Pa Joof Credit: Jason Reblando

Alternative education should not be viewed negatively, says Pa Joof, longtime principal at Prologue, which now serves about 500 former dropouts at its main Uptown campus and other satellite centers. Joof, a former math and history teacher, spoke with Consulting Editor Lorraine Forte about empowering youth to take ownership of their education, the alienation that drives young people to drop out and what can be done to prevent it.

Principal turnover is a concern in Chicago Public Schools. What keeps you on the job?

You have to have the passion to educate young people.

How is your curriculum different from the typical high school?

Having young people understand who they are and what their position is in the world is the best situation for learning. We teach, for example, multicultural literature and Swahili as a foreign language. We teach them to think more critically and become part of the democratic process. We tell them that education is their right as a human being, not a privilege. But if you have restrictive rules and regulations, school becomes very punitive. A very clear example is not having metal detectors because the whole concept is very dehumanizing.

What’s the most common reason why kids say they drop out?

Mostly, they claim that what they were being taught is not very relevant. If they make a mistake, they get pushed out. That doesn’t resolve their problem and then they are out in the street or end up in jail. But when you’re raising young people, the best time to come to their aid is when they make mistakes. Open up a dialogue with them before just saying, “Okay, you’re 16, 17 years old, you have violated the [discipline] code and now you need to go.”

Do you see a lot of kids who have been out of school for a long time?

Yes. It used to be 16, just after they dropped out. Now they’re 18, 19 and have been out of school, maybe incarcerated.

What’s a typical day here like?

Every Monday we have our large group assembly where teachers, students, all of us meet to discuss what’s going to happen in the week. We have every kid in small counseling groups and they meet four times a week. The students choose their counselors and they interact with those teachers for an entire year. That is the nucleus of the school—where teachers and students enter into a relationship. And teachers and students can discuss whatever issues affect them out in the open. If a student is not satisfied about what’s going on in the classroom, they are free to stand up in the large group session and discuss what’s going on. If the teachers are running late, for example, they will talk about it.

We treat them as young adults. In terms of attendance, they are in charge of themselves. But if they have five absences, their small group leader will have to converse with them. If you have six, a teacher has the right to say, “You’re out of my class until you meet with the entire staff.”

Does that help kids to be responsible?

A great deal, yes. We encourage peer counselors that, if a friend is not coming to school, why don’t you wake up in the morning and call them and say, “Hey, we need to all be in school.” They end up supporting each other.

What do your kids usually end up doing after they graduate?

We are emphasizing college more. Some of the kids are not thinking about college at all, just getting a high school diploma. But we say, “Okay, we’re going to take you on the next level.” Before graduation, we take them to a junior college and they do a placement test. You have to have a reading level between [grade] 9.5 and 10 before you can graduate. Most students come with a level of 7th grade or even lower.

Will the new law raising the dropout age to 17 have any real impact?

The longer you keep some students in school, the more problems they will bring unless you have enough remediatio.

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