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Back to School

Maybe the answer to the dropout problem lies in the stories of the kids who have dropped back in.

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Kenneth Anderson can't be faulted for throwing in the towel too easily. He completed three full years at the Near North Career Magnet High School in the shadow of the Cabrini-Green housing project, and he was determined to stick it out through his senior year. After all, he had successfully weathered the storms of his earlier gangbanging days. He was learning the rudiments of a marketable skill, heating and air-conditioning. And at 17 he thought he had the maturity to survive one final hitch in the war zone.

He was wrong, he discovered when he arrived for the first day of class last September. In front of the school entrance on North Larrabee stood several dozen members of the Disciples gang, some in their distinctive black-and-blue jumpsuits. Anderson, a former main man of the rival Vice Lords, froze in his tracks, declining to advance across the street into their midst.

"Come on over, Ken," they yelled, beckoning to him and laughing. "It's time for school, man! You don't wanta be late."

He knew they intended to mob him, and the lone police officer lurking in the background would be of little assistance. Anderson and a handful of other old Vice Lords represented the last of a dying breed at Near North. The Disciples, swarming out of Cabrini-Green, had been gradually establishing their domination in recent years, and now it looked complete. Although only five-foot-three and 135 pounds, Ken Anderson had a reputation for his agility and willingness to take on anybody and dish out punishment. He had even served time at the Audy Home on charges of assault and battery. When confronted by little foot patrols of the enemy, he had a knack for staring them down. "First one who runs up on me is the first one who falls!" he used to boast.

But the welcoming committee outside the school was something else again: bigger, more single-minded, and far more menacing than anything he expected. So after assessing the situation, he turned around and walked away, as if capitulating.

Later, after the bell rang, he doubled back, entered the building, and attended his classes. Then someone set off the school fire alarm. Anderson figured it was a ruse to get him and other remnants of the Vice Lords outside. He went to his locker, took off the oversize lock, and attached it to his belt as a handy, very visible weapon. No one attacked him as the students milled outside the building; he later learned the more aggressive Disciples were already chasing his cousin, another outmatched Vice Lord, down the street.

That's the way life went for two weeks. Each day Anderson crept into school like a thief breaking into a well-guarded bank, left early--never by the same door--and headed home by circuitous routes. Finally, he had to admit that education was impossible under these conditions. "When you have to sneak into your own school, I'd say things are really out of control," he says. "I just quit going."

Ken Anderson thereby became one of the more than 12,000 Chicago public high school students who will have dropped out by the end of the current school year. And he immediately joined that vast throng of more than one million adult or near-adult Chicagoans who lack high school diplomas. It is they who in ridiculously disproportionate numbers constitute the city's unemployed, the prison population, the welfare recipients, the vagrants, the underclass. And the U.S. General Accounting Office reports that dropouts who do find work receive lower earnings, are more likely to be relegated to semiskilled, manual jobs, and work in poorer conditions than high school graduates.

Thirty-nine percent of Chicago's class of '84 dropped out at some point during their four years of high school and never came back, says Fred Hess, executive director of the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance, an independent research and advocacy group. For the class of '85, the rate was 45 percent--and the real dropout rate is probably higher than that, since some students slip out for good in seventh or eighth grade and are therefore never counted as high school students. What it all boils down to is a high school system that loses more than 10 percent of its enrollment every year.

The dropout phenomenon has been scrutinized and dissected, as social scientists and educators try to determine why ambition and enthusiasm should die so early in life. To be sure, villains have been identified: parental laxity, educational incompetence, social conformity, sexual promiscuity, to name a few--aided and abetted by alcohol, dope, gang warfare, and the sense of hopelessness that comes from seeing friends and associates drift into aimlessness.

What merits far more study than it has gotten is the phenomenon of the dropbacks--dropouts who turn themselves around and return to school. No one knows how many people do this in Chicago every year, though everyone agrees the number is very small.

Dr. Ora B. McConner, assistant superintendent for pupil personnel and special education services, says the Chicago Board of Education sponsors a variety of initiatives like the "Double E" (for education and employment) transitional centers aimed at retrieving dropouts and preparing them to reenter the system. The programs are under study, she says, and data will be available in a year, but at this point she could only estimate that "several thousand" dropbacks are assisted each year.

