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Marissa Mitchell/ MEDILL

The Exelon-United Way “Stay in School” initiative provides life skills and tutoring programs to Chicago Public Schools students. This program, among others in the city, show staying power in low-income neighborhoods.

Chicago after-school programs show staying power

by Marissa Mitchell
Dec 08, 2009


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Students work on homework assignments during an after-school session at the Better Boys Foundation in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood. 

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Marissa Mitchell/ MEDILL

Licensed teachers give students homework help and extra assignments at the Better Boys Foundation. Students ride buses to the center after school.


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A comparison on graduation rates for 2008. (Click to enlarge)

Marissa Mitchell/ MEDILL

Harold Davis of Chicago's Amer-I-Can organization says troubled youth find hope and financial benefits with his school construction training program.

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Better Boys Foundation Stay in School Initiative

One way to reach at-risk youth is through jobs

Harold Davis teaches at-risk youth about finances and responsibility with his construction training program.

He's the Chicago founder of the Los Angeles-based community organization Amer-I-Can. For four years, he has provided construction training jobs for Chicago public high school students through a contract with the Chicago Board of Education.

"It's like a jungle where the strong prey on the weak. That's how it is out here," said Davis, adding that some of his students have children themselves or have been abused by family members. 

To date more than 70 CPS schools have been remodeled by Amer-I-Can. Students are paid $10 an hour doing jobs like repairing seats and floors in school auditoriums. Davis said he makes sure all the students maintain good grades and keep a bank account.            

"In any situation that you're dealing with in life, eliminate the negatives, choose the best option and move forward," he said. "I try to change how they think.

"You don't need $150 for gym shoes. The same rubber that's in Payless is in the Nike. Stop thinking about the image." 

Tanisha Tolbert never believed she would go from living in Chicago’s low-income Bronzeville neighborhood to shadowing employees at one of the nation’s largest corporations.

But at age 19, the South Side resident can say she did it thanks to the Exelon Corporation's and United Way’s “Stay in School Initiative." Last year she took part in the after-school program, which yielded a paid summer internship in the energy company’s treasury department. Now she spends her Saturdays mentoring current participants.

“Just growing up on the South Side of Chicago, there’s really not too many things you can do,” Tolbert said. “People have you as a stereotype. And I didn’t want to be that person, so I stood out. They saw something in me that I didn’t know I had until I came to this program.”

For six years, the “Stay in School Initiative" has provided life skills and tutoring programs for more than 7,500 Chicago Public Schools grammar and high school students. The initiative provides a monthly workshop at Exelon headquarters in downtown Chicago, and finances programs through long-standing community partners Youth Guidance, Centers for New Horizons and BUILD (Broader Urban Involvement and Leadership Development). So far Exelon has contributed more than $1.7 million to programs that serve students in the Bronzeville, Austin and Humboldt Park neighborhoods.

“Stay in School” has a reputable track record with its students amid the threat of violence and poverty in the communities its partner organizations serve. And “Stay in School” is not alone in its success. The Better Boys Foundation in the West Side's North Lawndale neighborhood has been serving children and families for nearly 50 years. Though the programs are different in scope, they share a common trait: staying power.

Sheree Blakemore, program manager at Youth Guidance, said the key to a successful after-school program is improving a student's home life and financial situation.

“Exelon has been a great component of exposing [students] and also providing them with the skills that they need to find a job and to know what employers are looking for,” she said. Eight Youth Guidance students in the “Stay in School” initiative received Exelon internships last summer.

The Youth Guidance social service agency has been around for more than 80 years. They provide in-school and after-school counseling, mentorship and tutoring for at-risk students in the Chicago area. But even during strained economic conditions, Youth Guidance has been able to expand its services with Exelon’s financial boost.

The community partners and students involved have seen the difference that job readiness and finances make. “Stay in School” officials tracked the graduation rates of their students in 2008, finding that 316, or 96 percent, of their most active students graduated from high school. The graduation rate for all Chicago public high schools was 54.3 percent. 

“These report card results indicate that we continue to make an impact in addressing the problem of student dropout rates in these communities,” said Steve Solomon, Exelon director of corporate relations. “We look forward to constantly evolving this partnership and keeping it fresh so that we are delivering the services that are most needed to support the academic success of the students.”

And delivering services that extend beyond the classroom is what makes some programs survive. That’s why supporting organizations like the Better Boys Foundation is important, said Mary Visconti, BBF director of agency advancement. Unlike Youth Guidance that can offer more services with the help of Exelon, BBF is trying to do more with less this year.

“For some people, it’s ‘I can’t go on as big of a vacation this year,’ or ‘I can’t give $500. I can only give $250 to this charity,’” Visconti said. “But for our kids and our families, it means can they keep their lights on? Can they pay their rent? Can they buy new shoes for school?”

BBF offers everything from after-school programs and child and family welfare services to tutoring and job apprenticeship programs, but they’ve endured cuts in funding. Visconti said an Illinois Department of Human Services grant that partially paid for their after-school program was cut by 20 percent to $73,020. The center’s overall federal, state and private donor funds have also dipped this year. But BBF will unveil a new marketing plan in January in hopes of increasing donations.

Visconti hopes the U.S. Department of Education doesn’t overlook her organization when mapping out funds for anti-violence programs in the city. After Fenger High School student Derrion Albert was killed last fall, federal officials proposed giving nearly $25 million to violence prevention programs.

“There’s a lot of talk about pumping more money into youth," she said. "I haven’t seen that money. Where is it? Give it to us.”

Ninety-six percent of students who receive BBF college scholarships graduate from college within five years of completing high school, Visconti said. She’s in talks with experts at the Center for Urban Research and Learning at Loyola University Chicago to come up with a method to track other BBF students' academic progress. 

Sixteen-year-old Gabrielle Ivy said she’s seen her grades—and home life—improve since coming to BBF three years ago. 

“They push us forward instead of holding us back,” she said. “They help us with our problems here. They care. They ask us how our day is going.”

Before coming to BBF, Ivy said, she had a tumultuous relationship with her mother. Now they can work out their problems with the help of counseling at the center. And she gets B's at Little Village Lawndale High School instead of C's and bad behavior reports.

Visconti said that when she sees improvement in students like Ivy, her job is worth every bit of its hurdles. 

“For us, it’s a motivator to work harder to do what we’re doing. We have to feel motivated and not feel sorry. Our kids are not basket cases or charity cases,” she said. "They’re kids with a lot of potential, and that’s how we try to approach it. Being realistic about the challenges, but always staying positive and staying focused on what can be done instead of what can’t.”

And with programs like the Better Boys Foundation and partnerships like Exelon-United Way “Stay in School Initiative," students like Ivy and Tolbert can know success doesn’t have to be tied to the illegal activity they often see on the streets.

Tolbert plans to attend Chicago State University in January to study sociology and criminal justice. And Ivy said a college degree isn’t far off her radar.

“Some people come from slums and come from trials and tribulations and poverty but you don’t have to live it,” Tolbert said. “You can come from it, but you don’t have to live it at all.”