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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.

Learn more about the West Town Academy


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.


West Town Academy: Creating Educational and Economic Opportunity in the  
Face of the High School Dropout Crisis
On June 21, 2013, the Greater West Town’s West Town Academy (WTA) alternative high school celebrated its 15th commencement ceremony at the Alpha and Omega Missionary Baptist Church in West Garfield Park. Ninety-three former high school dropouts received their diplomas, the largest graduating class in the school’s history.

Lisa Hampton, the Resource Administrator for the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ), served as the commencement speaker. Over the past year, the WTA and IDJJ have worked closely together to implement GWTP’s GREAT (Gaining Re-integration through Education, Advocacy and Training) Opportunities program, which provides education, training and support services to youth and young adults involved with the juvenile justice system. GWTP was one of only 21 agencies in the country, and the only one in Illinois, to receive a $1.5 million dollar grant to implement the program, which engages at-risk youth in academics, service learning, and career preparation for successful re-integration and involvement with their communities. 

The Class of 2013 exemplifies the success of our community-based and community-driven strategy to expand educational and economic opportunity for at-risk youth and the communities in which they live. 

For decades, Chicago’s public schools have struggled 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 our young people complete high school in 4 years. Less than half of our young people have the educational preparation needed to succeed in life. Chicago Public Schools’ high schools in these neighborhoods all suffer 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, our capacity to serve high school dropouts in these disadvantaged communities has greatly expanded. The West Town Academy Class of 2011 was 67; in 2012, the graduating class grew by leaps and bounds to a then-historic high of 92. This year we topped that, with projections of up to 100 students graduating by years' end. WTA will eventually enroll 200 former high school dropouts per year.

Illinois Senator Dick Durbin Visits GWTP,  
Pledges Support for Effective Job Training

Chicago – With critical funding for job training threatened by steep Congressional budget cuts, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin visited Greater West Town Community Development Project’s (GWTP) Community Career Training and Economic Development Center, to call for continued public investment for effective programs. 

Senator Durbin met and thanked two local employers, Dave Bochniak of Chicago Booth Manufacturing and James Marks of Bird-X, Inc. for their support and participation in GWTP's Community-Business Job Training Partnership. “These programs work. By actively involving employers, who guide the curriculum to meet the needs of their marketplace, this is a true ‘job creation engine,’” noted Durbin. 

Twenty-seventh ward alderman, Walter Burnett, echoed the Senator’s sentiments. “I have supported this organization for many years, going back their old [Fulton Street] location, because I know these programs are effective. I’ve seen many graduates hired by good local companies, which of course is a win-win for our whole community.” 

GWTP’s track record is impressive. Throughout the deep recession, during which GWTP’s inner-city communities witnessed a 150% increase in unemployment, the agency kept hope alive, placing over 87% of vocational training graduates in local, living-wage earning jobs. “The credit goes to the community-business partnership model,” stresses GWTP Executive Director Bill Leavy. “We succeed by serving as the link between disadvantaged community residents who need jobs and local employers who require a skilled workforce.” 

In addition to GWTP’s Woodworking and Solid Surface Manufacturing and Shipping and Receiving training programs, Senator Durbin and Alderman Burnett visited the West Town Academy (WTA), the agency’s alternative high school for Chicago Public School dropouts. “The dropout crisis and the unemployment crisis are interrelated,” noted WTA principal, Keisha Davis-Johnson. “Without earning at least a high school diploma, followed by post-secondary education or certified job training, one cannot hope to compete in today’s global economy.”

U.S. Department of Labor awards Greater West Town Project $1.5 Million for Young Adult Ex-Offender Services
June 25, 2012, Chicago - GWTP has received one of 21 federal grants awarded to community based organizations across the country to fund the GREAT (Gaining Re-integration through Education, Advocacy and Training) Opportunities program, which provides education, training and support services to youth and young adults returning from the juvenile justice system.

