When “Pomp and Circumstance” began playing over a small speaker, a single-file line of 16 students, wearing dressy casual attire, marched to the front of the room and sat down in a row of seats facing a podium and several adults. 

Behind them, a crowd of roughly 100 spectators — grandmothers, parents, siblings, classmates and friends — looked on from behind foldable tables festooned with balloons. 

The May 19 ceremony wasn’t your typical commencement. Students seated front-and-center made up the second, and largest, graduating class of the Proviso Evening School — a concept approved by the Proviso Township District 209 school board in July 2014 in response to the district’s chronic truancy crisis.

According to an analysis by district officials conducted that year, nearly 47 percent of D209 students were identified as “chronically truant,” defined by the Illinois School Code as a student “who is absent without valid cause” at least nine days out of the school year. 

At the time, district officials noted that, according to first semester grade data for the 2014 school year, students with at least 10 absences had a 38 percent failure rate, compared to a rate of less than 5 percent for students with five or fewer absences. 

The evening school, started in January 2015 at a first-year cost of $287,000, is administered through the West 40 Regional Office of Education. It offers a path for chronically truant students from Proviso East and West to recover lost credits through instruction by attending classes each weekday from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. 

The truancy program, also known as DREAM (short for determination, responsibility, education, attitude and motivation), runs concurrently with another alternative program within the evening school called PEACE (Proviso Evening Alternative for Continuing Education). 

PEACE, which runs each weekday from 2:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., is for students who are considered chronic disrupters and “have a hard time functioning in regular school environments,” Supt. Nettie Collins Hart told the Forest Park Review last year. Both programs are also available in the summer. 

The evening school is housed in a detached brick building straddling the football stadium on the campus of Proviso East High School. It was once home to the Naval Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program, which moved out when the alternative program moved in two years ago. The facility is a brief walk from the larger main building that houses the school’s regular student body, but it’s a world away. 

“If you don’t get it here, you’re not going to get it anywhere,” said Latrice Johnson, one of two security guards for a population of roughly 50 students. “If you get kicked out of here, you just have to go get your GED.”

By completing the evening program, all 16 of the graduates earned the opportunity to march in their respective schools’ traditional cap-and-gown ceremonies last Saturday. This, however, was a more sobering celebration, where students reflected on just how close they were to entering the wilderness of the high school dropout.

First in the family

Dropouts, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education, earn $8,000 less in annual income compared to high school graduates and are more prone to criminal behavior, more dependent on social services and less likely to vote.

That was where Andrea Lopez, 18, was headed. High school paled as a priority compared to her job at McDonald’s, where she worked 10-hour days from “7 p.m. or 8 p.m. until 6 a.m.”

“I preferred to work and make money,” said Lopez. “People [at school] would crack jokes and say, ‘You only come every full moon.’ They knew me as the girl who never shows up.” 

She enrolled in evening school as a last ditch effort to fulfill her dream of walking across the stage with her diploma. During her first semester in evening school, she only completed four courses and would use her school hours to catch up on the sleep she lost to her job. 

“I would sleep a few hours, wake up at 11 a.m., and get ready to stay in school until 8 p.m.,” Lopez recalled. “This routine only lasted a few days and then I started falling off fast. My overnights would be my priorities, and I’d fall off with my schoolwork and tell myself I’d do it later.”

After reckoning with the prospect of graduating a year or two behind or dropping out altogether, Lopez eventually buckled down and put her studies before her job. Her final semester before graduating, she finished 17 classes and didn’t miss a day. 

“People don’t even finish that in a year,” said Roni Facen, one of two teachers and the last staff member remaining from the school’s inaugural year. “She was here from 11:45 a.m. to 8 p.m. every single day because she was determined to finish and because I had told her she could do it. She knew she could do it. She didn’t believe me at the beginning, but I told her she could do as much as she wants if she puts in the time and she [eventually] bought into it.” 

Lopez’s efforts were enough to make her valedictorian of the school’s DREAM program and the first person in her family to graduate from high school. When she walked to the podium to deliver her valedictory address, she began sobbing.

