CHICAGO — A high school in the heart of Humboldt Park is reaching students on the verge of dropping out and changing outcomes with individual support. Even in the middle of the pandemic, students say the school community feels more like a family.
Jose Matias, 19, a senior, said Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos Puerto Rican High School opened doors to opportunity.
“I got expelled from my last school because of a lot of failed classes that I had and a lot of days that I missed school because of my suspensions,” he said.
He said he knew right away Campos would be different.
“I could have a conversation openly about things that went on without being judged,” Matias said. “I felt more at home here, like I fit in.”
Dr. Melissa Lewis, the school principal, said the school was founded in 1972 to service young people who were dropping out and being pushed out of Chicago Public Schools.
The school was started by Puerto Rican activists and is now part of the Youth Connection Charter School network.
“It was really founded from the needs of students,” Lewis said. “I think that’s probably the strongest legacy that we have. You always center the needs of students.”
“I got kicked out due to my lack of interest. I was fighting a lot. I was skipping school. I wasn’t really motivated,” Aalyah Parks, a junior, said. “When I automatically heard Campos I was thinking bad. I thought alternative no I don’t want to go to an alternative school. But it was the only option I had.”
Parks, 19, said she was struggling with life at home. At school, she found guidance and support.
Campos only has about 200 students. All of them are learning remotely, for now.
Lewis said the school is focused on flexibility, a healing-centered approach and meeting students where they’re at.
“I see you, I hear you and I’m going to do whatever I can to make this work for you because you need a high school diploma. You need to start thinking far beyond that to be successful,” Lewis said.
Her students are often dealing with food and housing insecurity. Some are parents, many are working and under stress worsened by the pandemic.
“That’s been difficult when I can’t put my arms around someone to tell them it’s going to be OK, to tell them there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “I don’t know that. There’s so much uncertainty. And I think the biggest impact is that my young people have had to take on full time jobs…And they’re not just going to be able to quit a job that is supporting their family post-COVID. How do I then make accommodations for them considering a full-time job?”
Over the past year, the school has lost contact with about a dozen students. She said staff members are on every platform, from FaceTime to Snapchat, working to keep the young people engaged.
“I’m glad to say for these past two quarters I have straight s, a 4.0 GPA and I’m managing three jobs right now,” Matias said.
Matias, Parks and 18-year-old senior Janessa Perez all said it is easier to juggle work schedules with e-learning, but they miss social interaction.
Each student at Campos has a mentor.
“They’re very focused on making sure you’re not just getting your schoolwork done, but that your emotional health is OK,” Perez said.
And the one-on-one support makes all the difference.
“If I hadn’t made my way here, I probably would have been in the streets homeless,” Parks said. “I would have been in a situation where I’m not right now. It’s a blessing.”
“I’d be a statistic right now probably be in jail or selling drugs. I would be dropped out right now,” Matias said.
Lewis sees the pain, but also hope and resilience in her students. She said we all need to listen.
“Young people know,” Lewis said. “They know what they need right now in this moment to get through and I think we need to do a better job of listening to young people and creating space where they feel they belong and they can use that voice because often times they’re silenced…listening to young people is the way forward for Chicago.”
Matias said it starts with education.
“As soon as somebody sees that they’re doing bad in school or that school isn’t right for them, maybe it’s that school,” he said. “You haven’t experienced other schools. It’s just about testing your waters in other places. Because if the plant doesn’t grow, you don’t change the plant, you change the environment.”