Portfolio of a Chicago-based education reporter

Alternative ed students caught in limbo as East Aurora ends contract

Alternative ed students caught in limbo as East Aurora ends contract

This story originally appeared in The Aurora Beacon-News on April 29, 2014.

By: Kalyn Belsha

 AURORA — Rosio Ruiz has already decided what she will do if East Aurora School District moves her alternative education program from the Quad County Urban League to East Aurora High School: drop out.

“When they said they were going to close down this school, I … stopped kind of doing my work,” said Ruiz, 16. “I kind of didn’t want to come for the rest of the school year … I told my mom, but she doesn’t believe me. She thinks I’m going back to East, but I’m telling her that I’m not. I’m not.”

Ruiz is part of a program for credit-deficient students. She has freshman standing, though she’s old enough to be a junior. When she found out that East Aurora planned to end its contract with the Urban League in June and move its programs in house, she made up her mind that she’d rather get her GED then be part of any program at East Aurora High School.

“I just don’t like the people over at East,” she said. “I just feel like I am going to see a girl I don’t like and I just feel like I’m just going to get in fights.”

For at least 15 years, East Aurora has contracted with the Urban League, a nonprofit on North Farnsworth Avenue, to help serve students in the district’s alternative education program.

This year, the district signed a $1.5 million contract for 196 slots at the Urban League — more than one student can fill a slot in a school year, depending on turnover.

The Urban League houses more programs this year than it has in the past, serving students who are lacking academic credits, are at risk for expulsion, dealing with the juvenile justice system, have a history of violence, have attendance issues or are pregnant or new parents. The nonprofit also serves special education students with life-skill needs, who are verbally aggressive or need therapeutic support.

East Aurora announced in December it did not plan to renew its Urban League contract and would move alternative education programs in house, though the costs, staffing plan and exact locations have yet to be announced.

Recently, new Superintendent Michael Popp said he and his administrators planned to release more details in May about their plans. It’s likely East High and one middle school will serve as placement locations.

Administrators have said they see this change as a “homecoming” for students that will allow the district to provide students with additional speech services, career counseling, vocational training and fine arts, as well as access to school clubs and functions alternative education students can’t attend under the current setup.

But in the meantime, students in these alternative education programs have been left to wonder what will happen to them, leaving room for speculation and rumors.

In interviews, students expressed concern that their program had been eliminated completely, that they would be automatically expelled or be mixed back into the general population with students they’d been suspended for fighting. (The district has said it will continue to keep students on alternative schedules and is not getting rid of the alternative education program).

Urban League staffers say they feel like they are acting as “middle man” while the district works out its plans, as students — many of whom already have trust issues or feel they’ve been cast out of East Aurora schools — become increasingly anxious.

“I can say I’m very disappointed in how the communication’s been,” said Theodia Gillespie, the Urban League’s president and CEO. “Not having been communicated [with] at this late in the date is kind of disheartening for all adults that have to work with [students] to keep them focused and keep them inspired.”

For some students, like Miguel Velasu, 18, leaving the Urban League is just one more shuffle. After he was suspended for fighting, Velasu was placed for two years in the Regional Safe Schools Program, an alternative evening program housed at East High. Students from that program were moved to the Urban League this year.

“I thought, they’re trying to push us off the edge, little by little,” Velasu recalled of how he felt going to the Urban League.

He grew to like the program though, he said, and found the teachers understanding and more likely to deal with misbehavior by talking it through, instead of issuing a suspension. He especially liked that the Urban League helped him get a job doing shipping for a retail store through its youth employment service.

He doesn’t want his program to move back to East High. “I think it will be bad because it’s like, they pushed us out of there once,” he said. “There’s like no respect there.”

In interviews, students tended to fall into two camps in their opinions of the Urban League. After the initial shock of being transferred wore off, many said the new facility and staff felt like a fresh start that helped them start new habits. But others said they felt even more ostracized being away from their friends, lacking certain privileges and doing lessons online instead of with a “real” teacher.

Many students also expressed concern over whether they would continue to receive the one-on-one attention and care from teachers they had received at the Urban League.

Gillespie said the Urban League is unique because it offers “wraparound” services in the same building that help keep troubled students on the right track, such as after-school tutoring, mental health counseling, behavioral therapy, job training and help for their parents.

She points out that the whole reason the Urban League expanded its facility in 2007 — which was paid for with donations and foundation support, Gillespie said — was because the nonprofit expected to house local alternative education students long-term.

Gillespie said she is finalizing next year’s budget now and is trying to avoid laying off any of her staff by reassigning them to other programs.

Jamie Warfield, who teaches East Aurora high school students at the Urban League, said she was worried about sending her students back to staff that may not be equipped to deal with them.

“There is so much that the new teachers would need,” she said. “It’s not something where you can … just take a teacher out of a classroom and say ‘This is going to be your new assignment.’ The reality is everyone can’t do this and that’s just the God’s honest truth.”

Warfield is a former Joliet Public Schools teacher who said she received cultural sensitivity training before working at the Urban League. On most days, she said, she is a mother and social worker to her students first, and a teacher second.

“I’ve seen where these kids can make an adult cry,” she continued. “These aren’t typical suburban sweetheart high school kids. At the same time, these are kids who are emotionally damaged. Anytime you work with children who have that kind of hurt and damage you have to understand that. If you’re not trained properly and you don’t have the empathy — it’s not going to work.”

Warfield stays after school for six hours a week, without getting paid, to help some of her students with credit recovery, she said. Sometimes she puts so much energy into her students that she’s worried she’s neglecting her own sons, ages 3, 7 and 11.

“I want these kids to succeed so bad,” she said. “I’m worried because I feel like I am letting my child go and what’s going to happen to them? They’ve done so well here and who’s going to take care of them now?”