Christian Nieto, an 18-year-old evening school graduate, who said he’d heard about the school from a friend while attending Proviso West, is the son of Mexican immigrants and is also his family’s first high school graduate. 

“My father never went to school, doesn’t know how to read, barely knows how to write his name,” he said. “At West, I didn’t feel the need to go to school. I didn’t want to. It was almost like, ‘Why go?’ Over here, the teachers show you they care and when you come here it doesn’t really feel like a school. It feels more like a family.”

Ardelia Taylor, the mother of Laquantise Wright, a 15-year-old incoming junior who transferred to the evening school’s PEACE program from Proviso East, attributed her son’s marked behavioral improvement to the school’s instructional approach.

“He works so much better in small groups and one-on-one,” Taylor said. “At East, it was so hard for him to focus. He’s improved tremendously and his maturity level has increased tremendously.”

Great expectations

Salandra Wood, the evening school’s principal and a graduate of Proviso West, said the program’s curriculum is based on APEX, an online learning system that alters conventional classroom instruction. In addition to academic instruction, the students meet one hour each day in the social and emotional learning room to discuss, and resolve, any possible conflicts. 

“They do a lot of computer work, but they also get a lot of hands-on instruction,” said Wood, a former assistant principal and dean of students who was hired to oversee the school less than a year ago.

When she was working at a regular school, students would be allowed 15-30 minutes a month for social and emotional learning, a fraction of what her students receive each day. 

“I never want to go back to a traditional high school again,” she said. “As a dean at the regular high school where I worked, I would have a caseload of about 400 students. You can’t really connect with all those students. This is more personal. I get to know parents and the family. This really takes a village and it works.” 

The school, Wood and Facen agree, has the added benefit of not saddling students with the low expectations and judgments that too often define regular school experiences.

“A big misconception is that they’re bad, they’re disrespectful, they have no morals or values,” Wood said. “People judge them, especially for the mistakes they make.” 

“Other places let the kids just float on the surface, but that’s not good enough for me,” said Facen. “They have to be prepared for college and for the world, so passing classes isn’t enough. We really strive to get them prepared for the next level, so we set our standards really high.”

So far, the approach seems to be getting results. This year’s graduating class represented a more than 400 percent increase over the size of last year’s, when only three students graduated, according to Maria-Elena Agrela, the school’s outreach counselor.

Latrise Johnson, one of the security guards, said she isn’t aware of any students getting kicked out of the evening school and that disciplinary problems are rare.

“To be honest, we don’t have problems,” Johnson said. “These kids are mild-mannered and very respectful. Their parents and grandparents are supportive. So there aren’t fights and things like that. I guess they know what’s expected. They have contracts to sign.”

For every student who fails to seize the moment, Johnson said, there are dozens waiting in the wings. She estimated that the waiting list of students seeking entry into the evening school is around 100 at Proviso East and about 50 at Proviso West. 

The evening school even won over D209 board member Theresa Kelly, who was an early critic of the concept. At the time, Kelly spoke out against students having to travel home from classes at night and the fact that the NJROTC would be uprooted. She also thought the program was too costly. 

After last Thursday’s ceremony, Kelly, who was the lone D209 board member in attendance, said the school “has been phenomenal.” 

“These students had so much adversity in the beginning and to see them graduate on time is just amazing,” she said. “They worked hard for this and they had a loving staff and a great support system.”

Kelly said she’d like to see a more comprehensive alternative school in the district. The district’s other online learning-based, alternative-education program is administered through Ombudsman and enrolls less than 50 students, according to Dan Johnson, the district’s director of truancy prevention.

Proviso West Principal Oscar Hawthorne encouraged students to “take your message and your story beyond the walls of Proviso East and the boundaries of Proviso Township to let somebody know they can do it because [you] did it.”

“It doesn’t matter that you chose to do it differently,” Proviso East Principal Patrick Hardy told graduates. “My encouragement to you is just do life. It doesn’t matter how you got to that chair. Just do it because those who do it differently still get it done.”

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com