Secretary of Labor, Hilda L. Solis, noted that the awards will “help vulnerable youth receive the training and support they need to gain valuable job skills and improve their long-term employment prospects.” Program participants will earn high school diplomas and industry-recognized credentials. 

“We appreciate the Department of Labor’s program support, which will allow us to expand and strengthen education and employment services for ex-offender youth of our community”, noted GWTP’s Executive Director, Bill Leavy. 

Community service learning and work experience, integrated with GWTP’s West Town Academy’s comprehensive alternative high school curriculum, are integral aspects of the GREAT Opportunities program. Key community partners Blocks TogetherGraffiti ZoneGarfield Park Community Council,  North Lawndale Employment Network, and Global Network Development Center help provide service learning and internship opportunities. These agencies, along with over 40 other supporting community service partners and the office of Cook County Juvenile Probation and Court Services, will provide coordinated recruitment and referrals and wrap-around support services for program participants. “We are grateful for the broad support of our community agency partners and local employers for this grant application, and for their help in our agency’s work to meet the needs of our community’s many struggling, at-risk and underserved young people,” said Keisha Davis-Johnson, West Town Academy Principal.

Learn more about the GREAT Opportunities program

West Town Academy: Creating Educational and Economic Opportunity in the Face of the High School Dropout Crisis
Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership CEO Karin Norington-Reaves addresses WTA's 2012 Graduating Class.

In June 2012, Greater West Town’s West Town Academy celebrated the success of our 14th Graduating Class.  Ninety-two young people – all former high school dropouts – received their High School Diplomas, the largest graduating class in the 14-year history of the Academy. 57% of our 2012 graduates are going on to community colleges, 24% are enrolled in 4-year universities, and 9% will be pursuing advanced career-related technical training.  Others have already secured employment, or plan to join the U.S. Armed Forces.

The Class of 2012 exemplifies the success of our community-based and community-driven strategy to expand educational and economic opportunity for at-risk youth and the communities in which they live. 

For decades, Chicago’s public schools have struggled 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 our young people complete high school in 4 years. Less than half of our young people have the educational preparation needed to succeed in life. Chicago Public Schools’ high schools in these neighborhoods all suffer 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, our capacity to serve high school dropouts in these disadvantaged communities has greatly expanded. The West Town Academy Class of 2011 was 67; in 2012, the graduating class has grown by leaps and bounds to a historic high of 92.  WTA will eventually enroll 200 former high school dropouts per year.

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February, 2011 

African American Festival "More than just..."
At West Town Academy, students are encouraged to study, acknowledge and embrace different cultures. Every year in anticipation of African American History Month, Academy teachers and students collaborate to plan and hold an African American Festival. Not only is the festival a celebration of African American culture, it is an exploration of history, the arts, society, politics, and economics. Through this year’s home-room study projects, original music and dance performances, and student-designed interactive activities, students expanded their knowledge of the local, national and global contributions made by African Americans. They also discovered and expressed their own special talents as well. The theme of this year’s Festival was “More Than Just …” They learned that African American celebrities they studied were “more than just . . . “ , athletes, performers, and millionaire entrepreneurs; they were also social change activists, community leaders, innovators and trend setters in the arts, and philanthropists. 

Students and their guests visited each homeroom to see presentations of what each homeroom team learned about African American history and culture. The students also planned and held an Academy assembly. This year’s guest speaker was Dr. Conrad Worrill, Director of Northeastern Illinois University’s “Jacob Carruthers Center for Inner-City Studies.” An author, activist, teacher, and scholar, Dr. Worrill explained the origins of African American studies and the African American History Month observance – first proposed by renowned African American historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson in Chicago in 1926! He also shared his own first-hand experiences in civil rights struggles in the U.S. Dr. Worrill stressed to students the importance of making wise choices in life, urging them to become “more than just” one facet of themselves, but rather to use all their gifts to contribute back to their community and to humanity as a whole. different cultures. Every year in anticipation of African American History Month, Academy teachers and students collaborate to plan and hold an African American Festival. Not only is the festival a celebration of African American culture, it is an exploration of history, the arts, society, politics, and economics. Through this year’s home-room study projects, original music and dance performances, and student-designed interactive activities, students expanded their knowledge of the local, national and global contributions made by African Americans. They also discovered and expressed their own special talents as well. The theme of this year’s Festival was “More Than Just …” They learned that African American celebrities they studied were “more than just . . . “ , athletes, performers, and millionaire entrepreneurs; they were also social change activists, community leaders, innovators and trend setters in the arts, and philanthropists. 

