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Ava Youngblood on a local organization that’s helping Chicago’s students graduate high school

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Between Chicago’s very short spring season and the advent of summer, there is “senior season” — those late spring weeks when high-school students can be spotted across the Chicago-area wearing prom dresses and suits, graduation gowns and mortarboards. It can be an exciting season to bear witness to: Teens beam with pride about what they have accomplished, and seem to ooze optimism about what lies ahead.

Unfortunately, not all students share in that senior-season excitement. Recent data shows that about four of every 10 Chicago public school students entering ninth grade will not complete 12th grade with theirclassmates. Instead, they will leave school — drop out, as it’s generally called — because of academic struggles, poor familial support, the need to work or any combination of troubling reasons.

I believe that it takes a village to raise a graduate. As a volunteer with Communities In Schools (CIS), I’m working to help reduce Chicago’s dropout rates and help keep more students in school.

CIS is the nation’s leading dropout prevention organization — and the only organization whose methods are proven to increase graduation rates. Our work in Chicago impacts about 70,000 elementary- and high-school students at 175 Chicago public schools by connecting them to essential support services and programs they need, whether it’s immunizations, eye glasses, mental health support or arts enrichment. The students get this important support (at no cost to themselves or their school) via the CIS Chicago network of nearly 200 community-based organizations.

About 18 months ago, a student I will call Braydon needed our network. Braydon was an expectant father in the 10th grade. Knowing he’d soon need money to support his child, he toyed with the idea of dropping out and looking for a job. But he had no practical work experience, and he wasn’t a star student or athlete. He wasn’t a troublemaker, but he didn’t enhance the school environment, either. Braydon was simply one of those kids who could fly under the radar — maybe he’d leave school, maybe he’d stay. To keep him in school, CIS Chicago needed to wrap him in support.

First, a CIS Chicago staff member began meeting weekly with Braydon. As a result of those meetings, Braydon was connected with services that would address his most urgent needs, including the Illinois Subsequent Pregnancy Program, which helped prepare him for fatherhood and taught him ways to prevent having a second child. Braydon also agreed to prioritize activities that would keep him on track for graduation. When he realized that he really likes working with his hands, he decided that construction was a viable career goal. The CIS staff person began looking for opportunities as close to Braydon’s goal as possible, and Braydon has recently applied for an eight-week paid summer internship at a local bike shop, where he will learn how to repair and maintain bicycles.

Braydon’s story is still unfolding, and his journey with the CIS staff person has had its share of peaks and valleys. Yet the key ingredients to Braydon’s success so far have been the time (to build trust and seed mutual investments) and caring adults (the village!) required to raise a graduate.

Braydon has a year of high school left. It is our intention to stick with him every step of the way, connecting him to services and programs and doing whatever it takes to get him, successfully, to senior season.

Ava Youngblood is the CEO of Youngblood Executive Search, and a member of the national and local boards of Communities In Schools. The Chicago affiliate kicks off a year-long celebration of its 25th anniversary June 19. For more information, visit

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