College Mentors Prime Brighton Park Students for Success

At the start of the school year, Jesus Alvarez was “going downhill.” His homework went unfinished most nights, his assignments were marked with Ds and Fs and his behavior was disorderly, as he was causing fights and berating teachers.

For many students who grow up in Jesus’s neighborhood of Brighton Park, these behaviors can be signs of the multi-faceted challenges that they’re facing at home – challenges such as poverty, effects of disinvestment in schools, absent or overworked parents, homelessness, neighborhood violence and the pressure of working to provide for their families.

Now, with the guidance of a college mentor, the sophomore at Kelly High School is on his way to successfully completing 10th grade, a feat that seemed far-fetched just a few months ago.

“Thanks to her help, I improved a lot in all of my classes,” said Jesus of his mentor, Elizabeth Fajardo, a junior at St. Xavier University.

Led by the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, or BPNC, the after-school programs at Kelly High aim to improve graduation rates in the southwest suburban neighborhood that is too often categorized by poverty and low education.

BPNC partnered with United Way of Metro Chicago in 2013 to tackle the community’s generational challenges in a holistic way. It set a goal to raise the high school graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020, a goal that is gradually coming to fruition. Graduation rates have improved nearly 10 percent between 2013 and 2016, when 77.8 percent of Brighton Park seniors graduated.

As the lead agency with the Brighton Park Neighborhood Network, BPNC has invested in academic and enrichment programs at six community schools, including Kelly High. Pairing college mentors with more than 200 underserved students is just one way that they’re able to offer learning, social and emotional support.

Most of the students enrolled in the programs didn’t perform well in 7th and 8th grade or have gotten off track multiple times throughout the school year due to behavioral issues or truancy, said Cheryl Flores, BPNC’s director of Community Schools and Youth Services.

“You have a mentor with you to help ensure you end your freshman year on track,” said Cheryl. “We want to make sure you don’t struggle during freshman year because it’s a make it or break it year.”

Some of the programs, like the Leaders of Tomorrow program that addresses tardiness and poor behavior, are specific to the students’ challenges both in and out of school. The mentors assist students with their schoolwork and help to resolve problems with their peers and families. Sometimes, they just strike up a game at the end of the day, to give students a safe space to relax.

Gissel “GiGi” Villenueva, a freshman at Kelly, excessively “ditched” school last year because of bad friends, she said.

“The [mentors] helped me get through all my cuts and helped me bring my grades up. Now all my grades are better — I have Bs and Cs. If you need opportunities to get good grades or anything, you can come down here,” said GiGi of the small BPNC classroom tucked in the basement of Kelly High.

Other programs, like Escalera, prepare juniors and seniors for life after high school.

“We’re typically targeting what would be first-generation college students, not your typical high-achieving junior,” Cheryl said. “Those students are already self-motivated and looking for resources to prepare themselves to get to college. We target students who no one has ever talked to about college, or probably themselves don’t believe that they’re capable of college.”

Freddie Corona has found success through the Escalera program and is currently searching for the school that suits him. Through the program, he has visited three college campuses and learned how to perfect his resume. Freddie hopes to pursue medicine or computer engineering at a local university.

“When I became a junior, I was completely lost, and I joined out of nowhere. It inspired me to motivate myself to keep going,” Freddie said. “It’s kind of like a habit now. I just keep going.”

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