Special Segment: CPS kids learn job skills

August 3, 2009 (CHICAGO) It's an effort by the Chicago Public Schools' high school turnaround program. And it's giving students a chance to help others while helping themselves.

It's a tale of two high schools in two tough neighborhoods: Harper in Englewood, Fenger in Roseland. Not too long ago, Harper infamously had broken computers, a crumbling facade, an embarrassing gymnasium.

Today, Fenger doesn't look much better.

"It's something similar like Harper," said Kevin Holloway, junior, Harper High School. "Classrooms need to be painted. Holes need to be filled in. It's gonna be a tough job."

But Harper got a makeover. The Reverend Jesse Jackson and former schools chief Arne Duncan celebrated the improvements with a dip in the new pool.

Like Harper, Fenger is being remodeled under the CPS high school turnaround initiative. Harper students are helping to give Fenger a facelift. They know firsthand the difference renovations can make.

"I thought the school was a bad learning environment because you really couldn't concentrate on your work when you see drawings on the wall and paint peeling and stuff like that," said Kiara Booth, junior.

"They started all of these new programs because we had all new staff at our school. They thought it would be better and it did turn out better," said Demeirus Mosley, senior.

The students are not only giving the school a new look. They also are getting a boost.

"It's designed to build work experience. It's designed to build soft skills. It's also designed to build confidence," said Dan Morgan, carpentry teacher, Harper High School.

Dan Morgan is both carpentry teacher and surrogate father for many of the students. He hand picked most of them to provide a second chance.

"We have two kids in our program that's functionally illiterate, reading on a very, very low reading level. We have three or four kids that were on the expulsion list to be thrown out of school," said Morgan.

In addition to hands on job skills, they also get literacy help and workforce development training.

"It's basically to teach them the skills they need to know for the job and to integrate reading and writing," said January Miller, Harper High school, English teacher.

"She helps us with resumes, cover letters, job applications, showing us how things should be done," said Jaree Brady, junior.

When summer ends, the students will have earned money through employment, learned a trade and strengthened their reading skills.

Morgan fears the alternative. He says one of the students who he tried unsuccessfully to enroll is now accused in the recent shooting of a UPS driver.

"Sometimes it gets overwhelming, but I can't give up," said Morgan.

The students know what's at stake too. They call their company 'Look at Us.' For them, there is significance to the name.

Harper is supposed to be a bad school, but it's not all that bad that people think it is," said Sterling Booth, junior. "Look at Us, we're a team, we're working together and we're not just out here in the streets. We're out here doing a good thing for the community."

"Look at Us" is funded in part by the state's attorney's Project Safe Neighborhood program. It works to help at-risk young people get on the right path and avoid the criminal justice system. And the students are doing only part of the renovation. Licensed contractors will do the really heavy lifting.

For more information, visit www.cps.edu/Pages/home.aspx.

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