Decreasing Violence through Education

December 18, 2013
Chicago, Illinois

Sometimes the smallest connections can bring about the biggest change. What started as a single meeting to figure out how to get young gang members back into school grew into a vibrant support group for at-risk youth and planted the seeds for one of Chicago’s most successful alternative high schools.

This meeting happened in the early 1990s when Holy Cross’ leaders decided to do something to help young gang members get back into school, having learned many never wanted to abandon their education. Many of the youth involved in gangs, parish leaders discovered, dropped out because attending would mean crossing gang boundaries. Even if schools encourage them to re-enroll, many teens don’t because of this safety concern, despite the fact that they desperately need the structure and support of school to help keep them off the streets and on a path to a better future. So to help them, Holy Cross’ leaders connected with Sr. Irene Dugan, who had extensive experience educating at-risk youth—and who was 85 and in a wheelchair at the time. She suggested working with the young gang members to improve their reading and writing skills. Sr. Irene told Holy Cross’ staff, “Bring the kids to me, bring pizza, and I’ll get the pop. We’ll see what we can do.”

So Holy Cross’ pastor took a group of 14- and 15-year-old gang members to eat pizza with Sr. Irene. As they ate, she asked about their lives, their homes, and then turned the conversation to reading. At the end of the evening, the teens agreed that they wanted to continue meeting with Sr. Irene as a group. Two powerful things grew out of this meeting: Holy Cross’ Reflections mentoring group for young men (which still meets) and a plan to get the young gang members safely back into school.

Holy Cross’ pastor connected with Chicago Public Schools and started an alternative high school in August of 1998 under CPS’s management. When it opened, the school had just 20 students and was housed in the basement of a parish building. Students were in class from 3 to 9 pm to keep them off the streets during the late afternoon and evening hours when most neighborhood violence was happening.

The parish celebrated the school’s opening by holding a peace march in the neighborhood. Over 1,000 people of all ages attended; they marched throughout the area, crossing gang lines in an act of peaceful defiance. The young gang members marching with them were nervous, but Holy Cross’ leaders, along with other neighborhood leaders, made sure that everyone got home without incident. It was a triumphant day for the community, and it set the stage for the new school that continues to help so many young people today.

After the school had been in operation for a few months, attendance started to become a problem. It was then that the local gang leader came by and asked to speak to the students, most of whom were in his gang. He told them that this school was a great opportunity and that it was put here just for them so that they could get an education and have a better life. He told them to take advantage of it and not to embarrass the gang by being drop-outs. He gave them his attendance policy that allowed fewer absences than the school’s policy and put the student with the most absences in charge of keeping track of everyone’s attendance.

Though the gang leader’s penalty for missing too much school was physical violence—which teachers and parish leaders firmly and immediately admonished—this gang-enforced attendance policy did result in fewer absences. It also showed how much this school means to the community, even among the gangs.

Holy Cross has found that the two most important aspects of working with these young people are:

  1. Establishing a relationship built on trust where they know you are trying to do something good for them.
  2. Basing your work in the community where they live. 

Because of these two principles, the school was responsible for helping to bring the crime rate down 60% in the neighborhood that first year and contributed to a dramatic reduction in violence-related deaths in the community. The school also gave the parish a unique opportunity to work with these young people on job skills and to direct them to family and counseling resources through other agencies.

When Sr. Irene Dugan—the woman who helped conceive of the school—died about a year before it opened, the young men who would become the school’s first class were crushed. They had grown very close to her in the year and a half they had been meeting her for pizza. So close, in fact, that these young gang members helped to bury her and suggested that the alternative school be named after her.

In the years since, the school has grown so much that it now serves approximately 300 students and is housed in two separate buildings on two different campuses under the same principal. The Peace and Education Coalition High School, as it is now called, was divided into these two campuses because a rival community gang also wanted to attend the school after hearing about the success that started in Holy Cross’ basement with just 20 students.

Though the school has changed over the years, one thing has remained the same: its connection to the community. The school currently has an 80% graduation rate, the highest of any alternative high school in the city. Holy Cross and other community leaders point to the school’s neighborhood roots as the source of its success. Watching these kids every day, seeing how they deal with the violence, the reality of their lives, and pressures they face has taught Holy Cross’ leaders a lot about how to help these students affect real positive change in their lives. The parish believes there’s no such thing as bad kids—only bad environments, bad teaching, and bad examples. If you change the environment, change the teaching, and change the examples, then the kids change for the better.

To learn more about Holy Cross’ programs (as well as other tCI programs), please visit our programs page. You can direct your support to Holy Cross’ Reflections program or any other tCI program here. While the alternative high schools are not Claretian programs you can help fund, they are very clear examples of the holistic approach the Claretians bring to creating solutions that are realistic about the very real needs of the people. This commitment to face the neighborhoods’ realities is a key ingredient to the sustained change tCI programs build for the lives and futures of the people in their communities.

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