Trunk party equips S. Side students for college

  • By Paul D. Bowker
  • Education reporter
  • July 31, 2008 @ 8:31 AM

Standing among a mountain of blue and black footlockers today at Robeson High School alongside their parents, a group of South Side graduates welcomed thousands of dollars in gifts that will soon adorn their dorm rooms at college.

The "College Trunk Party," which will be held Saturday for 75 city high school graduates at Robeson High School, 6835 S. Normal Blvd., is a program that sends students off to college with a footlocker full of blankets, desk lamps, sheets and toiletries donated by community members and businesses.

Since the program was launched seven years ago by Bonnie Miah, a staffer and student advocate at Robeson, $65,000 in gifts and 435 trunks have been given away to graduating seniors. All of the students, selected among 15 high schools, come from low-income homes.

"This means a lot to me," says Johnny Johnson, a graduate from Englewood who is going to study computer science at the University of Minnesota. "Coming from a community of poverty and making something of myself."

During Saturday's party students will pick up their footlockers and attend seminars on what to expect during the first year of college,  how to deal with homesickness, and focusing on academic goals.

For 18 students and their parents, the event includes free transportation. On Saturday, they'll board a bus for Benedict College in Columbia, S.C.

Miah started the program because Robeson's graduating seniors were sometimes not prepared to take the next step.

She recalls finding out that the valedictorian of one Robeson graduating class didn't have college plans. Another left for college without a can of deodorant.

"I've got to do something about my babies," Miah says. "They're all my babies."

At Robeson, 96.5 percent of the 1,200 students come from low-income homes. More than 99 percent are African-American. Many, Miah says, don't even live with their parents or come from broken homes.

"They're living with their aunts and their uncles, all that; fixed income," Miah says.

Alderman Freddrenna Lyle (D-6),  has worked with Miah to expand the program the last three years.

"We are delighted we can hold up these young people, who have done what we asked them to do," Lyle says. "We believe in the children. We want them to know we believe in them."

The program has become such a staple at Robeson that CPS officials want to expand it to other schools.

"If you don't have the basics, you're going to wash out, you're not going to make it," says Arne Duncan, CPS chief. "This, to me, is so important."

Robeson has seen attendance rise over the last three years, but the school remains on probation due to low test scores.

The push for more college-bound students at Robeson comes at a time when 50 percent of the city's high school graduates have been accepted to 2- or 4-year colleges and annual scholarships given to graduating seniors citywide rose to $82.2 million in 2007.

This year, CPS officials hope to top that mark. Duncan says the final numbers won't be known for a few weeks, although a CPS spokesperson says the partial total has reached $47 million.

"More and more folks around the country believe in our students," Duncan says. "We're working much harder internally and nationally to get more recognition for the quality of students coming out."

Paul Bowker, a Chicago-area journalist with 25 years of experience, covers Chicago Public Schools for the Daily News.