CHA program points young residents toward college

Mathematics, reading and etiquette lessons: It's not quite the formula for a laid-back break from school.

But then again, relaxation wasn't the goal of 25 Chicago students this summer.

The students, residents of the Chicago Housing Authority, graduated last night from the CHA's Next Step: College Prep, a seven-week course in skills that will help them succeed after high school.

"It was a challenge," says Tysheanna Troupe, 16. "I had to sell myself. I had to bring a nice attitude."

Troupe, a prospective junior at Prosser Career Academy High School, says she earned a spot in the program with a solid interview and a 3.1 grade point average. Officials say fewer than two of five applicants made the cut, and that the results are emphatic.

According to the authority, students who participated this year raised their average scores in reading by nearly three grade levels, and in math, by nearly two.

What began as a broad effort to educate CHA youngsters during the summer has evolved into an intensely focused, high-tech curriculum, and officials say the program's success has led to a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education for an after-school pilot program.

"These are the best results that I've ever seen in any other program in the summer," says Crystal Brown-Black, executive director of Windows of Opportunity, a CHA nonprofit affiliate. "What we want them to do is see that it doesn't matter where you come from. What matters is where you're going, and where you can go."

Next Step began in 2004, when Siemens Building Technologies, a CHA contractor, hired a consultant to work with the authority on a summer program for its youth. Since then, officials have refined it to include, among other things, computer software that measures students' progress in math and reading.

This summer, the students also met with executives at Siemens and other Chicago businesses such as the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Toward the end of the program, they polished their table manners over dinner at Maggiano's Little Italy.

And for all of this, they received $900.

Charley Cohen, spokesman at Siemens, says the financial incentive and data-oriented software curriculum have helped students advance their careers.

"It's OK to flip burgers at McDonald's," Cohen says, "but if you can make the same amount learning, why not do it?"

He says Siemens, which has worked with the authority on energy-efficiency and security-camera initiatives, spent about $45,000 on the program this year, and that the CHA funded $22,500 in stipends for students in the program.

Cohen says the investment has helped the company build a well of potential future employees.

"Bottom line: Siemens is an engineering firm. Education is the key to our success," he says. "This is just a natural relationship."

There's another natural fit, Cohen says: the one between the program's teacher and her students.

Cecelia A. Tabb, 48, ran the program this year inside a computer lab at the Illinois Institute of Technology. She says she lived in the now-demolished Robert Taylor Homes, a public-housing development that became notorious for its violence.

"This was God calling for me," Tabb says of her work with Next Step. "I'm able to give back and share my experiences."

She says she that while many of her students face challenges at home, she tries to instill in them a sense of resilience.

"I'm able to pour into them some encouragement and inspiration that I wish someone had given me," Tabb says. "I tell them: It doesn't matter how you start. You don't have to repeat the cycle. You can move forward."

Richsha Buckles is making plans to do just that. Buckles, soon a senior at ACE Technical Charter High School, says she saved most of her Next Step stipend to help her mother pay for school supplies, as well as something farther down the road.

"Medical school can be expensive," says Buckles, 17. "My focus is to be a doctor, and I'm not letting anything take me from that path."

Staff Writer Adrian G. Uribarri can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 12, or adrian at chitowndailynews dot org.