Photo of Jesus Alvarez and classmates doing schoolwork
Photo of the BPNC College Mentorship Program board with student photos

At the start of the school year, Jesus Alvarez was “going downhill.” His homework went unfinished most nights, his assignments were marked with Ds and Fs and his behavior was disorderly, as he was causing fights and berating teachers.

For many students who grow up in Jesus’s neighborhood of Brighton Park, these behaviors can be signs of the multi-faceted challenges that they’re facing at home – challenges such as poverty, effects of disinvestment in schools, absent or overworked parents, homelessness, neighborhood violence and the pressure of working to provide for their families.

Now, with the guidance of a college mentor, the sophomore at Kelly High School is on his way to successfully completing 10th grade, a feat that seemed far-fetched just a few months ago.

“Thanks to her help, I improved a lot in all of my classes,” said Jesus of his mentor, Elizabeth Fajardo, a junior at St. Xavier University.

Led by the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, or BPNC, the after-school programs at Kelly High aim to improve graduation rates in the southwest suburban neighborhood that is too often categorized by poverty and low education.

BPNC partnered with United Way of Metro Chicago in 2013 to tackle the community’s generational challenges in a holistic way. It set a goal to raise the high school graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020, a goal that is gradually coming to fruition. Graduation rates have improved nearly 10 percent between 2013 and 2016, when 77.8 percent of Brighton Park seniors graduated.

As the lead agency with the Brighton Park Neighborhood Network, BPNC has invested in academic and enrichment programs at six community schools, including Kelly High. Pairing college mentors with more than 200 underserved students is just one way that they’re able to offer learning, social and emotional support.

Most of the students enrolled in the programs didn’t perform well in 7th and 8th grade or have gotten off track multiple times throughout the school year due to behavioral issues or truancy, said Cheryl Flores, BPNC’s director of Community Schools and Youth Services.

“You have a mentor with you to help ensure you end your freshman year on track,” said Cheryl. “We want to make sure you don’t struggle during freshman year because it’s a make it or break it year.”

“Getting individualized support from a college mentor makes a big difference in a struggling student’s ability to pass all their classes and finish their freshman year on track to graduate,” added Patrick Brosnan, executive director of BPNC.