On a hot, muggy afternoon in early September, five adults are standing in the blacktopped backyard of a church in Back of the Yards, discussing a challenging student at the new Irene Dugan Institute, a satellite of Richards Vocational High School. The conversation lasts fully 20 minutes.

“I know he has a problem with me, but I think it’s him,” asserts Michael Caudill, head teacher and math instructor. “I’m not doing worksheets, the class is a blast, and I still can’t get him to cooperate.”

“We have ways of making people cooperate,” jokes Rosendo Suarez del Real, the student’s probation officer.

Oscar Contreras, a community activist who flew out from Los Angeles to help start the satellite school, gives a knowing smile. As part of his hometown job at Soledad Enrichment Action Charter Schools, he works with many youth offenders and probation officers.

“He’s been coming,” Caudill acknowledges, “but he’s being a pain in the ass.” The student shows up for class but doesn’t stay; Caudill speculates that no matter what the school does, the student will soon be gone.

Father Bruce Wellems, associate pastor at Holy Cross/Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, suggests the picture isn’t that simple. “He’s having terrific struggles because he wants to be on the street between 3 and 9,” he says, referring to the satellite’s class hours. Wellems seems prepared to hang in with the young man; they’ve already had one 40-minute conversation about staying in school.

Sergio Grajeda, a counselor with the Scholarship and Guidance Association, a non-profit counseling agency that serves many CPS students, reminds everyone, “At least he’s here. I wouldn’t give up on him.”

In a number of ways, this conversation—extraordinary for the time and people involved—is symbolic of the new school itself. The school’s namesake was a Religious of the Cenacle nun who wouldn’t give up on troubled young men, either. “In the fall of 1996, she was telling the guys, ‘You need to read. You need to take responsibility for your life,'” recalls Wellems.

From that time until her death in July 1997, Dugan offered young men from the neighborhood a positive social alternative to the streets. She invited them to monthly pizza dinners. Eventually, her exhortations about education began to pay off. By February of 1997, she was telling Wellems, “Bruce, you better get these guys a reading course.”

When Dugan died, Wellems kept the ball rolling, shifting to weekly meetings with the young men and contacting high school principals to see if they would accept any of them. Although Wellems visited Tilden, the neighborhood high school, he says only, “Dr. [Essie] Lucas, she’s in a pressure cooker.” Between 1996 and 1997, Tilden’s annual dropout rate nearly tripled, soaring from 12 percent to 34 percent. Lucas is the principal.

“I went to Curie, and they told me, ‘Oh, no, they’re out of district,'” he says. Most Chicago high schools are reluctant to admit returning dropouts from outside their attendance area.

Kennedy High accepted one of four students Wellems recommended. Richards High also expressed willingness to admit students, but the pastor’s efforts to arrange safe transportation across gang boundaries fell through.

In November 1997, Wellems approached Latino Youth, a private alternative school for dropouts that subcontracts with the Youth Connection Charter School. They discussed the idea of starting a charter site in the area, but that fell through, too.

Then, in February 1998, a neighborhood tragedy reignited his efforts. A 12 year-old Seward Elementary School student, said to be trying to impress a gang, allegedly shot and killed two teenage boys in Back of the Yards. When Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas visited the school after the shooting, Wellems approached him with the idea for an alternative school.

“His first question was, ‘Do you have the space?'” says Wellems. Seward already was using his church’s old school building as an annex. The priest, a community representative on the Seward Local School Council, proposed holding classes for the teens there in the late afternoon and evening. The next day, Vallas announced the plan publicly.

“There is a direct correlation between high rates of dropouts and street gangs,” schools CEO Paul Vallas told the Chicago Sun-Times. “And we have zero tolerance in the schools, we need the schools to be safe. So, we are kicking kids out. … But you need to provide these young people with an avenue to get back on track.”

