Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Reluctant Student Finds a Focus in Chicago Charter

By Lesli A. Maxwell — May 31, 2013 2 min read
Devonte Perry-McCullum, center, works on a photography assignment during his science class at Innovations High School, a reflection of the school’s emphasis on integrating the arts into core academic subjects. Innovations was the Chicago student's third try at high school. Now firmly back on track, Perry-McCullum was accepted to six of the seven colleges to which he applied this school year.

At every school he cycled through, teachers told Devonte Perry-McCullum’s mother how smart he was, how much potential her son was squandering.

By his own account, he was a chronic ditcher. If he showed up for school at all, he was late. And at the end of his sophomore year at Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men, administrators told Perry-McCullum he’d fallen so far behind, he’d have to repeat 10th grade. He “sucked it up” and got through the first semester of his second sophomore year, he says. Then he slipped up again, began “hanging with the wrong crowd,” and missed most of the second semester. For the third straight year, he’d have to be a sophomore.

Instead, Perry-McCullum transferred to Olive-Harvey Middle College, a small, alternative school on Chicago’s South Side that is one of the 22 campuses that make up the Youth Connection Charter School network. At first, it was a good fit. Perry-McCullum says he knew his teachers, they knew him, and he liked the challenge of taking college classes as part of the dual-enrollment program. “I was finally getting B’s and C’s,” he says.

But that good start soon went awry, too. This time, it was fights with another student that led to Perry-McCullum being asked to leave the school. But the principal, like so many others, thought Perry-McCullum had promise and wanted him to get another chance. In fall 2012, with the help of the Olive-Harvey principal, the young man landed at Youth Connection’s Innovations High School in downtown Chicago. The school, which integrates the arts across its curriculum, exposed him to something he had never considered as a career: sound engineering.

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.

“I am not a very artistic person on paper,” Perry-McCullum says. “But the sound-engineering class was amazing for me. I adored it. I got to write and record my own commercial, learn the soundboard, and how to use Pro Tools,” the audio software widely used in recording and editing music, including film and television scores.

“I never wanted to miss that class,” he says.

That intense engagement, along with Innovations’ close-knit culture, has kept Perry-McCullum on track. He also credits the school’s rigorous grading policy—anything below 77 percent is considered failing—as a key motivator for keeping his grades high.

See Also

Read more about the Youth Connection Charter Schools that specialize in giving students second chances: Chicago Charter Network Specializes in Dropouts.

He is due to graduate this month, and after applying to seven colleges and being accepted by six, he’ll attend either Prairie View A&M University or Paul Quinn College, both historically black institutions in Texas.

“It feels good to make my mother proud,” Perry-McCullum says. “I’d deeply hurt her before when all those teachers kept telling her I was smart and capable and could do so much better.”


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