Besides the board's efforts, there are some 60 alternative high schools in Chicago, most of them privately operated. Together they have an enrollment of only about 2,500. According to Jack Wuest, director of the Alternative Schools Network, such schools do have an impact if they are community-based, have small enrollments of 50 to 100, encourage part-time student employment, combine individual and group assignments, have a dedicated staff, and are backed by quality psychological and counseling services. "For dropouts to come back it's a tough pull," says Wuest. "They're usually so far behind they don't want to return." Given all the obstacles, he says he's amazed so many still do undertake the uphill battle to get an education.

In a small enclave of offices and classrooms tucked in a corner of Truman College, 1145 W. Wilson, is something called Truman Middle College--a euphemism for what amounts to an alternative high school. It has been in existence for a little more than a year and has 100 students. The school's origins are somewhat murky and wrapped in controversy. Two years ago the chancellor of the Chicago City Colleges, Salvatore Rotella, apparently used political muscle to obtain through City Council some $700,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds. His plan: to launch a program for high-risk students who were still in school, modeled after a similar program at La Guardia College in New York City. Wuest and other leaders of the Alternative Schools Network argued that the money would be better spent on dropouts and that it should be used to fund already-existing alternative schools rather than create new ones. When the smoke cleared, City Colleges still had the money but it was to be spent for two high schools for dropouts, one at Truman and one at Olive Harvey College, both under the direction of Rotella's aide Martha Jantho, a former member of the Chicago Board of Education.

The principal at Truman Middle College, H. Thomas O'Hale, is a ruddy-faced, plainspoken man with a little beard and big mop of graying hair. A former teacher and assistant principal at Proviso East High School, he took this job "as a challenge and a chance to develop my own school." Although it's not exactly community-based, Truman Middle College possesses the other attributes of a successful alternative school cited by Wuest. It also has the special advantage of being housed inside a junior college. The students rub shoulders daily with real live college students, and many of O'Hale's charges are already taking a course or two in the college program.

To get into Truman Middle College, students must read at a sixth-grade level or better, pass an intense screening process, and survive a three-week probationary period. More than half those who apply are rejected, says O'Hale, and almost a third of those who are accepted do not make it through a full year.

"I started out very liberal," says O'Hale, "but with experience I'm moving to the right." Some applicants, he notes, come "for less than educational purposes--they may be on probation and told they have to attend school or go to jail. Or they may come here just to stay eligible for welfare. A lot of these people really aren't interested, so they bullshit me as long as they can. They revert to their old habits-- skipping class, getting into disciplinary trouble." These students, however, are nicely balanced by the genuine article: dropouts who sincerely want a second chance. "After they quit school a lot of kids jack around for a while and then they're suddenly hit the way Saint Paul was knocked off his ass outside Damascus. They want back in."

Louis Krupa, the social worker at Truman Middle College, says it's amazing so many stay in their first high school as long as they do, considering the patterns of chronic failure and harassment they contend with. "Finally, though," he says, "they get the message: there's no place for me here. They're what we call pushouts. They try to find jobs for a couple months and they can't get anywhere. So when they come to us they may not have resolved the issues that got them in trouble in the first place. They test us. They see how we respond."

Between O'Hale, the no-nonsense administrator, and Krupa, the compassionate counselor, there is a creative tension. "It's a healthy conflict," says O'Hale. "Louis tempers my movement to the right. If you get too rigid, you won't help the population you're trying to serve."

The population at Truman comes in an assortment of sizes, shapes, and colors. The kids' reasons for dropping out are probably no different from those of thousands of their contemporaries. Their reasons for coming back are not easily categorized. "We really don't know a lot about motivation," says O'Hale. "Go talk to them! No two stories are alike."

The Gangbanger

"I didn't know school could be like this," says Kenneth Anderson. "People treat you like a family. I should have come here a long time ago."

He still looks like he could handle himself in a fight, and for decoration he is sporting four gold chains around his neck. But Anderson is relaxed and laid-back now. He swears the old ways are dead and buried, the Vice Lords-Disciples wars a fast-fading memory.

Anderson says he enrolled at Truman because his mother wouldn't give him any peace after he left Near North. "She's a fanatic," he says. "She put it to me point-blank: "You gonna get out of this house if you ain't going to school!'" Her prodding pushed him to search for alternative high schools.

