Four years ago, Dyett High School’s principal suspended more than two-thirds of the black male students at least once—far more than most schools in the district.

Micah Williams, Cassius Rodriguez and Kenny Rainey were freshmen that year, and they were right in the mix. They fought with other students and got sent home for days at a time. They failed nearly every class. They were on the fast track to dropping out.

But instead, they beat the odds.

Micah and Cassius walked across Dyett’s stage in June to get their diplomas, and are both heading for college. Kenny finished the year but still must make up some classes to get his diploma.

The boys’ success came through a mix of individual effort and the encouragement and guidance of adults. Pulling the three through high school took patience and diligence, according to the mentors and teachers who got to know the boys.

To a certain degree, the boys matured and realized that fighting and misbehavior are not solutions to problems. They became more engaged in school and started to believe in themselves. Cassius and Micah discovered a passion for extracurricular activities. Kenny, a foster child, figured out that school was the most stable force in an otherwise unstable life.

Dyett, too, played a role in helping the boys change course. A new school administration swept in with a strategy to improve the school climate and institute less punitive discipline. Outside funding brought in a mentor, Cornelius Ellen, who gave the boys hope by telling them that they could go to college—and proving that he was for real.

Research has found that 9th grade is a pivotal, make-or-break time for students. Few who veer off-track, by missing too many days or failing too many classes, get back on the path to graduation. At Dyett, in Washington Park, more than 60 percent of black male students are not on track to graduate.

Cassius, Micah and Kenny veered off-track and describe 9th grade as a tough year. Personal issues weighed heavily on their minds, they were too young to know how to deal with the pressures and school had little relevance.

Cassius recalls being bored in school. Outside, the streets seemed much more tantalizing. He found friends, and they played football and basketball together and gave themselves a name, Clean Inn. In their teen slang, the name meant going full throttle into sports or some other activity—“going clean in,” as Cassius says.

They also fought together. Cassius got suspended three times and developed a bad reputation. His name topped a list of leaders of Clean Inn, which Dyett’s former principal pegged as a gang.

Kenyatta Butler-Stansberry, who was the assistant principal at Dyett before taking over the helm at Harper, is quick to defend the label. “These boys have to understand that if you go around fighting together as a pack, then that is want you are, a gang,” she says.

Every time one of the boys got into a fight, all of them would get called down to the school office.

Cassius insists Clean Inn is not a gang, which he defines as a group that is organized to sell drugs. But they do stand by each other, he adds, acting as brothers for each other because some of the boys don’t have strong families.

Kenny is one of those boys. When he was 5, child welfare officials took him from his mother. He bounced around in the system and eventually landed with one foster mother for seven years. But in 7th grade, when he was 12, he was taken from the woman’s home. Officials told him it was because she wasn’t paying her electricity bill and had her service cut off.

The day he left that foster mother’s house, Kenny cried. “I thought she loved me,” he says. He then went to live with his current foster mother, whom he still struggles to get along with. “We don’t see eye to eye,” he says. “I have been on my own for so long that it is hard for me to listen to her.” At school, he got little support from his 9th-grade teachers, Kenny recalls. It might not have made much difference, he says now, but it would have been nice if they had reached out more.

Clean Inn became Kenny’s family, and he was quick to fight to defend himself or his friends. Eventually, he, too, was pegged as a leader and troublemaker. That view became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Kenny got suspended more times than he could count.

Some of his friends shrugged it off when they got suspended, but it was always a bad deal for Kenny, who says his foster mother then wouldn’t let him in the house. So he hung out at a friend’s house if he could, or just walked the streets. If he couldn’t go to a friend’s house and it was too cold to be outside, he hid in his foster mother’s hallway.

“I felt sad,” Kenny says now. “I felt like I didn’t have a home.”

Micah says he was “a mess” in his first year of high school. He is good friends with Kenny and Cassius, but he didn’t join Clean Inn. 

When Micah was 14, the death of his elderly father sent him reeling. “He was my everything,” Micah says. “I thought he would be around forever.”

He and his mother were not in a good place. In the midst of moving to a new apartment in Englewood, Micah and his mother got into intense fights and she became abusive, he says, to the point where he was scared to sleep in the house. He was angry and frequently got into trouble at school, since he was ready to throw a punch at the slightest threat.

“As I was growing up, everyone told me I wasn’t going to do nothing with my life,” Micah says. “That is why, for a long time, I did nothing. Everyone who would see me—my mother, even some of my teachers freshman year—would tell me that I am not going to amount to anything.”

Micah, Cassius and Kenny say Dyett administrators seemed quick to find reasons to suspend them when they were sent to the office. The police also had a strong presence in the school, and the threat of being arrested was yet another reason for the boys to stay away.

Youth advocates say that the strong police presence in some schools, and the arrests of students, is another big problem. CPS and Chicago Police Department officials say they do not keep data on how many students are arrested at schools and denied a Catalyst Chicago Freedom of Information Act request for the information.