Some West Town Academy students unveiled the debut of a music video they created, while others read original poetry, and another team performed dances. The Academy also welcomed a special guest performer -- 7-year old singer Trinity Bonafé – who demonstrated that she is “more than just” a seven year old. All of the home-room projects, performances and activities emphasized the importance of understanding our heritage and background, while growing to become “more than just” a member of one group into a contributing member of a broader community. Academy Principal Keisha Davis-Johnson ended the program with a salute to the students for their hard work and self expression in creating the Festival, and their success in demonstrating the positive power that young people can have. Every year in October, the Academy students and staff also plan and hold another major cultural celebration, the Latin American Heritage Festival.

Community Dedication & Open House Draws Over 400 to Greater West Town's "COMMUNITY CAREER TRAINING & ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT CENTER" -

The Dream Becomes a Reality!

December 9th, 2010 Greater West Town’s staff, Board members, and the community dedicated Greater West Town’s new Center at 500 N. Sacramento to the service and revitalization of the surrounding neighborhoods. 

Student “ambassadors” from West Town Academy welcomed and signed in guests, while the SON DEL VIENTO Folkloric Ensemble greeted them with dazzling vocal and dance performances in the Academy’s new Multi-Purpose Room. Quickly the crowd swelled to more than 400 people! Among those guests: Local employers with longstanding Community-Business partnerships with GWTP’s Adult Placement and Industrial Skills Training programs; local and state officials; community residents; colleagues from other community service agencies; current GWTP Program Participants; and alumni from all the programs, eager to see GWTP’s new “home.” 

GWTP Board Member Rev. Gerald Hicks gave the Dedication of the new Center at a handsome podium designed and built by Woodworking program participants, and spoke of the mission, purpose, and future of the agency – to serve and empower local residents by providing expanding educational and economic opportunities to all who take part in Greater West Town’s programs. 

READ MORE warehouse help


October, 2010

A Vision realized . . . New Community Training Center Completed! . . . Expanded Operations Begun!

In October 2010, Greater West Town Project completed construction and moved expanded operations into its new home in the community at 500 N. Sacramento Blvd. GWTP transformed an unused, outmoded 55,000 sq.ft. factory into a modern, state-of-the-art, energy efficient facility. The Center has been recognized nationally as a model community development initiative linking the education and training of disadvantaged area residents with economic development efforts and workforce needs of local businesses. 

The Center houses the West Town Academy Alternative High School where out-of-school youth return to earn their diplomas and prepare for careers, the Woodworking and Shipping and Receiving job training programs in partnership with local industry, and the Business Incubator that will provide affordable “green” space for start-up companies committed to local hiring. 

The new Center will enable Greater West Town Project o significantly expand educational and economic opportunity to Chicago residents from struggling disadvantaged communities, nearly doubling the number of community residents GWTP can serve. 

Get the details about the educational and economic benefits that the new Center will generate for the community: Link to Community Career Training and Economic Development Center. 

How is the New Community Center funded? READ MORE
October 30, 2009 

US Treasury Secretary Geithner Visits GWTP 
Hails Programs and Development Plans as National Model. 


Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner recognized GWTP’s training programs and development plans as national models for community economic development while announcing a major increase in Federal funds for investment and low income communities across the country. Secretary Geithner visited GWTP’s training center along with state, federal and local officials on Friday, October 30th to promote the Obama administration’s expansion of the New Market’s Tax Credit Program that Greater West Town has used to help finance its Community Career Education & Economic Development Center, which is currently under construction at 500 N. Sacramento. READ MORE