Monday, April 28, 2008

The Costs of Growing up in a Violent Environment

On the frontpage of the Chicago Tribune today, there was a photo of a young African-American boy standing in front of the Cabrini-Green rowhouses. The boy is DeJour Stewart, and he is the younger brother of one of out students here at Cabrini Connections. The article is about the mental health challenges young people face when they grow up in neighborhoods where violent crime is prevalent. The article is very good, but I especially recommend watching the video to see the young people talking first hand about how hard it is growing up in neighborhoods such as Cabrini Green and constantly being scared.

Obviously, parents in these neighborhoods are doing all they can to make sure their children live as normal of lives as possible. Another article, in the New York Times talks about how groups of parents in Chicago's most dangerous neighborhoods have set up systems of escorting their children to school. This is a wonderful example of parents taking control of the violence endangering their children's lives. Another is in the Chicago Tribune article, where DeJour Stewart's mom, Norrine Rhodes, talks about the importance of keeping kids off the street but at the same time keeping them active. She mentions how she has enrolled her sons in tutoring and mentoring programs so that they will not only succeed in school, but that they also will have a safe place to go after school.

This also brings up a wonderful point. If people see stories such as DeJour's in the news, then they will want to do something about the violence that we are seeing as of recent. One of the most effective ways of combatting the violence is to give money to tutoring and mentoring programs throughout the city so that there will be places for even more children to go to. We just had a fundraiser ourselves this past Friday at Schuba's Bar. We raised over $4000 and had a lot of fun doing it. Thanks to everybody who came to our Spring into Action event.

Also, if you want to find out more and get involved in helping kids stay alive and succeed, you can always attend out Tutor/Mentor Conference, which will be Thursday May 29th and Friday May 30th at Northwestern Law School off of Lake Shore Dr. and Chicago Ave. You can also visit the website at

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Dropout Epidemic

In addition to my reading up of the local Chicago news, I also always read the New York Times online because it often has fantastic articles about education and other issues that are near and dear to my heart here at Cabrini Connections. Today, one of my favorite columnists, Bob Herbert, wrote an editorial about the issue of the rising incidence of ignorance in America. Here at Cabrini Connections, we continue to discuss and follow studies showing how America's schools have fallen behind other countries in terms of test scores, graduation rates and college admission.

A couple of days ago, my boss, Dan Bassill in his blog, addressed the issue of the dropout rate in the nation's public schools. He highlights an article called "Cities in Crisis: A Special Analytic Report on High School Graduation" which does a fantastic job of showing the huge issue of high school drop out rates in our country's 50 largest cities using maps and charts to illustrate the facts. An interesting cross-study, is to compare the dropout rates in the charts in that article with the crime rates in the nation's 50 largest cities. Does it surprise you that they correlate very well? (I was just curious to find out the highest crime rates in light of the recent crime wave of this past weekend here in Chicago). Perhaps this should be a clue to our city officials when they look to solutions about combatting the rash of senseless deaths here in this great city.

Finally, you should also read, my new colleague, Cassina Sanders', blog. Cassina is our new marketing and fundraising coordinator and is a great new asset to our organization. Enjoy!

24 CPS students killed, 36 shootings in Chicago over the past weekend

The number of students in Chicago Public Schools killed this academic year has risen to 24. With the first weekend of warm weather, Chicago saw 36 people shot over the course of just 3 days. Something's not right here.

Both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times have covered the recent wave of violence, both amongst the city's youth and throughout the city in general, quite extensively. Various experts have offered their solutions to ending the violence. One of the more interesting articles that I've seen in regards to this recent wave of violence is about the Interfaith Director for Chicago Public Schools, Rev. Renaldo Kyles and how he has responded to dealing with 24 young lives being lost during this school year. Mr. Kyles has performed many important tasks, such as helping families find affordable funeral arrangements to simply being a contact to families dealing with unimaginable grief. What I find most compelling about the article, however, is about how Rev. Kyles mentions that he would like to see more mentoring programs and after-school programs in general be created.

I've emphasized time and time again how tutoring and mentoring programs are an incredibly simple and concrete vector for combatting violence, as well as teenage dropout rates, pregnancy and drug-use. I still am trying to find a bigger voice for myself and through this blog and other means can only reach so many people. However, Rev. Kyles, as an spokesperson for Chicago Public Schools and as a minister has an even bigger say in spreading the importance of mentoring programs in combatting youth violence. Tutor/Mentor Connection has long recognized the importance in faith leaders as an important and essential ally in trying to help children succeed. To find out more about how faith leaders can be allies in improving the lives of children, please visit the Tutor/Mentor Institute website and read "How Faith Communities Can Lead Volunteer Mobilization for Tutor/Mentor Programs."

Monday, April 21, 2008

New Position, Same Old Story

As April winds down, it will be one year that I have been hired on at Cabrini Connections. In July, I will transition from my position as Assistant Program Coordinator and Northwestern Public Interest Program Fellow to my new position as the Tutor/Mentor Research and Networking Coordinator under a grant through the Chicago Bar Association. I'm very happy to be staying on with Cabrini Connections, Tutor/Mentor Connection for at least another year and to be able to continue my work doing outreach to other programs throughout the city, state, country and world.