Given Anderson's violent background, Truman officials considered him a long shot at best, but he needed only one more year, and he was absolutely adamant about getting into school--as if his life depended on it.

Since he started in August, life has not been entirely a bed of roses. Anderson was suspended for a month after he stole a carton of Newports while the serviceman was filling the cigarette machine. "That was really a stupid thing to do," he says, "really dumb!" His grades are acceptable now, and if he finishes on schedule early next year, he hopes to get into a college-level trade school, making heating and air-conditioning his career. "My mom's got high expectations," says Anderson. "She wouldn't let me get away."

The Follower

No one was surprised when Jackie Young quit Senn High School in the spring of her freshman year. She was simply following in the footsteps of her older siblings. One sister ran away from home after she got pregnant; today, at the age of 22, she has two children. Another sister, now 21, dropped out in her freshman year; now she has three children and no husband and subsists on welfare. Her brother, who dropped out in his sophomore year, has spent time in jail for car theft--a crime she insists he never committed.

"I didn't want to leave school myself," she says, "but there were so many problems--with my brother, and then my aunt died. And all my friends were skipping school--I had to go along with them. And this biology teacher didn't explain anything. Do you know only 2 of 28 kids in my class passed the course?"

Jackie Young is a short, stocky 15-year-old whose father is black and whose mother is Native American. She has rings on six fingers and would wear more but "I don't want to overdo things. My mother's got 32 rings. We sort of collect rings."

She started at Senn in September 1985 and lasted until the following May. She had mostly F's and a few D's as the result of chronic truancy and was reasonably certain she would flunk. "It was just an all-around bad year," she says.

According to Fred Hess, people like Young who are destined to drop out can often be identified as early as the third grade. That's when their situation needs to be evaluated, he says, because only then can the future be shaped. By the time they're ready to quit, it's too late to alter the pattern.

Yet for reasons that are far from clear, Jackie Young did not disappear into the abyss. She stayed home for a while, then got a job working on a newsletter for Native Americans. And she apparently matured a great deal in a short time. "I'd see these people like me on the street everywhere," she says. "No ambition, a bunch of kids, no money, on welfare. And I could see I'm not going anywhere either."

Her dark eyes flash with a smoldering determination. "I didn't want to be like everyone else. That's no way to live. That's just dumb!"

Jackie Young was accepted at Truman Middle College last August and is now completing her second year of high school. She's been getting mostly A's, and the old habit of cutting class has all but disappeared. A friend laughingly refers to her as "Mrs. Get-It-Together" because of her penchant for lecturing classmates on the importance of education.

Young says she isn't entirely pleased with Truman since it lacks many of the amenities of a normal school, like sports teams, a band, and its own distinctive colors. She has argued with O'Hale about these shortcomings but insists this is where she will stay for another two years. "Oh yeah, I'm gonna make it," she says. "Some day I want to be a counselor in a high school or in a rehabilitation program. You know, helping kids get their lives straightened out."

The Burnout

"It was me," says Tim O'Donnell with a sheepish grin, "nobody but me. I can't lay the blame anywhere else. I'm real lazy so, you know, I sort of drifted along."

There is a disarming candor about this skinny, youthful-looking former dropout: no excuses, just a frank admission that he doesn't have a lot of ambition. As a freshman at Amundsen High School in 1985, O'Donnell did everything wrong. Not that he was a smart aleck, troublemaker, or gang member; that wasn't his style. He messed up because he and a group of his buddies--appropriately nicknamed the Burnouts--were perpetually high on beer and pot. "We were high," he says, "I mean always high!"

They skipped class, came late, never did homework, and took no interest in sports or other school-related activity. "I liked my friends," says Tim O'Donnell, "and that's the only thing I liked. I definitely had a drinking problem."

His parents pulled their hair out. His two older brothers had both graduated from high school and had attended college. It was clear that Tim was the one destined to heap disgrace on the family. He was arrested once while trying to buy a case of beer, and he was suspended for cutting classes at Amundsen. In the middle of his second semester he learned he would earn one credit for the whole year. He also heard reports that school authorities were preparing to expel him as soon as he turned 16.