The Advancement Project, a national racial justice advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., found that 8,000 students were arrested in CPS in 2003. They partnered with the local Southwest Youth Collaborative to compile the data, by having teens go to police headquarters to scour records and come up with the figures.

In the boys’ sophomore year, Dyett got a new principal, Jacquelyn Lemon, who came to the conclusion that the high number of arrests, suspensions and expulsions at the school didn’t make any sense. “Especially for African-American males, it is often a straight path to jail,” says Lemon. 

That same year, the local nonprofit Grand Boulevard Federation won a grant to implement a program called Education to Success at Dyett High School, which was targeted at black boys. The grant paid to bring in Cornelius Ellen to run the program, and required that the school adopt a strategy called restorative justice, in which students are taught why their misbehavior is wrong and how to make amends. A peer jury was started, and a peace room was set aside as a place for students to go to talk over conflicts—or just take a deep breath when they were stressed or upset.

Lemon also brought in a new attitude that complemented restorative justice. She leaned toward giving students another chance and talking to them to show new ways to handle conflict.

Micah says the halls became quieter and fewer students got into fights.

Cassius says the school became more people-focused. Lemon didn’t call the police immediately when trouble erupted, and that made a difference too.  “She knows the students,” Cassius says. “She learned our names, and not just our name, but what matters to us. There is more a homey feeling.”

For Kenny, the new approach was a saving grace. He desperately wanted to stop getting into fights, something that he is still struggling to accomplish. “It seems like I am lost; I am so used to fighting, so used to doing what I want to do,” he says. Lemon’s approach meant that school became the one place he could count on for support.

Cassius also found a sanctuary in school that year. He’d always enjoyed playing football in the park, throwing the ball around with his buddies and older brother. Sophomore year he took a chance and tried out for the team.

Dyett is a smaller high school, with less than 600 students, and most of the time the stands are all but empty during football games. But even in the absence of cheers, on chilly fall nights, Cassius fell in love and started to dream of “taking football to the next level”—to at least college or beyond.

“Football is what kept me interested in school,” says Cassius, whose broad shoulders and sturdy frame fit his position as a defensive lineman.

Micah also played football, but it was a change in his personal life that made the difference for him. His father had 12 children, many of whom Micah didn’t know. Yet in the wake of his father’s death, some began reaching out to him, the baby of the brood. One brother was a 50-year-old steelworker married to a nurse. They had a nice house and a quiet life in Washington Heights. They could see that Micah was having a hard time, so when his mom moved to a south suburb to get away from a bad landlord, they suggested that Micah move in with them. Though his mother was furious, Micah accepted his brother’s invitation. 

With his home life now calmer, Micah began getting to school on time and paying more attention once he got there.

Once the boys made it to their senior year, they still didn’t have much of a clue about next steps. No one talked to them much about their future, they recall. And secretly, they doubted whether they had many opportunities. “I didn’t think I had any options,” Kenny says. 

Their outlook began to change one day last fall when Ellen sat down next to them in the lunchroom. Ellen had chatted with Micah, Kenny and Cassius a bit during their junior year and knew their reputations and their past. Still, Ellen saw something beyond the story on their transcripts. He, too, had been a teen from the same neighborhood. Now, at 30, he remembered how it felt to be a young black man looking at the world from 51st Street and Martin Luther King Drive, feeling intimated by the forces of the world beyond.

“I am just like them,” Ellen says. Eventually, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Chicago State University and is now finishing work on a master’s degree. He felt it was his duty to tell the boys that if they listened to him, he could help them follow the same path.

In addition to talking with the boys about their future, Ellen also talked to them about life. On weekday afternoons and Saturdays, he and Kenneth Davis, the school’s restorative justice coordinator, took the boys out. Sometimes, it was a trip to a restaurant. Other times, they took them bowling or to the movies. Ellen, a laid-back guy with dreads who usually wears blue jeans and an untucked dress shirt, says the outings showed the boys that black men can hang out together, doing positive things and laughing and growing.

Still, getting the boys into college would not be easy. After failing so many courses in their freshman and sophomore years, Micah and Cassius had to enroll in evening classes to graduate. They dreaded the extra work, but signed up anyway. Kenny was so far behind that he would have to finish in an alternative school after June.

But Ellen and Davis refused to give up on him. They tried to find him jobs and showed him college catalogs, telling him not to let a few classes stand in the way of his future.
With Ellen’s prodding, Micah and Cassius spent lunchtime and study periods in the computer lab, filling out applications, writing essays and making sure their financial aid forms were ready. One disappointment came when they got their ACT scores. They each got a 16, well below the 20 students need to get into a selective college.

In November, they were still unsure that college would really happen. Micah was looking into trade schools to become a mechanic or a computer technician in case he didn’t get into college.

Cassius was even more indecisive. He quietly said that if he didn’t get an offer to play football in college, he wasn’t sure he would go. “School is really boring to me,” he said then. “If I can’t play football, I don’t think it will be interesting enough.”

