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West Town Academy: Changing Lives & Building Educational Opportunity in the Face of the High School Dropout Crisis

On Friday June 20, 2014, the Greater West Town’s West Town Academy (WTA) alternative high school celebrated its 16th commencement ceremony at the Home of Life Baptist Church. Ninety-three former high school dropouts received their diplomas, one of the largest graduating classes in the school’s history.

Ceremony highlights included recognition of class Valedictorian, Anthony Garcia. Garcia’s mentor, Robert Williams, noted the challenges the scholar had to overcome in pursuit of his achievements. “Anthony had dropped out of school because he didn’t feel safe in his former high school,” recalled Williams, “it was hard for him to focus when he was always looking over his shoulder.”  Since enrolling in West Town, Anthony excelled.  He maintained a 4.0 grade point average, and was Student of the Quarter. Anthony’s success has also influenced his younger brother, who is looking forward to starting with West Town Academy this fall. 

Also recognized was class Salutatorian, Kourtnaese Dixon.  When the 2014 Prom Queen started with WTA, Kourtnaese was, admittedly, unaccustomed to the personalized attention from teachers and mentors.  “At first, frankly, she hated it,” noted Kourtnaese’s WTA mentor, Orlando Cardenas. “The way school staff wouldn’t let her give up – they called, they made home visits – they knew when she missed a day, and so did her family.”  Kourtnaese soon came to value the consistent follow-up, and it showed in her work and school involvement.  “Kourtnaese became a great, focused student,” said Cardenas, “and sincerely appreciates that we cared enough to help her succeed.”

Success in the face of adversity was a theme throughout the day.  Commencement speaker Dr. Moses Dunson spoke to graduates about the challenges he faced on his path to obtaining his BS in Biology, MBA and Doctorate of Pharmacy at the University of Illinois, and eventual management position with Walgreens. “I was not a very focused student,” recalled Dunson. “It took the influence of a self-made CEO to push me towards achieving my goals – and learning to help others along the way.”   Dr. Dunson encouraged the graduates to stay focused and continue moving in the direction of their own dreams, while remembering to give back to the community that supported them.

Such community support is critical.  Chicago’s public schools are rife with myriad challenges, struggling for decades to retain, educate and graduate young people of color, particularly African American and Latino males. The high school dropout crisis is complex, chronic and ongoing, and the consequences for individuals, families and communities are enormous. In GWTP’s focus service areas of the Near West Side, Humboldt Park, Garfield Park and Austin, less than half of the young people complete high school in 4 years or have the educational preparation needed to succeed in life. Chicago Public Schools’ high schools in these neighborhoods have all suffered from four-year dropout rates of 50%-60%. 

AN EFFECTIVE COMMUNITY RESPONSE: THE WEST TOWN ACADEMY 

WTA enrolls former Chicago Public Schools drop-outs ages 17-21 and helps our at-risk young people get a fresh start in life by providing them with a second chance to earn a high school diploma. Since Greater West Town moved into its state-of-the-art Community Career Training & Economic Development Center at 500 N. Sacramento Blvd in the Fall of 2010, WTA’s capacity to serve high school dropouts in these disadvantaged communities has greatly expanded. WTA will eventually enroll 200 former high school dropouts per year, continuing to provide much-needed model educational and employment opportunities for disadvantaged, youth.

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GWTP Woodworking Instructor Named "Educator of the Year"
Chicago, IL – Greater West Town Community Development Project (GWTP) Woodworkers Training Program instructor Doug Rappe has been named the Woodworking Machinery Industry Association’s (WMIA) Educator of the Year award for 2014.  The prestigious Wooden Globe Awards are presented for notable success and achievements in the woodworking industry.  Doug’s award honors him for his excellence in providing industry education using a structured curriculum and hands-on practicum incorporating high technology machinery. 

Doug has been with GWTP’s Woodworkers Training Program since its inception in 1992, and has played a central role in the design of the training curriculum, development of industry partnerships, and maintaining our industry relevance through continuous improvements and incorporation of cutting-edge technologies and teaching/career preparation methods.  Last year, Doug became one of the first wood manufacturing instructors in the State of Illinois to be certified to present and certify training participants in the Woodworking Career Alliance’s (WCA) Passport program, providing standardized skill competency achievements and continuing education opportunities for GWTP Woodworking trainees.  Doug also established a key partnership with the ReBuilding Exchange, a local non-profit organization whose social enterprise products feature reclaimed and recycled, locally-sourced wood products manufactured in part by GWTP participants. This partnership has helped provide transitional work for dozens of GWTP Woodworking Training participants.

Doug will be given the Wooden Globe Award at the 2014 Woodworking Industry Conference in late April at the Wyndham Rio Mar Beach Resort in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico. Bill Esler, Woodworking Network’s Editor-in-Chief who nominated Doug - and has been a vocal supporter of GWTP’s training programs- will be presenting the award.
Hope and Opportunity Bloom in Chicago's "Job's Desert"
CHICAGO –On Friday, November 8th, nearly 100 friends, family, community leaders, and business partners joined the Greater West Town Community Development Project (GWTP) in recognizing and celebrating the grit, determination, and achievements of job seekers, and the programs that serve them, in Chicago’s most economically distressed communities. The twenty-one local residents of Class 48 graduated with industry-recognized certification in Shipping and Receiving, joining more than 850 Shipping and Receiving Training Program alumni who have earned their occupational skills certificates since 1996. 

An “Oasis” of Hope and Opportunity in the “Jobs Desert” 

Recently, the Chicago Tribune depicted Chicago’s struggling west and south sides as a “scorching jobs desert.”  The newspaper called for creative strategies to overcome the chronic challenges to employment faced by residents in these communities:  A life in poverty, past incarceration, lack of a high school education, or the need to acquire new skills. GWTP has proven that community-based vocational training can plant hope and reap real opportunities for residents of these struggling neighborhoods. The success of GWTP’s vocational training programs shows that community residents with proper support can overcome even these daunting barriers.  Over 30% of program graduates have been ex-offenders, 40% were non-high school graduates, and 100% were low-income and unemployed.

The effectiveness of Greater West Town’s programs is rooted in their “Community-Business Partnership” strategy. At Friday’s celebration, Employer-Partner Jimmy Marks of Bird-X remarked on the benefits of the Community-Business Partnership in his address to the graduates, noting “Shipping and Receiving gets more and more complicated every day.  To be able to have people, like these students, come in with the skills already in hand is just wonderful.”  Bird-X has been a GWTP Employer-Partner for over 7 years.

Mr. Marks was joined on Friday by other GWTP Employer-Partner Steering Committee members Scot Hanson of Chicago Scenic and Brian Hofer from Keystone Aniline. GWTP works with local business partners to help design and deliver state-of-the-art training that leads to quality jobs for neighborhood residents, while providing their companies with the quality workforce they need to succeed, grow, and expand employment opportunities for community residents.