He stopped attending then and there. And that immediately eased part of his problem because his daily schedule with his drinking friends was somewhat disrupted. Last summer he made some money delivering advertising handouts and telephone books door-to-door. "I realized I used beer and pot to escape reality," he says now.

A neighbor who works at Truman College told him about the alternative school, and since his home in the Ravenswood community is only a 20-minute walk away, he decided to give it a try last September. O'Donnell is still there thanks in large part, he says, to the counseling sessions and to the kind of older and wiser fellow students he is associating with. "I've cut down a lot on my drinking too," he says. "It's not going to stand in my way."

He doesn't think about college at this point: "There's too many problems connected with that. I'd like to get into a trade some day, maybe carpentry."

The Throwaway

Tough and very candid, Tonja Marshall explains right from the start that she's not "your typical black person. I'm into punk rock, things like Old English 800 and speed metal, you know. I'm very volatile."

She wears a leather jacket inscribed on the back with the words "Lost Cause," and speaks in a California accent with occasional Valley girl overtones. Marshall, 18, grew up in San Francisco but has been in a series of group homes and foster homes for the past six years. She has also been in and out of five high schools.

"I was OK until I got to be about 12," she explains. "Then puberty got ahold of me. I couldn't get along with my mother, so I was made a ward of the courts and sort of drifted around to these different homes."

Last summer she moved to Chicago to live with her father and stepmother and their two children in their south-side home. That hasn't worked out well, and Marshall is trying to work out other living arrangements.

Despite all this dislocation, she displays a kind of gritty resourcefulness. When she arrived in Chicago, she personally checked out a dozen alternative schools looking for one to fit her special needs. "I've been around," she says. "I know you need an education, so I look for a place that works for me."

So far she rates Truman "a little below average" because it doesn't allow as much independent study as she is accustomed to. "In some places, you just come in, pick up your assignments, and work at your own pace."

Marshall says she became a nonconformist after too much exposure to the "urbanites" of San Francisco. "You've got 'em here too," she says. "They grow up in these run-down neighborhoods, listen to the same music all day, and have no intention of ever doing anything or going anywhere else. The farthest any of them ever go is downtown."

Marshall says she wants to be "broadened," even dreams of becoming a singer in a successful rock band. If that doesn't work out, she says she might settle for typesetting or graphic design. If she stays at Truman, she could graduate in 1988. Only time will tell if she is ready to alight.

There are students, says Hess, whom the traditional educational system couldn't serve even if it were functioning at maximum efficiency. A few of these have the ambition and mother wit to make it some other way--in open defiance of the odds. Most just fall through the cracks.

The Pregnant Teen

There was no way Angela Horton could fail. This pretty, personable girl had been the president and valedictorian of her eighth-grade graduating class in 1982. Rather than attend a local high school near her northwest-side home, she applied for and was accepted at the Whitney Young Magnet High School, a half-hour bus ride away, where students' reading and math scores are in the 75th- to 80th-percentile range. (The average Chicago public school student is around the 31st percentile in these subjects.)

"I wanted a better education than the kids in the neighborhood were getting," she says. She commuted to classes for three years, earning average grades and pondering career choices.

Then she got pregnant and had to miss more than a month in the first semester of her senior year. Although one-third of female high school dropouts in Illinois are pregnant when they quit, pregnancy need not be a barrier to continued enrollment. And Horton had every intention of resuming her education. After the baby was born, however, she came down with a bad case of chicken pox and missed another month. By then the second semester was under way. She thought "too much time had gone by." Besides, academic subjects could hardly compete for her attention with tiny infant daughter Dawn. She dropped out of school and watched her Whitney Young classmates graduate in June.

"I worked as a cashier for a while," she says, "and thought a lot about my future." With her mother helping care for the baby, she entered Truman Middle College last fall, quickly recovering her old confidence and initiative. As part of her program she served as an intern at Illinois Bell and so impressed supervisors that they offered her a job as telephone operator when she graduates this June. Meanwhile, Horton is taking some college-level computer programming and data processing courses.

According to Krupa, the success rate for dropbacks is in inverse proportion to the amount of time they've been out of class. Those away from the books and routine for a year or more, he notes, adjust only with great difficulty; they often have to relearn everything virtually from the ground up. A short-term, highly motivated dropout like Horton, on the other hand, may reenter the educational process and hardly miss a beat.

