In March 1998, CPS launched a second-chance program for students who committed offenses for which they could have been expelled. More than two years later, school officials are calling the SMART program (Saturday Morning Alternative Reach-Out and Teach) a success because an increasing percentage of students who show up for the program are completing it.
In the last three school years, the percentage rose from 64 to 78 to 86.
However, the board has only one year of data on the percentage of students who are referred to the program and complete it. Last school year, 528 students were referred to SMART, 366 showed up, and 314 completed it —for an overall completion rate of 59 percent, according to figures provided by the Office of Specialized Services, which oversees the program. Of the 162 students who never showed up, some had left the school system as dropouts or transfers before they were scheduled to begin SMART; the rest were referred for expulsion, officials report.
Specialized services only now has begun to track students who complete SMART to see if they get in trouble again.
The SMART program includes nine Saturday sessions, four hours apiece, and a 20-hour community service requirement. Students are required to arrive on time, wearing proper attire. A mentoring program and leadership training are in the works.
“The goal is to get kids to begin to understand problem solving and good decision making,” says Renee Grant-Mitchell, who oversees SMART as the board’s deputy chief of specialized services.
When the current board took office in 1995, expulsion was required only for the possession or use of a firearm or a “destructive device.” Today, expulsion also is required for any drug offense, the possession or use of an object that could be used as a weapon (e.g., a box cutter) and a number of violent crimes, including arson and robbery. With the change, the number of expulsion hearings leapt from 97 in 1995-96 to more than 1,700 three years later.
At first, SMART was aimed at students caught with or using drugs on campus for the first time. Then it was expanded to those caught for the first time with weapons or dangerous objects other than guns or bombs. Students are expelled outright for more serious offenses. Expelled students are referred to one of the board’s alternative schools.
SMART was designed for 6th- through 12th-graders, but disruptive students in lower grades have been admitted. Board staff are trying to craft a new approach for working with disruptive students in lower grades, Grant-Mitchell says.
Because the program does not run over the summer, some students have to wait months between being referred to the program and actually starting it. In between, some go missing, but Grant- Mitchell says her office goes out of its way to track them down.
This year, she says, “We had 399 kids who were supposed to be in our first cohort; 226 actually showed up.” Her staff looked up the missing students, finding that some had left the school system, and some had moved but not received SMART notice letters at their new addresses. Grant-Mitchell says her staff found these students at their new schools and signed many of them back up.
Doesn’t always stick
Even students who complete the program sometimes continue to get in trouble.
At Kelly High, two of 21 SMART students later were expelled after committing the same offense that placed them into the program in the first place, says Dean of Students George Lynch. A third SMART graduate at Kelly has just committed a new offense, Lynch says, for which he, too, may be expelled. “I hate to say it, but it’s almost like Cook County Jail. If you get in trouble one time, you’ll get in trouble again.”
However, William Cheatham, dean of students at Manley High, says, “Usually they don’t go back to [the same] degree of misconduct.”
SMART is conducted at only two sites, Kelvyn Park High and Curie. Marybeth Sanchez, Kelvyn Park site coordinator, is concerned about younger students having to travel long distances; one boarded the wrong bus and was late getting to class.
CPS is considering offering more sites for SMART, says Grant-Mitchell
Last spring at Curie, SMART facilitator Saleen Alnurridin is leading a discussion with 11 high school students. How many of you still get high? he asks. Most students raise their hands. “You’re still locked in past behavior, still getting high even though you know it’s not good,” he says. When asked if he’s ever tried drugs, Alnurridin lists the drugs he experimented with, but says that he no longer uses any of them. “I want to be in control of me.”
Students appreciate such frankness. “We don’t have to learn on the streets,” says Kelly, a 10th-grader. “They talk about it so you can avoid it because you know what will happen before you do it.”
Alnurridin works for Fulfilling Our Responsibility Unto Mankind, a non-profit group contracted by CPS to staff the one elementary and two high school classrooms at each SMART site. Facilitators have experience in education and social services.
The SMART curriculum focuses on character building, decision making, conflict resolution and nonviolence. It also aims to keep students away from drugs and gangs. Every week, a new lesson is introduced, such as “understanding the self,” or “crime, court and consequences.” Often, students leave class with a homework assignment.
Some students credit SMART for helping them shed bad habits. “I used to smoke a lot of weed, but I’ve slowed down now,” says Kelly.
Priscilla, an 8th-grader, says she has better control of her temper. “Now I’m trying to calm down and not say anything,” she says. “I won’t give teachers an attitude anymore.”
Paul, an 8th-grader, also notes improvement in his behavior. “I haven’t been getting into trouble [and] all my grades have gone up,” he says.
“I see a big change in elementary students and a 70 percent change rate in high school students,” says Kelvyn Park’s Sanchez. “There’s still a small number of kids who are hardcore. This program might be an eyeopener, but they need something more in-depth than we can give them in the SMART program.”
Parents must attend
SMART requires parents to attend two classes, such as Curie coordinator Bradley’s lecture on learned behavior. Last spring, he shared the story of a gang member whose son is following in his footsteps. “He’s getting back what he’s putting in,” Bradley points out. “If you don’t like what you’re getting back [from your child], look at what you’re putting in it.”
A few parents, especially those with younger children in the program, show up every Saturday. Debra Bradford, mother of a 10th-grade student, calls SMART an “enlightening” program. “You have a place to voice your opinion beside parents whose kids did similar things,” she says.
SMART encourages parents to take a more active role in their children’s lives. “Many parents recognize that their kids are having difficulties, but they don’t know how to address them,” Grant-Mitchell says. By getting parents more involved, SMART creates support for its students. “You do see changes in kids’ attitudes, and to me that’s the importance of the parents’ being there because they know what’s going on.”
Beyond the classroom, SMART has a network of about 150 organizations where students can fulfill their community service requirement. “We try to keep kids as close to their community as possible so it’s meaningful,” Grant-Mitchell says.
Ninety percent of the SMART students who volunteered at Southwest Community Congress have come back for youth programs, says Shirley Fox, youth and health project director.
SMART is not a “cure-all,” says Grant-Mitchell. But participants “have learned something that’s beneficial to them. Five years ago, these kids would have possibly been on the street.”