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Man adopts school: Jess Levine and the East Village Youth Program



The story in the Tribune changed Jess Levine's life. It was a Chicagoland feature about William Kellogg, a businessman from Wilmette who spent a few hours a week leading a class in literature for inner-city kids.

"I was a 40-year-old jeweler when I read that article and I was starting to wonder whether there was more to life," says Levine. "The article inspired me. It just so happened that Kellogg was in my exercise class at the East Bank Club. I went up to him one day and asked if I could visit his class."

That was in 1986. Using Kellogg as his role model, Levine started working with fifth- and sixth-graders at Andersen Elementary School in West Town. Soon he was funding after-school programs in dance, art, and writing. One thing led to another, and in April Levine rented a newly renovated storefront on a run-down stretch of West Division Street to house the East Village Youth Program, a service organization he founded more than five years ago.

The program offers after-school and Saturday tutoring sessions for Andersen students and graduates who have moved on to high school. Those who stay with the program through graduation from high school are rewarded with college scholarships.

"Jess has taken the Adopt-a-School concept one step further," says Bob Boone, director of Young Chicago Authors, a creative-writing program for inner-city students. "He has a sharp focus. He's not just helping kids in math or writing, he's teaching them responsibility and preparing them for college."

Until he started working at Andersen, Levine had no ties with West Town. He grew up in the south-side neighborhood of Jackson Park when it was a middle-class community, attended Parkside Elementary School, and graduated from the University of Chicago Lab School in 1962. He went to Bradley University but never graduated.

"I was a hippie; I got caught up in the times," he says. "I didn't study a lot. I finally gave up on school and went to work for my father, who is in the jewelry business. That was May 29, 1967. The reason I remember the day is that it was a Monday, the day before Memorial Day. I said to myself, 'Thank God tomorrow is a vacation. I don't think I can work two days in a row.' So much for discipline and responsibility."

Levine started his own jewelry company in 1979. "I specialized in precious stones," he says. "I'd go overseas to India or Thailand for rubies, sapphires, or emeralds and bring them back and sell them to jewelers. I was a salesman, although I don't think I'm a good salesman. I can't do the hard sell. I figure the stones should sell themselves."

The lessons he learned in the jewelry trade could also apply to the students who enroll in his program. "So many of the kids have such grand expectations," he says. "They'll tell you that they want to be a doctor or a lawyer. That's great. Most of them are smart enough to be that, but they don't realize how much work it requires to make it. It's not unlike the jewelry business. There you have to dispel yourself of the myth that you are going to instantly make a lot of money. You need a merchant's mentality to make it. You have to work hard at it every single day. You don't hit home runs in this business. You have to be like the '59 White Sox; you eke out a run here and there."

After visiting Kellogg's class, Levine decided he wanted to be a volunteer in the public schools. He hooked up with a public school official who promised to show him three schools on the near west side. "The first school I visited was Andersen," says Levine. "I met the principal, Peggy Iska, and I liked her from the start. I decided I didn't even want to look at the other schools. To this day I don't even know their names."

Andersen is an overcrowded, predominantly Hispanic school. Most of its students score below average on national achievement tests. "There are so few opportunities in that neighborhood--so few youth clubs or things like that," says Levine. "Some of the kids watch up to ten hours of TV a day. They start watching when they get up. I know this because they tell me. It's terrible that we would allow this to happen."

Working with Lynne Bingaman's fifth- and sixth-grade classes, Levine helped them produce a newspaper, the Andersen Eagle. Eventually, he set up the Andersen Education Fund. "We offered after-school classes in art, music, creative writing, whatever the kids wanted or needed," he says. "Still, I didn't think I was doing enough, so in February 1988 we started a Young Leadership Program."

This was the forerunner of the East Village Youth Program. "The purpose was to take kids in the fifth grade and guide them through elementary school and high school, preparing them for college," says Levine. "The key was that any kid who finished the program would receive financial aid for college."

Six kids signed up for the original program. Two are now in college. "Four of the original kids graduated from high school," says Levine. "One dropped out of high school and another kid just sort of disappeared. I'm proud of the kids who are in college, but I feel bad about the other kids. It makes me realize how tough things are."

The program now has 69 students, a staff of three, tutors in math, science, and language arts, and a $175,000 budget supported by donations from individuals, corporations, and foundations. There are field trips and summer outings to Wisconsin. Levine also helps the kids find summer jobs.

"The kids are very isolated, they very rarely get out to other parts of the city," says Jeannie Balanda, the East Village student-program director. "We try to expose them to different cultures and art. We take them to different restaurants--Chinese, Greek, Italian, Mexican--so they can sample different foods. We try to give them support and encouragement. Although most of them are talented and intelligent, they are up against so much. Their destinies are already predicted. These are the kids who won't graduate from school, these are the kids who will wind up on public aid. They're fighting all the odds."

The program's participants adhere to a regular schedule of after-school classes and tutoring sessions. Entry is limited to those who complete an application process.

"I visit the classrooms at Andersen and ask the kids to write a legibly written letter of interest explaining why they want to be in the program," says Balanda. "They all say they want to be in the program because it sounds so great. But I'll get 50 letters of interest at best."

One recent sixth-grade applicant wrote: "I want to be in the East Village program because I want to go to college. . . . So I could get a great education. When I grow up I want to be an architect. I want to be an architect because I think it's a great job."

Another student wrote: "I am smart and I don't cause any trouble. If I'm in the East Village program I will be responsible for what I do. I will also like to go to college so I will have a good job and be able to support my family. I want to be able to put food on the table."

Next the students have to fill out application forms, provide teacher recommendations, and bring their parents in for an interview with Balanda. "The parental interview is the most important part of the application process," says Balanda. "There is a strong correlation between kids who do well and parents who get involved. We want to make sure that there is at least some family support for our students. Of the 50 kids who might write the letter of interest only 14 will make it through the whole process. We pretty much accept every student who does."

This year's graduating class of East Village students has produced several success stories. One is Tanya Danner, who's now a senior at Lake View High School. Over the summer Danner will work as a research assistant on a science project at Beloit College. Next year she'll attend Xavier University in New Orleans.

"When I look back on my past six years with the Youth Program a lot of memories fill my mind," Danner wrote in the East Village newsletter. "When I was selected I felt honored, as well as a nerd. Why did they want a person like me in a program like that? For awhile I felt really bad because none of my good friends were chosen, and I was the only black person. . . . The next moment that I recall is our "induction dinner.' The program invited all the members and our parents. I can remember my mother's face when she noticed that we were the only blacks in the whole place. She had a great sense of pride and dignity in her eyes as she sat there and stared at me, her oldest daughter. "Tanya,' she said, "you are going to do something in life. I am so proud of you. I love you.' Those words still bring a smile to my face every time I think of [them]."

Levine understands it will be difficult for every student to match Danner's success. "We still have a high attrition rate and it's very frustrating," he says. "But you have to realize that you won't save every kid in the world and you should be grateful for every kid that you help."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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