West Side alternative school means a second chance (Chicago)

De Anna Leonard

There is no shortage of news accounts about young Black students, particularly in urban areas dropping out of school. One West Side school is registering stories about students dropping in.

The CPS Ombudsman Program, 2411 W. Congress Pkwy., is helping students who have dropped out, for whatever reason, complete their educations. The school, in its first year of operation here, has 482 students – all of whom are looking for a second chance. The second Ombudsman site is at 7500 N. Harlem Ave. and there are 101 students there.

Ombudsman’s highest concentration of learning centers is in Georgia with 44, and Illinois has 27 such centers.

“We’re grateful for the support of Alderman Bob Fioretti, Alderman Jason Ervin and CPS that enabled us to open Ombudsman Chicago West,” Ombudsman Chicago principal Chaun Johnson said. “We invite students who are interested in graduating from high school ready for college and career to take advantage of this new option, which is conveniently located on the West Side.”

Shmeek Johnson is one such student and said he is confident the second chance he is getting at Ombudsman will propel him to his dream of attending college. When the now-17-year-old senior dropped out of North Lawndale College Prep School, he was among the 27 percent of young African American males in Chicago who do not have a high school diploma. Then he enrolled in Ombudsman.

Johnson was working at the non-profit YMEN when a fellow worker not only told him about Ombudsman, but also took him to the Congress Parkway location.

He described the classes as “good.” “They are giving me an opportunity to get back on track and where I need to be,” the West Side resident added. One of seven children, Johnson said his favorite subject is math. Like many youngsters his age, Johnson has aspirations of playing football. He understands that opportunity may not materialize so he has what he terms his “Plan B,” which is to become a physical therapist. He came to his current school three credits short of the 16 necessary for graduation. He added he would have his three credits in time for a January graduation.

The principal also described the Ombudsman environment as one where “students feel valued, confident, independent, accepted, proud of what they accomplish – and hopeful for their future.” He also said, “Ombudsman Chicago is one of the new options CPS is offering to help students graduate from high school prepared to make positive choices about college, a career – about life – after high school.”

De Anna Leonard’s academic career is fueled by the desire to be a living example for her daughter. Ironically, it was the birth of her daughter a little more than a year ago that caused her to drop out of school.

Unlike many of her counterparts, Leonard didn’t struggle academically. She explained that she needed to work at a faster pace than traditional schools allow. “I didn’t fit in at my old high school,” she added.

She also offered, “I am a fast-paced worker and enjoy learning at my own pace. Long school days just weren’t my thing. I felt like I was being taught the same thing over and over again,” continuing, “I was just ready for the real world.”

After Ombudsman, Leonard plans to attend Malcolm X College and then pursue a military career specializing in nursing. “My mother got her education and I want to be able to serve as a role model for my daughter, too.”

Odds are Leonard will complete the requirements to attain her CPS certificate given that during the 2011-12 school year, 84 percent of Ombudsman students graduate, completed their academic year at Ombudsman, or returned to their district schools closer to or at grade level.

About Ombudsman
Ombudsman Educational Services is a division of Educational Services of America (ESA), the nation’s leading provider of behavior therapy and alternative and special education programs for children and young adults. ESA partners with more than 250 public school districts in 23 states to serve 13,500 students each year in more than 160 schools and programs.

Ombudsman’s alternative education and dropout recovery programs help communities combat the staggering social and economic costs of high dropout rates. Since 1975, Ombudsman Educational Services has educated more than 155,000 at-risk students and students who have previously dropped out – and introduced them to all the opportunities a real high school diploma provides.