Wellems knew he still had his work cut out for him, but he was confident. “I’m a master of marketing,” he smiles, “and we built it up so big he couldn’t back down, I think.”

In March, Sandra Traback and Marcey Reyes, principals of Chavez and Seward elementary schools agreed to help write a proposal for the school. Wellems also brought in Ernesto Terrello, assistant principal at Richards High, who helped with the satellite arrangement that gets Dugan students credit and, ultimately, a Richards diploma.

Gang ways

Wellems also contacted a fellow Claretian Missioner, Brother Modesto Leon, for advice on creating a school. Leon directs the Soledad Enrichment Action Charter Schools in Los Angeles. He visited Chicago for a week at the end of March and met with Reyes, Traback, Wellems and others.

The Los Angeles school’s experience with the justice system helped Wellems make connections he might otherwise have missed. Initially he was “afraid of the court system and the police,” but he came to appreciate the efforts many youth probation officers make on behalf of their charges.

Meanwhile, Wellems began searching for a faculty. His first choice as head teacher declined but referred him to Caudill, a friend who had taught math at Richards for six years. Caudill began attending Wellems’s weekly meetings with the neighborhood youth.

Caudill turned to the school system’s new teacher recruitment Web site to find the two other teachers who would make up the school’s founding faculty. His choices: Bridget Swenson, an English teacher who was working at an alternative school in Omaha, and Steve Hermann, a social studies teacher who taught special education students at an alternative school in Park Forest.

In August, Leon sent Contreras, a former gang member turned community activist, to Chicago. He trained security staff and helped develop outreach to parents—an intensive parenting class with a special emphasis on gang issues is scheduled to begin in October. Now, when any of the school’s 38 students fails to show up, Contreras goes to their homes to find out why. At press time, the school hadn’t figured out who would take on that job when Contreras returns to Los Angeles.

Dugan is enjoying the fruits of a system insider. In English classes, students read from brand-new literature textbooks; in math, they use programmable TI-83 calculators.

Conversely, Caudill is enjoying the fruits of a small, community-based program. “At Richards, I had a very narrow focus. That was math and the teaching of math,” he says. “I’d connect to a student here or there, get their story, but not often. But now it’s like I have 30 lives. I’m sure I’ve heard all their stories.”

Caudill says the personal connection has opened his eyes to his new students’ academic potential. “I’ve been really impressed with how bright they are,” he says. “All my algebra kids, I’m going to enroll in honors algebra.”

He also keeps his eyes open for opportunities for his students. With classes held from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., they can work during the day, and he’s beating the bushes to line up jobs. “Every time I go to the store and make a big purchase, I tell them about our kids.”

David Hernandez, 19, also appreciates Dugan’s small size and community connections. “Everybody’s from the neighborhood. That’s what makes this place good. We feel more comfortable because we all know each other.”

Hernandez, a regular at the weekly meetings with Wellems, dropped out of Tilden High School two years ago because of gang conflicts. “My mom told me to drop out,” he says. “She said she’d rather have me alive than dead with a diploma.”

As at other alternative schools, Dugan students who are involved with gangs must “leave it at the door.” For example, they must wear the school “uniform,” white shirt and black pants. Teachers do, too.

Patricia Zambrano, 20, left Tilden last school year. She was one credit short of the 20 she needed to graduate in June. A friend told her about Dugan, and she transferred because “it’s closer to my house.”

“All the teachers, they’re real nice,” she says. “You get to know everybody.” Although she finds the coursework similar to that at Tilden, she believes the teachers are better.

When Zambrano tells a reporter she’s thinking of applying to Daley College, Maria Balthasar, the school clerk, jumps into the conversation: “You need somebody to help you with that now. Start with Michael [Caudill]. I’m searching for my son. You start right now.” Soft-spoken Zambrano responds with a smile.

Before Balthasar came to Dugan, she worked security at Chavez. When she learned about the new school, she thought to herself, “This is what you prayed for, now go for it.”

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