Nearly 70 years after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of desegregating public schools, Chicago’s school system remains largely segregated. Low rates of enrollment and poor test scores on the Illinois Scholastic Assessment test scores have contributed to funding cuts and school closures—issues that disproportionately impact school districts located in Chicago’s South and West sides.
“Chicago has a reputation as one of the most segregated cities in the country—and when we think about the communities that fare the worst, it has historically been Black communities and Black students,” said Dr. Gunn, the CEO of LINK Unlimited Scholars, a nonprofit that provides fellowships and mentorships for Black students in Chicago.
While recent reports from a University of Chicago study on educational attainment rates suggest an overall rise in enrollment and completion of higher education programs from former Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students, the same study also concluded that these rates are significantly lower for Black students who graduate from CPS schools.
The study generated a “Post-secondary Attainment Index” (PAI) by aggregating data on students’ admission and graduation rates from two and four year educational programs following high school. The 2022 index scores for Black women and men were 23.3% and 13.6%, respectively—compared with 64.5% and 50.4% for their white counterparts.
“When you look at data around educational success—high school and college graduation rates—Black students are all the way at the bottom when you compare them against their peers,” said Dr. Gunn.
A Metro Planning study found that segregation has prevented 83,000 people in the Chicago area from earning a bachelor’s degree—a degree that boosts lifetime earnings by an average of $1.07 million. A recent addition to an ongoing study by the National Bureau of Economic Research revealed that having a college degree is a significant predictor for physical health and a factor in determining life expectancy. The same study calculated Chicago’s loss of earnings at around $90 billion due to the city’s education gap.
“We know that all of the data tells us that a college degree is the surest route to the middle class,” said Dr. Gunn. “So we have to make sure that young people are primed to step into college. Thats why LINK exists.”
LINK employs what Dr. Gunn describes as a “holistic” model of support. The organization pairs students with mentors—role models with successful careers and extensive education, who act as consultants, advocates, and listeners. LINK also employs a variety of other staff, including scholar support associates who provide case management services and check in on students on a monthly basis to make sure they’re on track to succeed.
“Should there be hardship, (scholar support associates) are responsible for identifying that, to work with schools and mentors to make sure that the students’ needs are being addressed,” said Dr. Gunn.
Starting in middle school or ninth grade, LINK Scholars become members of a cohort of students who navigate the process of selecting a high school with the guidance of LINK staff.
Dr. Gunn believes that the application system for incoming high schoolers in Chicago places a heavy burden on children to compete for a limited number of spots at top schools. To take some of the stress off families and middle schoolers, part of LINK’s programming expands their options by providing scholarships to private schools.
“I describe it as the ‘hunger games,’” said Dr. Gunn. “No one should have to go through that.”
Recently, LINK’s services have expanded to reach students who attend public high schools as well, who make up around 25% of participants.
After working for more than 20 years in the nonprofit education sector, Dr. Gunn joined LINK last year. She says that one thing that sets the organization apart is that they have the opportunity to exclusively serve Black students, which gives them the opportunity to maximize their impact by addressing the education disparity directly.
LINK boasts a 100% high school graduation rate and a 100% college admittance rate. The four-year college graduation rate for LINK Scholars is 60%—that’s 19% higher than the national average.
But involvement with LINK rarely ends when a participant graduates from high school and completes the program.
“The LINK Alumni pledge is that you will come back and help another student who comes after you,” said Franklin Reynolds, a former LINK Scholar who graduated from high school in 1998 and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Williams College and an MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.
Reynolds was at the top of his class in middle school, and his teachers recognized his love of learning. The teachers referred him to LINK, where he earned a spot in the program and was offered a scholarship to pay for tuition at De La Salle Institute.
He was also introduced to other scholars in the program and attended preparatory classes with them over the summer.
“I remember it was the first time that I was around likeminded students,” Reynolds said. “I remember sitting there, thinking, ‘these are people like me.’”
Reynolds was assigned a mentor who opened his eyes to new parts of the city and encouraged him to expand his horizons, eventually becoming a trusted confidante.
When it was time to apply to colleges, Reynolds looked to his mentor for guidance and support. His mentor helped him navigate difficult choices and supported his eventual decision to attend Williams College instead of The University of Notre Dame, where Reynolds had been offered a full scholarship.
“It was great to have a mentor who could look past the monetary part and knew that Williams was the right fit,” said Reynolds.
Years later, Reynolds looked to his mentor for support once again as he made the tough decision to leave a successful job to go to graduate school at Kellogg.
At 27, Reynolds completed his master’s degree and decided that it was time to step into a mentorship role at LINK. Now, as a business strategist and senior account manager for Amazon, Reynolds inspires the students that he works with to believe in themselves and try new things.
One of his most recent student mentees, Zachary Tobias, recently began his first semester at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. Through his relationship with Reynolds, Tobias became interested in business and entrepreneurship. He hopes to eventually earn a master’s degree in business economics.
“Having that kind of role model really helps,” said Tobias. “It gives you insight into what to expect though college and what to do after college.”
Tobias plans to stay in touch with his mentor, as well as the other LINK Scholars from his cohort. For Tobias, the unconditional support that the program has offered him has been its greatest highlight.
“They’re always going to be by your side and will stick with you through thick and thin,” Tobias said.