Charters That Serve Our Most Vulnerable Youth

Charters That Serve Our Most Vulnerable Youth
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Photo courtesy Youth Connection Charter School

RCEd Commentary

As we learn more about Laquan McDonald’s short, difficult life, one small, but important piece of it has received less attention: his efforts to get an education.

After years of trouble in about half a dozen different Chicago Public Schools, he spent the last month of his life at Sullivan House, an alternative high school that is part of the Youth Connection Charter School network. Youth Connection Charter was created in 1997 to support a group of community-based alternative schools for returning high school dropouts.

Today, Youth Connection Charter schools like Sullivan House reach out to the city’s most vulnerable young people—those, like Laquan McDonald, who have left high school without a diploma. And they connect. One of his teachers told the Chicago Tribune that McDonald was so eager to come to school he arrived early most mornings, and routinely shared hugs and jokes with his teachers. That’s a far cry from McDonald’s previous high school experience, where he racked up 10 suspensions in one year.

When I taught in two alternative schools that are now part of Youth Connection, I met many young people who, like Laquan, showed a very different side of themselves in alternative school. I think of Maurice, a tough guy on the street but a funny, friendly face in class.

School was a place where Maurice could show his determination to better himself and be a good father to his new baby girl. That level of trust helped us help him in a time of crisis. When police allegedly planted cocaine on Maurice and tried to charge him with drug possession, our principal appeared as a character witness and the charges were dropped.

What made the difference for Maurice and his classmates was being in a different environment:  smaller classes, more personal atmosphere, far more tailored to students’ academic and social needs and interests. In alternative school, I mostly taught classes of 12 to 15 students. For remedial reading, I taught five students. In a day I saw fewer than 60 young people in all, far fewer than the 125 that a typical high school teacher would see teaching five classes with 25 students in each.

I also had the freedom to design curriculum related to student interests by developing units around big ideas like love, justice and loyalty. Even the most struggling readers had a say in what they read. Most of my reading students were from Southeast Asian refugee families. We took a week to read and discuss a complex New York Times Magazine article about Dith Pran, the subject of “The Killing Fields,” and his return to Cambodia after a decade in exile.

For years, alternative schools had labored to reach young people like Laquan McDonald with no help from the public K-12 system. But when Illinois passed a charter law in 1996 that allowed charters to subcontract with service providers, including community-based nonprofits, it opened up new resources for alternative education.

By rescuing young people who have left traditional high school, alternative charter schools can add new money and new graduates to the public K-12 system. Thanks to Youth Connection Charter, 20 alternative high schools are now serving up to 4,000 students in Chicago.

But the potential demand for good alternative schools still far outpaces supply. Although Chicago Public Schools has seen an increase in graduation rates, an estimated 15 percent of young adults in Chicago still lack a diploma-- or about 42,000 adults under the age of 24 according to 2010 Census data. Nationwide, nearly one million students drop out of high school every year.

While it is true that some charters fall short of their intended mission, alternative charters can bring disconnected students back into education and respond to an oft-repeated criticism of the charter school movement--that charters cater to the most motivated and highest achieving children and families. Here in Chicago and across the nation, school districts and community groups need to work together to create and fund more alternative charters that welcome and support young adults when traditional schools don’t work for them.

We need to find a way to reach those 1 million dropouts – young people like Laquan who desperately need a second chance and a supportive haven from a life on the streets.

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