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Give Alternative H.S. Students a '2nd Chance,' Official Begs Rogers Park

By Linze Rice | February 17, 2016 6:11am | Updated on February 17, 2016 5:22pm
 About one-third of Truman Middle College students already live in Rogers Park, according to school data.
About one-third of Truman Middle College students already live in Rogers Park, according to school data.
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Facebook/Truman Middle College High School

ROGERS PARK — An official with an alternative charter high school trying to find a new home on the Far North Side said if it seems like his school is moving quickly — that's because it's being forced by City Colleges to move after three decades of helping drop-outs get their diplomas.

Richard Reeder, a community liaison consultant with Truman Middle College in Uptown, said City Colleges officials in November told the alternative school — run by Youth Connection Charter Schools — it needs to leave the Truman College campus by the end of the school year. And if it can't find a suitable building, he fears students trying to turn their lives around will have one less option.

"If it seems like it's hurried, it is," Reeder said Tuesday. "It's rushed because if CPS doesn't approve it by March ... then these kids are not gonna have a place to go. And you're gonna have a denial of the basic civil right of education for these kids who've dropped out already, but were motivated to go back.

"So if it seems sort of abstract, it's because we're desperately trying to find a place for these kids to go."

Although nothing is final, the school has set its sights on the former St. Jerome's building in Rogers Park on the recommendation of Ald. Joe Moore (49th) and Chad Adams, principal at Sullivan High School.

Moore said Truman came to him looking for ideas when it found out it was losing its lease with City Colleges, and at Adams' urging, Moore suggested the St. Jerome's building.

Moore said before he signs off on the project he'd like to see Youth Connection Charter Schools sign a contingent lease with St. Jerome's, and then he'll hold a community meeting to get reaction, which is required for Truman's move to be approved by the Chicago Board of Education at its meeting March 23.

It's an idea he thinks is "worth exploring," Moore said, especially if it will help kids and young adults in his ward who want to better themselves.

"They're doing this voluntarily ... they want to improve their lives," Moore said. "So already you're dealing with kids who — they're not hanging out on the street looking for trouble."

Reeder helped launch the City Colleges of Chicago alternative school concept with former Mayor Harold Washington's administration back in the mid 1980s. The program's goal is to help students unable to finish high school to come back and earn their high school diplomas while also earning college credits and remain more or less in their neighborhoods.

The concept quickly gained funding and expanded, Reeder said, becoming a model "everyone looked to as a program to be emulated."

The alternative schools had partnered throughout the city with local nonprofits where its schools were housed, and in 1998 became chartered through Youth Connection Charter Schools. 

Working within the communities, the alternative schools provide a "second chance," a pathway for students to complete their diplomas, which would be credited back to the original high school they'd attended, Reeder said.

Many students who go to Truman Middle College have either had to leave high school to help support their families, had families themselves, or don't socially or academically fit in at traditional schools. The school provides a more flexible schedule, so students can take online courses and complete credits at a faster pace while they also work or tend to their personal obligations.

Sullivan's Adams got his start in the alternative school realm. When he first came to Sullivan, he used Truman as a tool to get some of his kids back on track — some of whom ended up returning and finishing their senior years at Sullivan.

"My fear is that, if that school doesn't find a location, where do the kids that do have these sort of unusual circumstances end up going?" Adams said. "I can understand that safety factor ... but I think that those kids deserve a second chance."

If not in Rogers Park, or nearby, students who go to Truman who might have gang affiliations would also be forced to cross into potentially dangerous territory if they had to travel to another alternative school, Adams said — as Truman is the only North Side Youth Connection Charter Schools campus.

Still, neighbors are concerned about the potential impact of moving the 250 students to a building directly across from New Field Elementary School. At a local school council meeting last week, council members said in general they were supportive of Truman Middle College, but said they did not want to see a school in the former St. Jerome's building and said they had safety concerns regarding the middle college's proximity to the elementary school.

Reeder said Youth Connection Charter Schools is willing to work with New Field on creating safety measures, including a staggered start time. All of its locations have security personnel and officials will meet with district police leaders "before day one," he said.

The issue of charter schools in Rogers Park has been hotly contested for the past several years.

New Field's local school council led the charge last year in a community-wide push against Noble Charter Schools moving to St. Jerome's.

But Adams said Truman's charter status is misleading — in fact, a third of Truman's students come from within the 60626 Rogers Park area code, according to Youth Connection Charter Schools data. The remainder of the students come from area codes that cover Albany Park, Lincoln Square, Ravenswood, West Ridge and North Park.

City Colleges in an emailed statement Wednesday said: “City Colleges is working with both YCCS and CPS to identify a suitable location for the Middle College, a process that began in June 2015. We are committed to ensuring a smooth transition for students with no disruption to learning."

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