The Home Boy

David Shawanokasic's jet black hair and angular facial features reveal his Native American roots. But his outgoing, flamboyant manner quickly dispels any images of the introspective, taciturn Indian. In the halls at Truman Middle College he is irrepressibly friendly, loudly greeting friends, offering advice, playing his boom box, and refusing to be put down. It is difficult to imagine that this lively young man spent a year and a half in his home in Uptown, sleeping all day or watching television.

"I liked school," he says somewhat apologetically. "I did! I just couldn't take it anymore and I quit."

That was in the fall of 1985 at the start of his junior year at Senn High School. He says a combination of troubles wore him down: huge classes, overextended teachers with no time for private consultation, overt selling of drugs in the halls, and random gang violence.

He participated in the Little Bighorn program at Senn, which introduces Native Americans to their culture and original languages. He tried to steer clear of the gangs and says they never gave him any real trouble. "I wouldn't get my hands filthy with that sort of stuff," he says.

As Shawanokasic remembers it, he just got depressed with the environment, started skipping classes occasionally, and his grades tumbled from B's to D's. The teachers, he says, soon wrote him off as another failure. "When I did show up," he says, "one teacher would tell me, 'I don't know why you even bother coming!'" An uncharacteristic tone of bitterness invades his speech when he remembers the old days at Senn. "It's just awful what happens to people in school," he muses. "I'd like to forget it!"

After witnessing a senseless stabbing in the hall one day, he took the teacher's advice to heart and quit. He became a so-called "home boy," one of many Chicago teens who live a hermit's life in the midst of some of the city's most active neighborhoods because they can't tolerate the hassle on the outside.

Shawanokasic might have hibernated forever if a friend hadn't helped him get a part-time job at a Native American cultural association. Another part-timer told him about Truman, and he decided to come out of hiding. He's not sure exactly why he snapped out, but he is clearly delighted that he made the break. "The kids are all friendlier here," he says. "They support one another . . . and I know everybody."

He has a B-plus average and expects to graduate in September 1988. After that he is wide-open to the future. "I think I'd like to be an astronaut someday," he says.

The Runaway

Last fall Korvetta Glasper and a couple of other girls took off for Las Vegas. "We wanted to leave the whole world behind," says the cute, perky 17-year-old. "At first it was fun." They lied about their ages, got jobs as housekeepers in hotels and casinos, and played the slot machines in their spare time.

The fun soon evaporated. "Too much responsibility," says Glasper. "You gotta pay for your house and food and all these other bills. You have to live like an adult! And then one of my friends got into crack . . ."

Glasper told the police she was a runaway who wanted to go home and got free transportation back to Chicago in December.

In many ways, Korvetta Glasper has been running most of her life, always winding up back where she started. Although she and her mother and two sisters live in the Austin community, she elected to go to Lakeview High School after graduating from grammar school in 1984. "I knew what would happen if I went to school near my home," she says, "like at Austin or Orr. I would have just goofed around with my friends. So I went up north. It took about an hour and a half each way."

The strategy failed. Glasper didn't know anybody at Lakeview and didn't like the school. "My hopes were so high and they just faded," she says dramatically. "So the next year I enrolled at Orr."

As she predicted, she and her old associates goofed off continually at Orr, cutting classes, playing cards, and smoking pot. In January 1986 she left Orr and never looked back. She says she was "kicked out" by a faculty and staff that repeatedly told her she was a born loser. "All I had was F's," she recalls. "I wasn't doing anybody any good. I didn't have any money. So what was the use of it all?"

She worked at McDonald's for part of the year, then got a job in the summer as a lifeguard at the Douglas Park pool. The future looked grim. "Everybody said, 'You're gonna get on aid and have ten babies,'" says Glasper, "even my mother. I didn't want to have babies!"

So she headed for Las Vegas, where visions of instantaneous fortune loomed and then quickly flickered out. "I looked at myself and said, 'Girl, it's 1986; next year's 1987 and you ain't done nothing!'"

Truman gave her a chance and she's hanging on to it--just barely. Skipping class continues to be a problem. "It's hard," she says, "when people are so sure you'll fail. Well, I want to show myself and my mother I can make it. I'm going to college, I'll be a stockbroker, and I'll retire at 35."

