Looking at Andrew Delgado’s profile on paper, few educators would have expected this 19-year-old former dropout to be in contention for valedictorian of the class of 2013.
He was a high school dropout at 16, a teenage father to a young son, and someone who thought a GED certificate was the best he could expect for himself. Plus, Delgado’s first encounter with the principal at Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos Puerto Rican High School came when he was thrown out of its graduation ceremony last year.
Matthew Rodriguez, the principal of the 150-student Campos school, remembers how Delgado “caused a major disruption” at the event when he and the mother of his son, who was graduating that day, began screaming at one another. “When he came to me later in the summer to apply, I told him, ‘Hell no,’ ” Rodriguez recalls. But Delgado persisted and wrote an essay that persuaded Rodriguez to give him a chance.
Now, nine months later, he’s vying with one other student to finish at the top of the graduating class. He plays on the school basketball team and has A’s and B’s in his courses. He has completed a senior portfolio and applied to six colleges.
“If I get this, I’ll be the first student-father to be valedictorian,” Delgado says.
He has already enrolled at Malcolm X College in Chicago, where he will work toward an associate degree in criminal justice. Later, Delgado wants to transfer to Monmouth College in northwest Illinois to try for a four-year degree in that field.
Three students who dropped out of Chicago high schools found a path to graduation at a Youth Connection Charter School—a network of schools that specialize in serving recovered dropouts or students at high risk of not earning a diploma.
Located in the heart of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community, Campos has long partnered with the Lolita Lebrón Family Learning Center. The center provides onsite bilingual child-care services for students with young children, as well as parenting classes, family-literacy workshops, and time built into the school day for student-parents to interact with their children, says Danette Sokacich, the assistant principal at Campos and the director of the family-learning center.
And the school puts a heavy emphasis on community building and service, in addition to academics. Urban agriculture and social ecology are major themes, where students engage in project-based learning. After a study showed the surrounding Humboldt Park neighborhood to be a “food desert,” with little access to fresh fruits and vegetables, Campos a few years ago launched an urban agriculture initiative. Through their science, math, and social science courses, students have created a community-development plan that led to a new, rooftop greenhouse at the school and neighborhood gardens that students maintain.
Read more about the Youth Connection Charter Schools that specialize in giving students second chances:.
Delgado, who still sees his old friends from Roberto Clemente High, says he often fends off assumptions that Campos “isn’t a real school.”
“The reality is, though, that I’ve had to work harder here than anyone ever asked me to work at Clemente,” he says. “There aren’t excuses for not taking school and being part of this community seriously. But there is a lot of help to get you there.”