Photo of stay in school student and mentor posing by Volunteer sign
Photo of stay in school students high-fiving mentors

The academic and career trajectory of young adults growing up in the Chicago region often hinges on the support systems they can rely on. Some are born into strong, supportive networks of family and friends, while others must cultivate their own, creating bonds that enhance their life journey.

So was the case for Jessica, a student from North Lawndale.

High school was a troubling time for Jessica, as she often had conflict with her peers and struggled academically. Those challenges left her feeling like she wasn’t cut out for high school and that graduation, inevitably, wasn’t in the cards. That’s until she was connected to the Stay In School Initiative through the youth agency Young Men’s Education Network (YMEN).

The Stay In School Initiative – a partnership between United Way of Metro Chicago, Exelon and ComEd – works with six community agencies and their partner high schools to offer a holistic range of programs and services to students and their families. The programs include tutoring, social service referrals, leadership and social engagement training, and parent involvement classes. The heart of the program is a mentoring component, in which hundreds of Exelon and ComEd employees partner with students to offer academic support and guidance, as well as to host monthly workshop series for skill-building.

Having the opportunity to meet professionals who can provide career and social guidance is invaluable for the students. The mentor-mentee relationship can inspire youth to consider their career paths at an early age and provide them with the skill set and goals needed to achieve their dreams.

For September McDonald, an SIS student and United Way of Metro Chicago summer intern, the program also enabled to her learn more about herself and her place in the world.

“[The Stay In School program] opened my eyes to another world,” September said. “It’s making me an even more well-rounded person…someone who is also culturally, socially and politically aware of what’s going on in my surroundings.”

“[The Stay In School program] opened my eyes to another world."
Photo of Stay In School students laughing

Closing an education gap 

When the SIS program began seven years ago, United Way, with the help of our corporate partners, aimed to address a gap in youth education and resolve chronic truancy and high dropout rates. Since, the program has had a positive impact on thousands of students, including more than 1,800 youth who participated during the 2017-18 school year.

Of the 536 students who most actively participated in SIS this past year , nearly 85 percent achieved satisfactory school attendance, and more than 88 percent of students achieved satisfactory grade performance. In addition, all of the 2018 Stay In School seniors graduated from high school.

Jessica was among them. Her participation in SIS allowed her to write a different life story than the one that was unfolding. Her SIS mentors and the staff of YMEN helped Jessica make a much-needed transition to a new high school that partners with the youth agency to offer additional life supports.

There, she was able to overcome the challenges present at her previous school. She also developed leadership skills that she quickly put to the test by assembling and leading a dance team at her new school. “Her grades dramatically improved this year from C-D level grades at Wells School to getting As and Bs here [during] senior year,” said Will Chatman, program manager of YMEN.

Most importantly, her newfound success enabled her to graduate in June. Now, she’s headed off to City Colleges of Chicago to continue her education. “In grades, school attendance, and school leadership, Jessica was a fantastic example of the impact created with the additional support and engagement through the United Way, Exelon, ComEd and YMEN collaboration,” YMEN leaders shared.

With a new school year underway, a new cohort of students will soon follow in Jessica’s footsteps. Though their path is their own to forge, the mentorship provided through the Stay In School Initiative will equip the students with the skills and confidence needed to thrive, and that will make all the difference.

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