After a bumpy start at Dyett High, Micah Williams, Cassius Rodriquez and Kenny Rainy met a pair of committed mentors who helped them walk away in June with plans in place for life after high school.But by this fall, the young men weren’t where they thought they would be. And the program that provided the mentors—seemingly so crucial to setting them on a positive path—is no longer at Dyett. 


After a bumpy start at Dyett High, Micah Williams, Cassius Rodriquez and Kenny Rainy met a pair of committed mentors who helped them walk away in June with plans in place for life after high school.

But by this fall, the young men weren’t where they thought they would be. And the program that provided the mentors—seemingly so crucial to setting them on a positive path—is no longer in place at Dyett. 

The three boys’ journey over the last school year was featured in “Reaching Black Boys,” the May/June issue of Catalyst In Depth. Their story is an example of how an intensive mentoring program can turn around young men who have struggled academically and spent much of their early high school years in trouble.

But what has happened to the young men since June is a sobering reminder of the pitfalls that lie outside school.

Micah and Cassius were excited to be headed to Tuskegee University, one of the nation’s most prominent black universities, where they’d gone to visit earlier in the school year. Kenny needed to earn more credits to finish high school and planned to enroll in an alternative school.

Kenny enrolled in Ada S. McKinley’s program in September, but didn’t make it through the probationary period and was dropped. Micah, who was so proud to be accepted into Tuskegee that he shed Dyett’s uniform and sported a logoed t-shirt for days, never showed up at any college, anywhere. The last time his two Dyett mentors saw him, he was on the street and essentially homeless.

Cassius is the only one who appears to be doing fine. He wound up at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where several of his friends also enrolled.

“Pulled into the street”

Life after high school is a challenge for many young people.

Like Kenny, some have spent four years in high school and still don’t have enough credits to graduate, then turn to alternative schools but fail to finish. The fall issue of Catalyst In Depth reported on the challenges facing alternative programs and their students, including a high mobility rate—166 percent—and a low graduation rate of 23 percent. (Recently, it has been pointed out to me that the enrollment data might include duplicates; if so, that would make the graduation rate somewhat better, but the enrollment data lower.)

In recent years, alternative schools are enrolling more students in their late teens—18 and 19—who are impatient to earn a diploma but have only a handful of credits. This was certainly the case with Kenny, who had so few credits he would have had to spend at least two years at Ada S. McKinley and pass every class to graduate.

Perhaps the alternative school route was not the right one for Kenny, says Robert Aspholm, who was an intern for Dyett’s Education to Success program and now works at a grassroots social service organization in Woodlawn called MAGIC, which gave Kenny a job over the summer. “How many [young men] Kenny’s age are going to stick with school that long?” Aspholm asks.

Kenny, who is a foster child, doesn’t get along particularly well with his foster mother and has had trouble controlling his anger, readily admitting that he struggles to stay out of fights.

But walking into Ada S. McKinley, he seemed to have a spark—a desire to do better, says John Howard, who serves as a mentor for wards of the state at McKinley. The school has a 30-day trial period in which staff try to gauge how serious students are about their education. During that time, Kenny’s attendance and attitude were spotty, Howard says.

“He seemed depressed,” Howard says. “When it came down to it, he was being pulled into the street.”

Howard says it is not unusual for foster children to need more time than a month to get adjusted to a school routine. “There is a big trust factor,” he says.

Sometimes Howard can convince the administration to let students stay despite some inconsistency during the trial period. But Kenny was not committed enough, and Howard did not feel more effort would bear fruit.

First-generation college-goers

Even for those who do graduate from high school, like Micah, the road to college is bumpy. More than 40 percent of black male graduates who say they plan to go to college fail to do so, according to a CPS study that compared the district’s spring 2007 exit survey of graduates and data on college enrollment from the following fall.

Bryan Echols, executive director of MAGIC, points out that many young black men from low-income communities don’t have the same support system that other middle-class children have. Mentors try to fill the gaps and do the hand-holding that parents might do otherwise. But sometimes, it is just not enough.

“A lot of the kids are the first in their families to be in the position to go to college and it might be four or five generations since someone even graduated from high school,” Echols says. “They are cool [with] applying and being accepted. But there’s a gap between doing those things and going out into the world. They lack independence and confidence.”

Micah’s failure to make it to college is a sore spot. Cornelius Ellen, who led Education to Success at Dyett, says Micah was thrown off track by problems in his family. Because of intense fights and disagreements with his mother, Micah had been living with his brother and sister-in-law. Then, after graduation, Micah told Ellen that he had a falling-out with his brother and sister-in-law and they had put him out of their home.

Micah lost touch with Ellen and Aspholm. One day in September, Ellen bumped into Micah on 51st Street near Martin Luther King Drive, the commercial strip in Washington Park where many young guys hang out.

Micah told Ellen that he was bunking with a friend and hoped to enroll in Columbia College. But at this point, Ellen is dubious.

“I think right now, Micah is just in survival mode,” he says.

Ellen’s voice has a sad tone when he talks about the outcomes for Micah and Kenny. But he notes that he tried to work with the toughest students at Dyett, and a 100 percent success rate would be hard to achieve.

“The old cliché here goes, ‘You win some, you lose some,’ ” he says.

Ellen pointed to other triumphs, such as Demond Anderson. Demond got into so many fights, and got so many second chances, that he once publicly thanked the former principal, Jacquelyn Lemon, for not giving up on him. Demond is now at Kentucky State University.

Cassius also seems to be maturing. During his senior year, he said he didn’t know if he would want to go to college if he couldn’t play football. But Ellen says that once at Southern Illinois, Cassius decided to put off going out for the team until he made sure he could handle the class work.

Next steps

Organizers of Education to Success are confident that the data will show that the program achieved some valuable outcomes, says Andrea Lee, education organizer with the Grand Boulevard Federation, the non-profit that ran the program. Funded by the Twenty-First Century Foundation in New York, which supports initiatives focused on the African-American community, the goal was to increase graduation and college attendance rates of African-American youth. The $210,000 grant was for three years, ending in June 2009.

In addition to mentoring, the grant paid for restorative justice training to change the school’s approach to discipline: Instead of punitive measures such as suspension and expulsion, the school began to efforts such as peace circles and peer juries. Lee says she believes implementing restorative justice was a plus for the school. As advocates of the approach note, reducing suspensions and expulsions ultimately raises graduation rates.

Lee also believes that the data will show an up-tick in graduation and college enrollment. She says she is talking with the foundation about next steps.

However, this year, Dyett is without Ellen and his team of mentors. Ellen says that Dyett’s principal couldn’t find additional money to keep him on the payroll. He is now working at Manley High School on the West Side with the YES program, an after-school program for at-risk students. Dyett Principal Robert McMiller did not return phone calls.

It is worth noting that the extra support could have been helpful this year. In October, two Dyett students—the type of young men who were targeted by the Education to Success program—were shot and killed.


Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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