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Danielle Cadet/MEDILL

An Early Outreach Program parent hugs director Deborah Umrani after discussing her dismissal from the organization.     

Parents sad and angry over dismissal of director of college-prep program

by Danielle Cadet
Feb 23, 2011


Danielle Cadet/MEDILL

Umrani speaks with a parent.

After raising her two sons and spending 23 years as a Chicago police officer, Flora Suttle anxiously looked toward retirement. But at 48, Suttle adopted her granddaughter, and found herself experiencing parenthood all over again.

She credits one program, and one individual in particular for helping her cope with a growing teenage girl.

The program is the Early Outreach Program, and the individual is Deborah Umrani, the program director.

“What I found being a parent a second time around, especially with a teenager, is it’s not easy,” said Suttle. “But the model set here made all the difference.”

Now Umrani is being dismissed because of budget cuts. Parents say they are outraged at her dismissal.

Pearl Ing, who lives in the suburbs, a long drive away from the University of Illinois at Chicago campus where the program is held, said Umrani is the only person worth the long haul into the city every Saturday morning. Her daughter took college preparation classes in the program and her son currently takes the same classes.

“With her, everything is for the kids,” said Ing. “You don’t see much of that, I certainly didn’t see that where I live.”

At Saturday morning’s network meeting, parents hugged each other like brothers and sisters coming home to mourn the loss of their beloved mother.

“It pissed me off,” said Ing. “Without her these kids ain’t gonna have nothing, don’t they see that up there, whoever they are?”

“She gives her soul to the program,” said Nnamdi Agwuncha, another parent in the program. “If her soul is taken away from us, we don’t know where we will be. We are not sure there will ever be anybody else who will be so dedicated.”

Every parent agreed that as director, Umrani has gone above and beyond the call of duty.

“She’s more like a mother,” said Ron Martin, president of the parent network. “Even when parents have crises, they get on the telephone and they call her, and she is there like a rock for everybody in the program.”

The mission of UIC’s Early Outreach Program, a college preparatory project, is to recruit, retain, and graduate underrepresented minority students in the health professions, and to expand educational opportunities for them at the pre-college level and beyond. Early Outreach hosts Saturday college on the university’s campus, where students take classes to help prepare for the SATs and ACTs.

The program is attempting to cover a deficit of about $150,000, Umrani said. The budget problem is caused by state funding cuts that affect the university as a whole.

“We know that the economic landscape has changed, and we are concerned about how that will affect our children if [the university] decides to pull back our funding,” said Martin. “We are certainly trying to impress upon the university what a difference this program makes on our kids.”

Michael Toney, executive director of the Urban Health Program, which runs Early Outreach, declined to comment on Umrani’s dismissal or the specifics of the organization’s budget. He said he would rather focus on the positive aspects of the program.

“It’s one the best of it kind,” he said.

Umrani will leave the program in December, but hopes to complete fundraising before departing.

In the meantime, parents dread the idea of a replacement.

“When any family loses a member, it’s a process,” said Sutter. “I don’t even want to think about what this place will be like without her.”