The Victim

Jose Torres says he had to quit school or die. He was a marked man, his nickname inscribed on the wall of the boys' room at Schurz High School. "King Joe dies!" it said.

The whole hassle was a mix-up, he explains; he never was a member of the Latin Kings or any other gang. The problem was that he did hang around socially with some of the Kings. "I was a sort of party animal," he says, although this extremely polite 19-year-old with a neat little goatee looks like nothing of the sort.

It seems the Torres family home in the Humboldt Park neighborhood is in Disciples territory. The Disciples did not take kindly to his association, formal or informal, with the Kings, so they marked him for death.

This occurred at the start of his junior year at Schurz in 1985, and Torres says he stopped going to school then and there. He did not regard the threats as idle because too many fellow students had ignored similar messages and suffered the consequences.

He hadn't been a model student. By his junior year Torres acknowledges he was an almost daily truant, cruising around with friends and smoking marijuana. "I was getting D's and F's," he recalls, "and about half my class had already quit anyway." The handwriting on the wall was only the final touch.

According to Louis Krupa, people on the fringes of gangs are often the ripest candidates for dropping out. They lack the support and protection of regular gang affiliation, yet are identified with a specific gang and consequently are easy marks for retaliation by rival groups.

Once out of school, Torres was forced to confront the serious world for the first time. He picked up work as a salesman, then as a stock boy. Neither job lasted long. He filled out applications for employment at dozens of other places but never heard from any of them. "I could see you got to have a diploma to get anywhere," he says.

A friend told him about Truman Middle College, where he is currently completing his junior year, earning A's and B's. "I brought my best friend here to visit last month," says Torres. "He's still at Schurz and he couldn't believe this place: no gangs, no gang colors, the teachers care, everybody gets along! He couldn't believe it."

Life would be nearly perfect for Jose Torres these days if he didn't have to travel in and out of his old neighborhood. The gangbangers are still on the street, and they have long memories.

Truman's dropbacks have made an impression on Dr. Arlene Crewdson, who teaches a college-level drama course some of them are taking. "I haven't had so much fun teaching in years," she says. "They're incredibly creative--more so than a lot of regular college students who just swish through the courses, moving easily from level to level."

Former dropouts, she explains, are more likely to question and wonder, refusing to accept canned explanations for anything. They are so creative, notes Crewdson, who has been teaching drama for almost 20 years, that it takes about three times as much of her energy for each class session with them.

By the same token, she regrets the loss to society of that vast throng of dropouts who never come back. "I have to wonder how many people out there have new ways of looking at things but never find a way to contribute because their education just stopped," she says.

One who was apparently caught in time is Angela Jenkins, a 17-year-old west-sider who floundered at Austin and Orr high schools before winding up at Truman Middle College. Not only is she president of the senior council and pulling straight A's, but her one-act play, The Laundromat, was one of three winners selected for production at the Young Playwrights Festival sponsored by the Pegasus Theatre. More than 120 plays from high schools all over the city had been entered in the competition. "That's what I mean about hidden creativity," says Crewdson.

Krupa notes that the students at this or any other alternative high school are not exactly typical of the dropout population. The very fact that they are trying again marks them as the cream of the crop. Yet, he notes, every time the schoolsponsors a testing day for new enrollees, it is inundated with applicants--far more than it can accommodate. That does not mean, Krupa quickly adds, that alternative schools represent the answer to the Chicago education problem. Public education has to be radically changed, he believes, so that the tragic hemorrhaging of students is halted--perhaps through a decentralization of the system, a greater use of supportive community resources, or a successful campaign to help parents regain influence over their children's lives.

No easy solutions are presently available, but Principal O'Hale declares we had better come up with some soon. "A few years ago there were 16 wage earners helping support each retired person on social security. Now the figure has shriveled to 4 to 1 and it's continuing to shrink." Strictly from the standpoint of survival, he says, society has to see that more young people get the kind of education that assures them well-paid employment, thus helping to generate the abundance that allows them to sustain the growing elderly population as well as themselves and their own families. "If all we get is bimbos in the labor force and if the Japanese keep kicking the heck out of us, we're going to be in really sad shape by the end of the century," he says.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.

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