The vote was taken by congressmen in Washington, but the blow was felt by Keith Hamilton, a teenage high school dropout from Cabrini-Green.
Thanks to House speaker Newt Gingrich’s movement to gut federal youth job-training programs, Hamilton and his classmates at the Prologue Alternative High School may be sent back to the streets. The proposed Republican budget cuts, overwhelmingly adopted in March by Congress, would yank about $50,000 from Prologue’s $500,000 budget, endangering the well-regarded alternative school that operates out of a funky old office building on Lawrence Avenue across the street from the Aragon theater. “And we’re not alone,” says Nancy Jackson, who’s Prologue’s executive director. “There are 44 alternative schools in Chicago facing the same crisis.”
It’s another example of recent Contract With America budget cuts, blindly and furiously adopted without serious debate or regard to consequences, coming home to haunt Chicago. “If Prologue closes, it would knock me out of education,” says Hamilton. “It’s like saying the only alternative for a guy like you is jail–it’s like sending us to hell.”
Specifically, Congress wants to cut funding for a year-round youth training program that’s one of many federal antipoverty efforts under siege since Republicans took control of the House and Senate last November. What’s surprising is that this is the kind of federal initiative Republicans say they like. The money goes directly to local municipalities, which determine how it’s spent. In Chicago, the Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training annually receives about $600,000 for year-round youth training, a speck in the federal government’s oceanic deficit.
“The federal government does not determine who gets the money,” says Jackson. “It’s decided on the local level.”
The city funds Prologue to work with dropouts between the ages of 16 and 21. “You have to be a dropout to get into Prologue,” says Jackson. “That’s the union card around here.”
The students come from public, private, and Catholic schools; some are sent there by parole or police officers. Many have been out of school for over a year. “They fit all kinds of categories,” says Jackson. “There are sexually abused kids and physically abused kids. Then we have really bright kids who got bored with the system. Or there are kids who rebelled, who didn’t agree with the way they were being taught. There’s a hundred reasons why kids drop out of school. And sooner or later they wind up here.”
At Prologue they take courses in math, science, social studies, and literature. They learn lessons in life that transcend the classroom, such as coprincipal Pa Joof’s favorite African proverb, “Until the lions have their historians’ tales of hunting, we’ll always glorify the hunter.”
They work in an urban garden across the back alley and beneath the Howard el, and they’re encouraged to participate in political protests.
“I marched at the federal building against budget cuts,” says Hamilton. “We’ve learned about how the system works and that we have a voice too.”
Hamilton began his high school years at Senn, a north-side public school. “I would have stayed longer, but I got in trouble with the gangs,” he says. “They said if I didn’t join they’d kill me. I told [school officials] and they asked me to pick the gangbangers out and said they’d kick them out of school. But I wasn’t gonna do that. If I kick them out they still be waiting for me out on the streets.”
So Hamilton transferred to Wells High School, where he lasted until his junior year. “I didn’t have any good reason for dropping out, I just wasn’t getting anything out of school,” he says. “I heard about Prologue from my cousin who went here. I came here because I wasn’t doing anything and I didn’t have any future. The teachers interviewed me. They asked me why I dropped out, why I wanted to start over, whether I’d have good attendance. They weren’t going to let me in unless I showed them I was serious. I figured I might as well start being serious about my life.”
He says he feels safer at Prologue. If there are gang members in the school, they make no attempt to recruit or harass him. His best subjects are math and science, and his classes were arranged so he could work part-time at a local restaurant. “I want to be a carpenter, I’m pretty good at that,” Hamilton says. “I want to build more schools like this.”
Leticia Jimenez, like Hamilton an 18-year-old, found her way to Prologue after dropping out of Kelvyn Park High School on the northwest side as a freshman. “I didn’t like school at all,” says Jimenez. “It was just everybody was into gangbanging. I got into trouble with other girls who wanted to pick fights with me. Then I got pregnant. I couldn’t take it no more so I left school. My parents weren’t thrilled with me dropping out. They wanted me to stay in school. I said what’s the point of staying in school if I’m not learning anything?”
After she dropped out, she spent most of her time at home, cooking, cleaning, and taking care of her infant son, Jose Alexander. “Before I got pregnant, my son’s father would pull me out of school and we would go to the park or the mall,” says Jimenez. “He was 19 and I was 14. I don’t know what I liked about him. He was cute, I guess that’s it. That’s the reason the girls bothered me, because of him. They were jealous. I never see him anymore. He just doesn’t come around.”
About a year ago she got a job as an office assistant in a business in Uptown; her boss told her about Prologue. “Over at Kelvyn Park you have to be by yourself–you have to take care of your back,” says Jimenez. “But here it’s like a big family. I discovered I’m good at writing and that I like reading. I read Luis Rodriguez’s Always Running. And Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. And Shakespeare–I read Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare’s hard and sometimes I don’t understand it. But at least I’m trying. If they take this school away they might as well take away my future.”
In the past, critics have argued that year-round youth-training money was wasted on schools like Prologue. Instead of teaching dropouts about Shakespeare, gardening, civil disobedience, or African proverbs, society would be better served by giving them specific vocational training. Or so the argument went. “I don’t agree with this criticism, but there are some critics who say that the job-training aspect of it has not been emphasized enough,” says Patricia Fahy, director of the Private Industry Council, a mayor-appointed advisory group of business leaders that tries to create more jobs for youth. “And that they’re focusing too much on training students to get a GED or a diploma.”
Jackson agrees that such criticism misses the point. “We teach kids literature or poetry because those are things that build character and develop critical thinking skills and give them the confidence, background, and training to go into the work world,” says Jackson. “People just don’t go out and act like robots and machines. We have graduates who now work for the state of Illinois, or who are police officers, or who are at the California School of Design.”
Besides, Jackson points out, the recent budget cuts were not made after careful study. On the contrary, the year-round program was axed as the new Congress hacked away, hoping to balance the federal budget by blindly reducing the size of government. Under Gingrich’s leadership the House of Representatives proposed cutting about $800 million from several youth job initiatives, including a popular summer jobs program.
The loss of the summer jobs caused the greatest consternation, as mayors, governors, and editorial writers considered the consequences of thousands of jobless teenagers with nothing to do in the summer heat. So the Senate proposed to restore the summer jobs programs by whacking away even more year-round money. The two houses of Congress are expected to settle their differences in funding in the next few weeks. But no matter what compromises they reach, Chicago’s alternative high schools are facing deep cuts.
“The new Congress is cutting programs blindly without any concern for the consequences,” says Sheila Venson, Prologue’s director of career services. “They eliminate programs and call it reform. I’ll give you an example. They changed the rule so that if you’re under 18 you have to go to school to get welfare. OK, fine. Then they turn around and cut our funding. Now tell me, what schools are our kids supposed to go to if they can’t come here? They’ve already dropped out of the public schools.
“I know it’s not politically fashionable to say, but it’s social-service money that props up poor communities like Uptown. It’s social-service money that gives kids hope. We’re part of the safety net that prevents chaos in communities like ours. What happens when you cut that net? Has anybody in Congress asked that question? Does anybody care?”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Lloyd DeGrane.