggressiveness and low self-esteem that leads to the violence that gets them dropped out in the first place,” says Wellems, who worked with city officials to start the school and spearheads the Peace and Education Coalition – a group of local business, community and school leaders – which functions as the alternative school’s local school council, he said.

‘Never all the way satisfied’

Is the approach working?

Davila, the 18-year-old Sinclair student, thinks so.

“They pay more attention to you,” Davila says of her teachers. “They help you if you have a difficulty.”

And as other schools are seeing cuts, Sinclair is seeing a flood of grant money and new teachers, security and support staff positions being added to the school, Swenson says.

“What we’ve found over the last couple of months is that we received these because we are being looked at as a model for other schools to be opening in the city,” Swenson says. “We’re considered highly successful.”

Swenson says she expects about 70 students – 10 more than last quarter and the largest enrollment in the school’s history –to pour in the school to start second quarter when it begins Monday. Swenson says many of the students come to the school through word of mouth recommendations and referrals.

Hermann says he attributes Sinclair’s success in part to the school’s approach to discipline. He said teachers focus on employing conflict resolution models rather than expulsion and suspension, which he said risk sagging retention rates.

“That hard-line approach is one of the reasons some of the students end up without a school to go to,” he said. “Retention has been a big part of our program.”

Another key, Hermann says, are shorter grading periods – 10 weeks instead of 20 – that give students shorter-term incentives to achieve long-term goals.

“For some students, they have disruptions in their lives where they do take a quarter off,” Hermann says. “In ordinary circumstances that would lead to failure. Here, they get a credit and then they can come back and they sort of see those results every 10 weeks.”

Last year, Hermann estimates about 50 percent of the graduating class went on to enroll in community colleges. But he appears to temper his optimism when asked about obstacles he faces as a teacher at Sinclair.

“You’re never all the way satisfied” as a teacher when students drop out, Herman says. “We wish that more students would go to community colleges or four-year schools, but for a lot of people here, they end up being the first in their families to graduate from high school. A lot of kids don’t see payoff in the system, because they come from families that haven’t benefitted from the system.”

Meggen Saka, 27, who is entering her fifth year teaching at the school, says despite daily obstacles and frustrations, it’s worth it.

“For me, it’s giving people a second chance that they deserve,” Saka says. “You can’t take away how rewarding it is to make it through the end of the day and see certain students make a change.”

For his part, Hermann says he thinks the approach the school is taking to educating dropouts could – and should – be replicated across the city.

“We need people and places and organizations that show kids that we care about them,” Hermann says, “that they aren’t just tools to be manipulated to achieve some sort of social goal, but that they’re people that matter.”