Saturday, July 24, 2010

Students draft a lesson plan of their own

Youth Empowerment Project members go to D.C. to present ideas for keeping kids in school
July 23, 2010|By Elizabeth Flock, Special to the Tribune

Read it at the Chicago Tribune
Amara Brady's academic life changed when she transferred to Mother McAuley High School on the Southwest Side last year. She got better books, more passionate teachers and access to postsecondary education information she'd never had. 

"The schools aren't on a level playing field. And some systems are just set up for failure," said Brady, 16, who lives in the North Lawndale neighborhood, where many teens are faced with drugs, violence and a rising dropout rate.
Deciding she wanted to do something about it, Brady joined World Vision's Youth Empowerment Project (YEP), which gives young people a voice to become what they call "agents of change." World Vision is a Christian organization dedicated to fighting poverty.
Brady is one of 13 Chicago-area students who decided they wanted to do something about it. Each year, YEP students from across the country choose an issue that is most on their minds, then come up with a proposal on how to implement change and present it to their local leaders.
After five months of community mapping, interviews, surveys and debate, the Chicago-area students from both public and private schools had a clear choice for this year's issue: education. They wanted to find a way to keep kids in school.

The students presented their proposal to local representatives in Washington this week.

In recent years, violence has been a focus for the project and is still a top issue. But students said they realized that violence by and against youth is an underlying reason why many students drop out.
"I have friends and family members affected by (violence)," said JaVĂ©e Howard, 18, who attends Morgan Park High School. "But we found another way to attack at youth violence without actually having to talk about it."
A recent study from the U.S. Department of Education shows that less than 75 percent of students nationwide got high school diplomas within four years.
"The dropout rate is about violence, but it's also people, the teachers, the schools and the neighborhoods," said Howard.
The students' proposal, which they presented to community leaders in Chicago last week, had four key recommendations:
The first is to level the playing field for all schools in Chicago by updating the facilities and materials. Howard said one of his friends is still using Windows 98 and a Math Busters program from the 1980s at school.
The students also proposed that schools increase social support by asking for more parental involvement and adding extracurriculars.
Carol Beal, chairman of the Block Club Association, who was present at the students' presentation last week, understood.
"If you have nothing to do, you find something ignorant to do," Beal said. "If you don't want it to lead to trouble, it still might. They need resources and activities to occupy their time."
Feedback from students in the form of quarterly and annual surveys was another suggestion. Both could help identify problems such as inedible food and inadequate teachers, students said.
Access to information on post-secondary education, which Brady found at Mother McAuley, is the final point. The teens want counselors who can provide students information on everything from the PSAT to how to fill out a job application.
Lack of funding and budget cutbacks are an issue, say some school officials.
"We had to reduce one of our major programs 'Graduation Pathways,' which monitors and guides students to graduate," said Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman Monique Bond. "If we had additional funding, it could help the deficits we're faced with."
Better funding is part of the students' requests to Washington officials this week. They are also lobbying for the Youth PROMISE Act, legislation that advocates for more resources for preventive programs in education. The bill has 234 co-sponsors in the House.
The Rev. Joe Huizenga, of Roseland Christian Ministries, said hearing the students tell their own stories had a huge impact.
"The kids talked about friends who got into gangs, dropped out of school and missed the window. They all wanted to change this. They told us just how much they believed in it. It was pretty remarkable," he said.
In Washington, the students were scheduled to meet with Sen. Roland Burris, Rep. Bobby Rush and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. Before they left, they pitched the proposal to Sen. Dick Durbin's office, where spokeswoman Christina Mulka said it was "well-informed and well-received."
Howard was confident their proposal will work in Washington because the ideas "came from the heart."
Brady, who hopes to attend Howard University after graduation, agrees.
"We often feel as a teenager no one will listen to us. But we want to make a difference," she said. "That's why this program is one of the most perfect opportunities. And if we don't make a change, well, who else is going to do it?"

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