'Superman' Builds Houses—and Learns

How an Innovative Learning Program Changed a Life

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A few weeks ago, I was invited to a Chicago screening of "Waiting For 'Superman,'" the new documentary about education that's getting so much attention. ("Anticipation and Controversy Surround 'Superman' Release," Sept. 1, 2010.) It was great and eye-opening and a little strange. At times, I felt as if I was watching my own life story on the big screen, even though I've never really thought of my life as Hollywood before.

And yet, after dropping out of school and eventually getting back on track through a great education-and-job-training program, I've learned a lot about what it takes to help students like me make it. Certain things emphasized in the movie rang true for me, like when your neighborhood school fails to provide the kind of academic program and support system that kids like me need.

My story is this: I gave it my all in my high school on Chicago's South Side. But I got picked on, and so I hung out with guys who didn't. They were in a gang, and I started hanging out with the wrong crowd. I didn't start trouble, but it came to me. Whenever I went to teachers, the principal, or deans, it wouldn't get resolved. I didn't feel like my school was safe, or that my teachers cared. I felt like they didn't want me at school because they would still get paid whether I was there or not. There wasn't much going on in school that interested me or seemed worth learning. I was just putting in the time. Pretty soon, the streets seemed like a safer bet than sitting in a classroom wasting time.

So, when I was 17 or 18 years old, I just stopped going.

On the other hand, my mentor, Bertram Givan, who watched the movie with me, got good grades and played basketball in school. But he jumped around to different high schools in central Illinois and came up short on credits to graduate. Midway through his senior year, he was looking for evening or summer classes, but resorted to what he was comfortable with: street and gang activity. He quit school and eventually spent some time in jail. Like me, it took becoming a father for him to realize he needed to change his life.

We both got into the YouthBuild McLean County program in Bloomington, Ill. In YouthBuild programs across the country, young people who have dropped out of high school spend half their time finishing their high school diplomas or earning their GEDs. They spend the other half learning job skills by building affordable housing for homeless or poor families.

YouthBuild changed our lives, and the model is something schools can learn from.

When I first started, I thought it would be the same as my high school in Chicago. But it was completely different. Everything I was learning had a point, and I knew that I was getting skills I could use on the job. My teachers didn't judge my past. They would say, "Your past is bad, but we aren’t going to look at that. We are here to help you make a new future." My teachers cared about me, and I had support like I didn't even have at home. That support system needs to be there for students to excel in life. I felt safe there.

If I ran into a bump, I would explain the barriers, and my teachers helped me figure out solutions. Once or twice, for example, I was stranded at home and had no way to get to school. The staff members helped me figure out transportation. Another time, I was having problems providing Pampers and milk for my son, and they gave me Wal-Mart cards and told me about organizations that would help out.

For Bertram, developing those close personal relationships with staff members made all the difference. Plus, he felt like the teachers recognized different kids have different learning styles. To expect a student to sit down and listen to a lecture for an hour just doesn't work for everyone. The teachers had a way of getting us interested in a subject and seeing why we needed to know this stuff. For the first time, learning wasn't a chore.

When no one expected anything from us, that's what we delivered.

Bertram found out that when teachers expected more of him, a lot more than his teachers in public school did, he expected more, too. When no one expected anything from us, that's what we delivered.

Bertram finished the program in 2005, got his GED, and went on to community college and made the dean's list. Like me, he thought he was going to be a probation officer, but currently is working on his bachelor's degree in organizational leadership at Greenville College, in Greenville, Ill. Now, we both work at YouthBuild and help students who are like we were.

I never saw myself graduating from high school before. I just didn't see it. But this past June, at age 22, I got a high school diploma through the program. I'm now in my third semester at Heartland Community College, in Normal, Ill. I know now that the more I learn, the more options I'll have.

There ain't no stopping me now. After finding a program that understood all that I needed to succeed academically, I got that first foundation to build the house—that first cement block—my diploma. And now, I’m going to build me a mansion with 50 bedrooms. The sky's the limit as far as my education goes.

Vol. 30, Issue 06, Page 23

Published in Print: October 6, 2010, as 'Superman' Builds Houses
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