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Graduating Seniors Testify to Elev8’s Strengths

Graduating Seniors Testify to Elev8’s Strengths

“I had no clue what I was going to do with my life after high school,” said Kaylor Oscar. “The health center helped me manage my weight, which introduced me to the study of science, which led me to want to become a forensic chemist.” 

“It helped me with public speaking,” added Terranisha Douglas. “It helped me get my job.” 

“It showed me I could be a leader,” said Amber Sims. 

“You learn different skills,” said Nafatari Hale. “It’s really fun.” 

Oscar, Douglas, Sims and Hale, all high school seniors at Perspectives Academy in Auburn Gresham, were reminiscing about their middle-school experiences with Elev8 – an effort of LISC Chicago and Atlantic Philanthropies to prepare sixth- through eighth-grade students for high school and beyond. 

When they graduate this spring, the four will be among the roughly 65 percent of Chicago public school students to earn a diploma after entering high school four years ago. All four plan to attend college in the fall, along with many of their classmates at Perspectives, which boasts high college enrollment rates. But these four represent a unique subset of young people whose interests were shaped by participation in the Elev8 program, which has been supported since 2008 by large grants from The Atlantic Philanthropies

The Elev8 Way

Elev8 brings expanded programming to five Chicago public middle schools, along with in-school health centers that connect students, families and community residents to medical services and health education. Elev8’s extended school day provides extra educational and enrichment programs, plus supportive services such as mentoring for students and financial counseling for families. Increased parental engagement is another core element. 

Douglas, Hale, Oscar and Sims got involved in Elev8 when they entered Perspectives Middle Academy in sixth grade. Their experiences parallel those of hundreds of other high school grads this spring who participated in Elev8 at Ames Middle School in Logan Square, Marquette Elementary in Chicago Lawn, Orozco Academy in Pilsen, and Reavis Elementary in the Quad Communities. 

“Kaylor used the after-school programs to build her self esteem,” said Tenisha Jones, education director at Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation, who has counseled hundreds of Elev8 students at Perspectives. “She struggled with her weight and used the program to help herself. She spent a lot of time in the health center with a nurse and social worker. You could see how students were learning healthy behaviors.” 

Another influence was an after-school offering called “Sisters for Science.” That program introduced Oscar to forensic chemistry, which she now hopes to study at Western Illinois University. 

College bound

Terranisha Douglas, 19, will be the first woman in her family to attend college when she enters Western Illinois University. She received her first pair of glasses through an Elev8 vision program, and, working closely with Mikva Challenge, learned how to advocate with state lawmakers for continued financial support for Elev8 activities. 

That experience helped hone her public speaking skills to the degree that she now coaches young people at nearby St. Sabina on how to conduct themselves during job interviews. 

Not that there weren’t bumps in the road. “I wasn’t the best freshman,” she said. “But I got on track.” 

Nafatari Hale, 18, also was active in Sisters for Science and in her sophomore year went on a paleontology field trip to South Dakota. She’s planning to attend Chicago’s Columbia College in the fall. Her mother, Jo Michelle Hale, has been an enthusiastic Elev8 advocate and parent volunteer who attended Elev8 conferences in Washington, DC and New Mexico. 

Amber Sims, 18, was the valedictorian of her eighth-grade class. Through Elev8, she became engaged in creative writing programs, a discipline she’d like to pursue at either Kalamazoo College or Denison.

Mentors help

All four students credit Tenisha Jones with not only directing them to Elev8 activities, but keeping in touch in high school and enlisting them to encourage other middle school students to participate in the after-school programming.

“Tenisha’s a great mentor,” said Oscar. “She pulled me in.” 

“Elev8 has been a real gift,” said Jones. “The theory said if we did these four things well, (health, after-school activities, social supports, parental engagement) we’d have good results and help kids be better prepared to make choices in high school. Kayla, Nafatari, Terranisha and Amber are evidence that it’s working. It takes a long time, but it’s happening.” 

“These kids instinctively want to do well,” added Jones. “But there’s so much peer pressure, it’s so easy to stray. And we know there are going to be times when students are distracted and unfocused. Elev8 helps them stay on a path.” 

The future

The question now, says Jones, is how to expand the program to other schools, and not just other middle schools. The Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation (GADC) is convinced that outcomes would be even better if the Elev8 principles could also be applied in kindergarten through third grade – and in more schools generally. The organization is implementing that expansion through its Auburn Gresham Gold schools network.

“If we’re going to have an impact on education, it’ll be done locally,” said Jones, “with community-based partners and schools working hand-in-hand. Elev8 forced us to align our systems and to work with organizations in other disciplines that we ordinarily wouldn’t work with. That’s where the power is.” 

GADC and the other neighborhood organizations involved in Elev8 – the Logan Square Neighborhood Association at Ames, Quad Communities Development Corp. at Reavis, the Southwest Organizing Project at Marquette, and The Resurrection Project at Orozco – are committed to keeping the program strong at their schools. With the Atlantic Philanthropies grants winding down, that’ll be a tall order. But the examples of Douglas, Hale, Oscar and Sims make a compelling case for continuing.


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