As an alternative, Cassius was thinking about joining the military. But he was sure about one thing: He didn’t want to stay in the neighborhood. He saw other young black men around him, going nowhere fast. His older brother, at 22, was unemployed and aimless. His younger brother was supposed to be attending Dyett, but barely showed up.

One gray day, Cassius said that while he was in school, he was sure his younger brother and many of the guys he started high school with were standing on 47th Street, dealing drugs. “I can’t stay here,” Cassius said. “All I would do is get in trouble or get killed.”
Davis and Ellen listened to Cassius’ trepidation. They say they understood his fear and urged him to push through it.

They also told Cassius and Micah that when they go to college, they will have a safety net. Ellen and Davis have built up a network of friends and fraternity brothers who can be available for the students at the colleges they targeted for the boys.

Still, when talking about college, the boys sounded anxious. They each received rejection letters, shattering their already tenuous confidence.

Midway through the year, Micah and Cassius went to visit Tuskegee University in Alabama with Ellen, Davis and other students. Cassius and Micah had interviews with admissions officers. “If I do get accepted, it will be on probation,” Micah said.

Cassius went to Tuskegee with a copy of his football tape tucked into his bag. At high schools with big-time sport programs, coaches shop their players’ tapes to prospective college coaches and from day one, show them the steps to take to get picked up. But Dyett doesn’t have an established football program, or many college-goers, so it falls on the athletes to market themselves. For Cassius, this proved difficult.

Davis and Ellen introduced Cassius to the coach at Tuskegee and urged Cassius to hand the coach his tape. But Cassius just shook his hand and didn’t say a word. Later, Cassius said that he learned a valuable lesson. “You have to take matters into your own hands. You can’t wait for others to do it for you.”

Still, Cassius and Micah were impressed with Tuskegee and couldn’t stop talking about it. They had been worried about encountering racism in the South, but were surprised to find the people so friendly. And they loved the Southern food. Even the dorm’s cafeteria food was delicious, they said.

Still, they could do nothing but wait to see if they would be accepted at Tuskegee or another college. So for a few months, they focused on the tedium of homework and evening school.
Micah had found another outlet, too. He signed up for band class, where he picked up drum sticks and immediately took to playing. He learned to read and write music, and stayed after school to practice every chance he got. For the school’s Black History Month program, he and the band teacher performed one of his own compositions.

Then, one Saturday in March, it happened. Micah came in from hanging out with friends and found a thick envelope sitting on the kitchen table in his brother’s house. Inside was his acceptance letter from Tuskegee.

His brother and sister-in-law were thrilled.  Micah wished his dad were there to hear the news. “On my mom’s side, I will be the first one to go to college. On my dad’s side, I have a sister who lives in California who went.” 

When he went to school the next week, he wore a gray Tuskegee t-shirt and a blue-and- white argyle sweater that he had bought on his visit to the school. Micah stood out among the other students, who wore Dyett’s maroon-shirt-and-khaki-pants uniform. If anyone asked, he proudly announced why he was dressed so differently. “I never thought I would go to college. I never really thought about it.”

Cassius, too, was accepted into Tuskegee. But a few weeks before graduation, he still seemed hesitant about enrolling. Cassius says his parents are proud of him, but Ellen notes that Cassius has been disappointed at his parent’s lackluster response and pegs it as a factor in Cassius’ own lack of enthusiasm.

One spring weekend, Tuskegee hosted a banquet in Chicago for seniors who will be attending the university. Cassius and Micah got dressed up and attended, but no members of their families did.

Cassius got a bumper sticker for his dad and wondered out loud if he would put it on his car.  A few days later, Cassius says his dad didn’t want it. “Something about he was going to get a new car soon,” he says softly.

Kenny was on the sidelines as his two friends make college plans. As June rolled around, he faced an uncertain path. At 18, he will no longer have to stay with his foster mother and hopes to stay with his father, with whom he has never lived. Kenny was also desperate for a job, and wanted to enroll in an alternative school so he could get his diploma.

Within earshot of Kenny, Ellen said that he believes in him, that he’s a natural leader who can use this skill to bring about positive behavior. “He is very intelligent. He is a tall, handsome black man, who can fend for himself,” Ellen says.  
By mid-June, Ellen reported that Kenny had found a prospective job with a community organization called MAGIC.

Ellen, however, faced the prospect of job-hunting. The Grand Boulevard Foundation grant that paid for his position had run out, and Dyett’s new principal, Robert McMiller, was still trying to find money in his budget to pick up Ellen’s salary. McMiller supports the school’s new approach. (Lemon left Dyett to become the principal of the new Chicago Talent Development High School slated to open this fall in West Garfield Park.)

Kenny says he’s been thinking a lot about his future lately, wishing that he hadn’t lived so much in the moment. He used to wear a big, rock-like faux-diamond earring. But he has taken it out because someone told him it was unprofessional.

“It is kind of hard to say what I will be doing next year or two years from now,” he says. “I don’t know how to feel about everything. Time just went too fast.”

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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