One of my first projects under my new title is to organize the May Tutor/Mentor Conference, which will be held Thursday May 29th and Friday May 30th at Northwestern University Law School on the north side of Chicago. The conference is already coming together quite nicely and I'm very excited about all the wonderful workshops that have already been put on the schedule and I am especially pleased to moderate two panels on Thursday and Friday morning on Program Strategies and Successes and Volunteer Recruitment and Retention Respectively. I highly encourage everybody involved in working with youth to attend this conference.

If you can't go to the conference for the entire time, I recommend at least taking your lunch break at Northwestern Law School on those days, because two amazing speakers will be our lunchtime keynote speakers. On Thursday May 29th from 12:50-1:15pm, Margot Pritzker, who is the Chair of the Zohar Education Project Incorporated and President and Founder of will be speaking about "How do non-profits extend their limited resources by using professionals in the most efficient way." On Friday, at the same time, Dr. Max McGee, President of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy will be speaking about improving education for underprivileged youth.

While the conference is a great way for networking, another way to network that I have recently discovered via my boss, Dan Bassill is ning sites, which act as social networking sites for organizations such as ours. Please visit our ning to find out more about how programs such as ours can collaborate on the internet.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Empowering Girls to Write

I always get excited when I see articles about tutoring and mentoring in my daily perusal of the news websites. That's why I was so happy when I saw this article in the New York Times about women writers who mentor teenage girls in New York to become writers themselves. What's so great about this program is that encourages young girls to look to writing as an outlet to express themselves and to tell their stories.
The teenage years are extremely precarious, especially so for minority girls living in the inner city. Here at Cabrini Connections, we have a writing club that has a similar goal of teaching the kids to use writing, especially creative writing and poetry to express themselves. While the writing club was intended for both boys and girls, it has turned into an all-girls club for one reason or another. While I wish that the boys would want to be a part of writing club, I also think it's wonderful that there's a group of girls who act as a support network to each other where they share their deepest thoughts and feelings about their lives through different forms of writing. Our two writing club teachers, Jen King and Shannyn Nellett have done a fantastic job in bringing out the writers within these girls and setting them free to express and perform. I remember being so impressed when I saw a piece they wrote and performed at the year-end dinner last year about their trip to see the musical, The Color Purple. I wish I could include a photo of these beautiful girls at work in the writing club, but unfortunately Blogspot won't let me. For another time.
Funnily enough, my boss Dan Bassill, also found the NY Times article and wrote about it in a response to a blog post by Connie Weber on a ning called Fireside Learning. You can read about what they have to say about mentoring girls to become writers here.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

23rd CPS student killed - How do we stop the violence?

On Sunday, a CPS high schooler was beaten to death with a baseball bat, making him the 23rd student killed this 2007-2008 academic year. (I believe I earlier stated, erroneously, that 20 students have died since January. Rather, it's since September). Still, this school year has proven to be outpacing last year as the deadliest year for Chicago Public Schools in decades.

I know that everytime I open up the web page of the Chicago Tribune and see the headline "Chicago teenager killed," my heart starts racing, hoping it's not one of my kids. Thankfully, none of our students has been involved in any incidents of the kind this year, but still there's always that small possibility. I can tell the sheer number of students killed, especially in the month of March, the deadliest month so far, is weighing on my students. I hear talk of being scared to walk to school, or to go outside of their neighborhood.

These similar sentiments are echoed in a wonderful article, that was in the Chicago Tribune on Sunday, about how violence is affecting the lives of CPS students who just want a safe place to learn and live. Most of the students who were killed were not involved in gangs, drugs or any other violent groups. They were simply young people caught in the crossfire of a dangerous environment.

So what do organizations such as Cabrini Connections and Tutor/Mentor Connection do about all this violence? I believe the first thing we do is more of the same of what we have done: Provide a safe place for our kids to come to after school, encourage them to choose other life paths than gangs, drugs and crime, encourage the creation and success of other tutoring and mentoring programs throughout the city, and in general, continuing to spread the gospel of tutoring and mentoring.

However, we do acknowledge that in light of an especially violent month, with our kids on edge, there is even more that can be done. Two positive things that are being done are the creation of an essay that the kids can write on their solutions to stopping the violence. There will be an essay contest with a prize for the student with the best essay.

We are also starting a music club, where kids can especially hone their creativity in rapping and producing rap songs with positive messages. In fact, the first project that the kids will work on is creating songs about combatting the violence that is going on right now.

Of course much more can be done as well and we're continuing to search for new ways for the kids to be able to express their fear and anger about recent events in a creative, positive way and not in a violent, negative way. In the end, hopefully the kids will realize that it's much better to channel their energies in creating art and dialogue, rather than destroying lives.

Finally, I thought this editorial by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times was especially interesting on issues of race and gender that we grapple with every day.