CHICAGO TRIBUNE: Second-chance school educates humbled, hungry students

During his recent visit to our country, Pope Francis offered an insightful observation about today’s youth.

“So many young people seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair,” the pope told Congress in a stirring speech.

His insight also stirred something in Gary Middle College Principal Joe Arredondo, who posted it on his office door. It hit home with Arredondo, as some of his students at the second-chance high school in Gary may have felt this way in their lives.

“It’s just there to motivate me every day to help as many students as possible,” Arredondo explained about the sign on his door.

At the end of the day, this is what education comes down to, regardless of school district, statewide mandates or geographical location. Educators, including administrators, need to help as many students as possible. Period.

This ageless task can be more challenging for Arredondo and his faculty at Gary Middle College, a tuition-free public adult education center. Here, students are eligible to earn up to 60 credits (the equivalent of an associate degree) by the time they graduate with their high school diploma, through a partnership with Ivy Tech Community College.

“We are very proud of our students,” English teacher Nora Glenn said, referring to the 13 GMC students who scored at least 1,000 on their “Read 180” reading test. “We call them the GMC 1,000 Club.”

These students have received a score of proficient or advanced on their Scholastic Reading Inventory, a marker of achievement at any school.

Last Friday, the school honored these students by giving them the book, “Eight Tales of Terror” by Edgar Allan Poe, and a red clown-nose for the “Put Your Nose in a Book” program, a literacy campaign through the Northwest Indiana Literacy Coalition.

“This was an opportunity to acknowledge the success of our students’ reading abilities, and to encourage them to continue reading every day,” Glenn said.

The honored students played along, donning those noses for fun and photo ops. But all clowning around aside, such public recognition can be hard to come by for these nontraditional high school students. Some are full-fledged adults, some have children of their own, and some have jobs to put food on the table, not just gas in the car.

Their school, in part, is comprised of a set of portable trailers near the intersection of 5th Avenue and Washington Street in downtown Gary. Located across the street from the abandoned and dilapidated City Methodist Church, it’s a haunting harbinger for some of them who didn’t have a prayer of a chance to graduate from high school.

I know the feeling all too well. I never graduated from high school.

I clearly remember walking across the stage at West Side High School to accept my diploma as “Pomp and Circumstance” played in the auditorium. I returned to my seat, opened my black diploma folder and found it empty inside. No diploma, no explanation, no one else knew but me.

While my entire graduating class partied and celebrated that night, I wondered what the heck happened to my high school diploma. And my future without one. It turned out that I was one credit short — my fault entirely — and I had to earn my GED a few years later at Portage Adult Learning Center.

So I know what it’s like to return to a second-chance school as a humbled but hungry adult. It put a chip on my shoulder that hasn’t budged in 25 years.

I’ll better explain my life-changing blunder to GMC students and everyone else who attends a public discussion I’m facilitating at the Gary school at 6 p.m. Thursday. Months ago, Arredondo invited me to host the program, though he was most likely unaware that I never graduated high school. (Surprise, Joe!)

The free program is billed as an informal discussion on Gary’s transitions from the past to the present, with a peek at its future. The first 100 guests will receive a free copy of my book “Lost Gary,” which delves into the city’s future potential, thanks to its deepest and most promising resource: Gary youth, teens and young adults.

As Pope Francis said in his speech to Congress about our youth: “Their problems are our problems. We cannot avoid them. We need to face them together, to talk about them and to seek effective solutions rather than getting bogged down in discussions.”

He continued, “At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family because they lack possibilities for the future.”

I agree that possibilities for the future can be found in schools, textbooks and classrooms, as Arredondo and other educators believe. But as I learned firsthand, such possibilities for the future can also be found in your heart and your gut.

Education is a relative term meaning different things to different students. Most people interpret “education” to strictly mean high school diplomas, college degrees, doctorates and so on. And rightfully so. But sometimes the road to higher education, and higher career opportunities, begins with a sobering setback.

In my professional circles, I’m often the only one with a GED listed on our educational resumes. This realization doesn’t make me feel bad or lesser. Quite the contrary. It makes me thankful for having a second chance, another opportunity to reinvent myself.

Arredondo wants his students to not only realize this fact, but to realize their potential to make this fact a factor in the city’s future. I hope to help them do this and I invite you to show your support and join the discussion Thursday evening.

The program takes place at the 21st Century Charter School, 724 Washington St. in Gary, where guests are asked to bring a new or gently used book, dictionary or thesaurus for the school’s growing library. In its place, I’ll give you a copy of one of my books, thanks to my second-chance education.


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Enrollment at Gary Middle College (East & West) is open to all students, no matter where you live.
We serve students from Gary and all around the area!

Both locations for Gary Middle College (East & West) operate Monday-Friday, from 8:00AM-8:00PM. Three shifts are offered to accommodate different schedules. You may choose which shift works for you. Part-Time Schedule with Full-Time Results!

Morning: 8 AM – 11 AM
Afternoon: 12 PM – 3 PM
Evening: 4 PM – 8 PM

Free child care for Gary Middle College students is available at an off-site location.
Students are responsible for dropping off and picking up their child from the facility.