Thinking About Their Future in a Different Way

Roosevelt University partners with a local high school and promises its students full financial support if admitted.

“Born out of struggle and the struggle continues.”

This is the motto of Chicago’s Social Justice High School, one of four small, autonomous schools on one campus, Little Village Lawndale High School Campus.

LVLHS was the result of a 19-day hunger strike in May 2001 by 14 community residents demanding that funds allocated for a new high school be used for that purpose. Officials had reneged on promises to build the school, instead diverting the funds to other priorities.

The high-profile community protest was a lesson in social justice. And the success of that struggle spawned the four-school complex, which opened in fall 2005 on the West Side of Chicago. The campus contains Multicultural Arts High School, World Language High School, Social Justice High School and Infinity: Math, Science and Technology High School. The separate schools share the library, sports facilities and auditoriums.

Adding to its unique origin, SoJo, as Social Justice High is called, is now part of an educational experiment initiated by Roosevelt University president Dr. Chuck Middleton. Middleton, impressed by SoJo students during a school program a few years ago, acted on impulse.

“Students were doing end-of-the-year reports and final presentations, all ninthgraders, and I listened to them as they did a really interesting project on migration from Central America, South America and Mexico to the United States,” Middleton recalls. “And it occurred to me that these were students coming from families where very few have been to college before. They were clearly bright, talented kids, but needed something to dream about so that they could think of their future in a different way.”

So on the spot, Middleton made a decision — and an offer to the students and Social Justice High’s principal, Rito Martinez. “It seemed like a natural thing to do at the moment,” Middleton says. He pledged that the students in the first two graduating classes who qualified academically for admission to Roosevelt would be admitted, and their families would not have to come up with the money.

“Then I came back to my office and said, ‘now we have to raise the money.’” That part, Middleton says, has been challenging but not impossible. “We will begin working a year in advance. We’ll take a team of financial aid officers and work with the families to take advantage of state and federal aid that they qualify for. We will make up the rest with institutional resources,” Middleton explains.

Those resources are relatively limited. The university’s endowment is $76 million, but Middleton says corporate and individual donations are making the pledge to Social Justice High viable. But the fundraising is ardent. “Next year is the big push for the final part of it,” he says.

Named for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the university was founded in 1945 (originally as Thomas Jefferson College) to admit students regardless of social or economic class, racial or ethnic origin, gender or age.

“It was done because it was the right and ethical thing to do,” Middleton says, explaining that social justice and civil liberties also were a part of the school’s mission. Like SoJo, Roosevelt has its own motto: “Dedicated to the enlightenment of the human spirit.”

Middleton says the university has embraced programs and partnerships that support the mission its motto reflects. Social Justice High School was a natural fit.

That first class is now in its junior year, and upon their graduation in 2009, those who qualify will be the first to benefit from the partnership program. Middleton says he expects 35 students out of the 95 in the class of 2009 to qualify for scholarships.

“The impact is twofold,” explains Martinez, a former community organizer who supported the hunger strike. “First, it makes college accessible by removing the worry about money. The other impact isn’t necessarily measurable, but it creates a sense of hope and the belief that college is attainable.”

Martinez is quick to point out that academics remain the most important ingredient in the ambitious plan that he calls “transformational, not only in the lives of the students and their families, but for the life of the community.”

He says it reinforces the fact that SoJo is a college preparatory school established first on the premise of academic excellence: “Our vision and mission is first to provide a rigorous academic experience. We also want our students to graduate with some defined values … fighting for their communities, taking a stand for social justice. We’re not dogmatic about it, but we want them to go on to college and become change agents.”

For those reasons, he contends, “this is a really amazing partnership.” The collaboration involves not only the high school and the university. The students and their parents are so critical to the success of the project that a series of seminars have been scheduled to bring the families to the college campus to interact with faculty, staff and administrators in discussions about college life.

“The reaction of parents has been similar to my first reaction,” Martinez says. “Is this too good to be true?” The seminars are designed “to build trust and to debunk myths about college,” he adds.

Roosevelt University, which is located on two campuses, in downtown Chicago and the suburb of Schaumburg, has a current enrollment of 7,200, according to Middleton. Forty percent are graduate students, 47 percent are White, 28 percent Black, 9 percent Hispanic, 9-10 percent international, 5 percent Asian and less than 1 percent American Indian. A particular challenge is that about 20 percent of the school’s enrollment is undocumented.

Illinois allows undocumented high school graduates of the state who meet academic requirements to attend public institutions with state financial aid. As a private institution, Roosevelt has to address the needs of undocumented students it admits through its own resources, a task Middleton has undertaken for this project.

Before the students have even set foot on Roosevelt’s campus as students, both Martinez and Middleton say the project has already had success. They have noticed an immediate ripple of enthusiasm “and a noticeable increase in parental support,” Middleton notes.

The reason, says Martinez, is that “for many of these students, education is the last opportunity to attain the American dream.”

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