Youth Connection facilities help students juggle barriers

By Kevin Beese Staff Reporter

Sheila Venson is well aware of how her Youth Connection Charter School facilities in Chicago stack up in State Report Card data.

All 19 of the YCCS institutions rank in the top 30 of highest mobility rates for public schools in the state. (Only the Department of Corrections’ Illinois Youth Center schools rank higher as a whole.) None of the YCCS facilities has a mobility rate below 76.9 percent, meaning more than three-quarters of a class is likely to be different at the school year’s end from what it was at the year’s beginning. One YCCS facility has a 95 percent mobility rate.

All 19 YCCS institutions are ranked in the lowest-performing schools in the state.

None meets the state’s criteria of 90 percent attendance; and only one (Jane Addams Alternative High School) has an attendance rate in striking distance of that state benchmark, at 80.5 percent. Most have attendance rates in the 50 or 60 percent range.

Only three of the 19 YCCS facilities have student four-year graduation rates above 50 percent.

One-third of YCCS students are homeless.

Venson, executive director of YCCS, said that State Report Card data does not take into account the progress students make at the collection of charter high schools for dropouts.

“Our teachers are a different breed,” Venson said. “Our students are not just juggling school. Many of them have three or four barriers to complete. It could be parenting, they’re pregnant, they’re on parole or probation. Twelve hundred of our students are homeless.”

Venson said YCCS facilities having a high mobility rate is not a surprise to her and other leaders of the charter school network, which falls under Chicago Public Schools.

“Kids come to us at all times of year. We are not a stable student population,” Venson said. “Kids come to us from the Department of Corrections. They come in when they leave their school. Kids come in and out. We have graduation two times per year because of the amount of time kids are here.”

The alternative high schools don’t fit the criteria the Illinois State Board of Education uses to measure school performance, Venson said.

“There is a five-year graduation rate on the School Report Card. We do not have kids for five years,” Venson said. “What is reported does not match what we do.”

The high mobility rate in YCCS facilities “is difficult, very difficult” for keeping continuity, Venson said.

“We do a lot of stuff. We have resources and help from community agencies,” Venson said. “We serve a very high risk student population. We do what we can do in providing student instruction.”

She said despite the lack of accolades on the School Report Card and other measuring sticks, YCCS continues to make an impact. Venson noted that the program has graduated more than 25,000 students in its 20 years of operation.

“The State Board knows who we are and they know the work we and alternative schools statewide do,” Venson said. “I don’t think policymakers want to see us go away. Somebody has to do what we do. What would the state do if we were not here?

“I think we do what we do well. Our students are at much greater need. They have more needs than general population kids.”