The Sunday before Christmas, my friends Fernando and Oscar came by for a visit. When they were small, they lived in an apartment across the street. A few years ago they moved a block south, into a house they bought for a song during the recession.
Fernando is 21 now, and Oscar is 17. We reminisced about how we met at the neighborhood block party more than a decade ago. It was a week after I moved in, and to get to know the neighbors I set up a water and first aid station in my yard during the block party. Fernando was my first customer. When he fell off his bike and scraped his knee, he and Oscar came to my house for first aid.
Soon they were coming over to my house pretty often, sometimes for homework help, other times for games or pizza or just hanging out. Daniel, Fernando’s best friend and their neighbor in the building, often came with them.
I learned a lot about all of them pretty quickly. Daniel was possibly the smartest kid on the whole block. Quiet and studious, he dreamed of being a lawyer someday. I made a point of finding interesting books well beyond grade level to read with him to make sure his English was as solid as his ambitions.
By contrast, Fernando had cognitive difficulties, especially with remembering new learning. I never quite got the full story on what happened to him as a baby. Was it lead exposure? Low oxygen at birth? Something. Though you wouldn’t know it if you met him on the street, Fernando’s learning challenges were pretty big.
When I helped him with homework, sometimes I would get impatient. One warm fall night, Fernando and Oscar and their mom, Rosa, were sitting on my front stoop while I worked with Fernando on adding two-digit numbers. When he got a problem wrong repeatedly, I gave up and did it for him, explaining it as I went.
But when I filled in the numbers, Rosa shot me a look. She wasn’t cutting her son any slack and she wanted me to know I shouldn’t, either. When I made him do the next one on his own, she relaxed.
A Tale of Two Teens
As so often happens in neighborhoods like mine, when Fernando and Daniel became teenagers, they struggled with the challenges of violence and gangs. One of them made it through without getting sucked in, the other didn’t. Though Daniel’s intelligence won him a coveted spot at Curie High School, other influences in his life outweighed his education. Currently, he is serving a long prison sentence.
At first, it seemed Fernando might be headed in a similar direction. As an eighth grader, Fernando was getting in fights at school and had even been suspended once. Rosa confided to me that she was losing sleep over him. She and I were both convinced going to Richards, the high school three blocks away, wouldn’t help. I took the whole family to an information session with the principal of Noble Street Charter Network’s brand-new University of Illinois in Chicago (UIC) campus. We hoped they would get lucky in that lottery since it had the most openings. As it turned out, Fernando wasn’t accepted to UIC, but he did land a seat at Noble’s Golder campus.
With the support of his parents, his Golder advisor, and a little extra help from me at the beginning of freshman year, Fernando made it through and graduated from high school. He spent a semester at Malcolm X Community College before deciding to work full time. He and his fiancé, Ana, now live with his parents and are helping to fix up the attic so they will have their own apartment. Fernando is just starting to think about maybe trying college again. Ana, who is studying nursing, is a big inspiration.
Over my kitchen table that Sunday night, Ana teased Fernando. “You would have never made it through Richards,” she said. Ana, a Richards graduate, knew well that it wasn’t a fit for her boyfriend. For Fernando, the concrete, detailed instructions for discipline and academics that are Noble’s trademark worked very well.
A Different Path to Success
But no school is perfect for everyone. Like his brother, Oscar is also on a path to success. But the path took a different turn. Oscar started at Golder, but within a week he knew it wasn’t for him. He was lucky to get off the waitlist and into Back of the Yards High School, the brand-new, district-run high school our neighborhood had been fighting to win for more than two decades. Now a junior, Oscar has earned a 3.0 GPA and plans to study mechanical engineering in college.
What brought us together that Sunday night was a letter from Daniel. None of us had heard from him in years, but a few days earlier a letter from him had arrived in my mailbox. “I’ve been focused on learning criminal and civil law,” he wrote. It’s not the way I would have wanted him to study law, but I’m glad to know he hasn’t given up on his dreams and he is using even the most difficult situation to pursue them.
My neighbors have taught me a lot about what success looks like and the role schools can play in it. First and foremost, success is not one-size-fits-all. While there are plenty of “traditional” success stories in my neighborhood—young people from struggling immigrant families who studied hard and went on to some of the nation’s most elite universities—stories like Fernando’s are just as important.
It’s About the Choice
When young people have choice about schools, they can and do use it in their own best interests. Fernando and Oscar made different choices about high school, but each found a school that could support them to achieve their goals.
A difficult lesson for me has been that a school’s academic reputation is no guarantee it can save a young person in trouble. When Daniel was accepted to Curie, I thought that its academic programs would keep him engaged and challenged to a degree that would crowd out negative influences. That’s not how it worked out in practice. And Curie’s huge size made it harder for Daniel—and I—to connect with the right adults to help him stay on track.
Finally, we need to take a very long view of young people’s life trajectories—at least into their 20s—before we can truly judge their success. All of my neighbors’ stories are only beginning. And all of us on the block are hoping and praying that Daniel’s story will take a positive new turn in the future.