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%. 


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.

View a slideshow from this year’s graduation

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 TogetherHumboldt Park Social Services (Center for Changing Lives), Growing PowerNorth 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

Congratulations to West Town Academy Class of 2011!

On June 23rd, 2011 Greater West Town held the 12th Graduation of the West Town Academy. Sixty-seven young people comprised the Class of 2011. The Commencement Ceremony was held in the Malcolm X - Chicago Community Colleges’ Auditorium before an excited audience of family, friends, Academy staff and faculty, and other well-wishers. The Academy was honored to have two distinguished special guest speakers at the Commencement: 27th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett, Jr.; and Mr. Jesse Ruiz, the Vice President of the Chicago Board of Education.

Before his appointment to CPS’ Board, Mr. Ruiz chaired the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE). While at ISBE, he also led a state commission dedicated to addressing the Drop Out crisis, the “Task Force On Re-Enrolling Students Who Have Dropped Out Of High School.” Mr. Ruiz is a long-time resident of West Town, and has been a champion for youth, and for West Town Academy’s mission--to reach out and re-enroll our young people to complete their high school education. Alderman Burnett, a long-time supporter of the Academy and youth in our community, gave a stirring Commencement Address. He applauded the tenacity of the graduates in overcoming their previous challenges, and urged them to pursue higher education and to make the most of the second chance at a successful life that they found at West Town Academy. Facing the graduates, Alderman Burnett declared, ‘God has given you a ‘Do-Over’!” and encouraged them to make the most of it.

West Town Academy’s Class of 2011 is yet another milestone for our community, demonstrating once again that young people who had previously left high school can return and complete their education – with the support of their family and community.

West Town Academy’s Graduating Class of 2011 clearly showed their families and their community that they are much, much “more than a Drop-Out.” They showed themselves, each other, and the world that they can – and successfully did – take up major challenges and grow into responsible, focused young adults with dreams and aspirations for the future.

Of the 67 Graduates in the Class of 2011 . . .

23 have been accepted at 4-year universities and colleges

5 have enrolled in advanced career education and technical training programs
18 will attend community colleges
6 plan to enlist in the U.S. Armed Services
12 will go on to full-time employment.

The Commencement Address by 27th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett, Jr. evoked frequent applause, “Amens,” and “That’s Right!” responses from the attentive audience. Alderman Burnett showed empathy for the graduates’ life experience, and connected with their struggles, setbacks, initial failures and disappointments. He emphasized the ultimate satisfaction and sense of triumph a person experiences after making the extra effort to succeed. Referring to the graduates as “fighters” like himself – who didn’t and won’t give up - he commended their collective spirit of determination. He urged them to appreciate the opportunities they’d had to return to school and correct past mistakes.

Mr. Ruiz’s remarks to the Class of 2011 and their families stressed the importance of community and parental support that Graduates received in order to reach this point. He thanked the families of the Academy’s graduating class for believing in their young people, and backing them as they re-enrolled in high school. Mr. Ruiz stressed that by meeting their goal to earn a High School diploma, all of the members of the Class of 2011 now face a much more hopeful future.

WEST TOWN ACADEMY believes that each WTA student is MORE THAN A DROP-OUT".

Recently, in a partnership through After School Matters, Hard Cover, and Community TV Network, five West Town Academy students had the opportunity to create two films. The first one was to be a documentary on a relevant social issue of the students’ choosing, and the second one would be a narrative, or story, film. The documentary that the students made is entitled “More Than a Dropout,” and is a series of interviews with students who have dropped out of school, as well as various adults from around the community. It deals with public perceptions of students who leave school and the actual reasons for both dropping out and dropping back in. With the guidance of ASM staff member and filmmaker Erika Valenciana, and West Town teacher Stephanie Douglass, the students were able to work through the entire film-making process, and learn both the technical and artistic sides of producing a movie. West Town’s film even won First Prize for a First Voice Documentary at the ASM Film Festival in May, and the students were interviewed about their film and their experience in the program. Congratulations to the five West Town Students who shot, produced, edited, and spoke in this film: Daniel Chia, Krstopher Cozzi, Julian Espindola, Carrie Gall, and Kimberly Moreira.

Another Success Story

Yesenia Jimenez
Class Salutatorian, 2010
Northeastern Illinois University Student

Yesenia was like far too many high school students across this country: She didn’t feel motivated and couldn’t “connect” with her school. So she failed to make the commitment to go to school consistently, and fell further and further behind. She dropped out, frustrated by her academic struggles. When she first enrolled in the West Town Academy, she frequently missed classes, and thus continued to struggle with academics, especially in reading and math.

Yesenia often expressed a desire to work and go to college. But she had to confront the risk of being dropped from the Academy on several occasions, before her West Town Academy Mentor finally convinced her to make a real commitment to her own future. Once Yesenia acknowledged the importance of the opportunity West Town Academy was offering to her, she began to make up for lost time. She took advantage of the Academy’s After-School Tutoring program to get the additional academic support that she needed.

Despite the fact that Yesenia had very little work experience, she was increasingly interested in working part-time. In February 2008, Yesenia had the opportunity to develop her job-readiness through Life Skills classes and the summer employment program.

By February 2009, Yesenia made great academic improvement. She raised her test scores in both reading and math, and established and maintained an excellent attendance record. As a result, she was offered after-school employment at West Town Academy. Yesenia excelled and graduated from West Town Academy in June 2010 at the top of her class as the Salutatorian. She is currently enrolled at Northeastern Illinois University.

Read about other WTA Graduates and their success stories, coming soon.

African American Festival "More than just..."

February, 2011
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.

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.