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No class: City Colleges close the book on evening high school students

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Ten years ago, when she was 18, Kimberly Johnson got kicked out of high school for fighting in the hallway and was left on her own to figure out what comes next for a teenager without a diploma.

The City Colleges of Chicago rescued her, or helped her rescue herself. She enrolled in one of the college's evening high school classes, finally emerging this month with her long-awaited diploma.

This evening high school program is the very one that the City Colleges board recently voted to abolish. Now Johnson finds herself joined with activists of the teachers' union in a fight to save the program that saved her.

City Colleges officials say the program was cut because there is no place for high school courses in a system devoted to higher education. "We are out of the evening high school business," says Sandy Matthews, director of public relations for the City Colleges. "The issue is quality of education, and this program falls short of the standards we want to set for our system."

The City Colleges board, Johnson counters, is being unrealistic. "They don't understand the consequences of what they're doing," she says. "They're abandoning thousands of students and leaving them without hope. Now there's no place for dropouts to get their high school diplomas. If you make one mistake you're going to pay for it for the rest of your life."

By her own admission Johnson has paid for her mistakes. Raised in a public housing complex on the city's south side, she was expelled from Curie High School at the start of her senior year. "I was coming in from lunch and I saw a fight and I tried to break it up and next thing you know I'm getting swept down to the office," she says. "The disciplinarian told me, "You're 18. I can kick you out.' I was innocent, I swear."

After her expulsion she bounced around from an alternative high school to a GED class to a school that offered instruction in how to be an EKG technician. "I was drifting. Nothing was working out," Johnson says. "The high school was filled with gangbangers. The GED class was too slow, it wasn't challenging. I got my certificate as an EKG technician, but without a high school diploma I couldn't get a job."

She went on and off public aid, found work as a cashier at a dollar store, married Robert Johnson and had three children--Robert, Imani, and Iyani. But still her life wasn't complete.

"I was in a box. There was only so far I could go," she says. "I'm not blaming anyone but I had to get out of that box. I had to get that diploma."

A friend told her about the City Colleges evening school program, and in 1994 she enrolled, taking courses at Jones Commercial High School and at Dawson Junior College. "It was great," says Johnson. "The classes were at night, so you could work in the day. They were at high schools or colleges across the city, so anyone could get to them. It changed my life. It made me feel my life was heading in the right direction."

The courses reawakened her interest in reading. She even began to write romance thrillers, usually late at night when her family was in bed. "I wrote one set in Scotland and one set in England--I did all the research on those countries by reading books in the library," says Johnson. "My latest book is about a girl from the projects who meets a doctor whose family owns the hospital where the girl's a patient. They get together of course. All my stories have fairy-tale endings."

Last summer she was preparing to reenroll at Jones Commercial when she heard the City Colleges board had closed the program at that site. She continued studying at Dawson. In April she read in the Sun-Times that the board planned to close the rest of the program. "I remember the headline--"Lights out on evening school program,"' says Johnson. "I asked my teacher, "Are you aware that they're closing evening school?' He said they'd never close it. I showed him the article. He said, you have to fight it."

After a few phone calls she hooked up with Susan Tyma, a GED teacher at Wright Junior College and president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3506, which represents teachers in the system's adult learning skills program. Tyma told Johnson that the evening school cuts were part of a larger transformation of the system engineered by Ron Gidwitz, president of the City Colleges board. The name meant little to Johnson, but after some digging she learned that Gidwitz was a well-connected north-side Republican businessman appointed to the board by Mayor Daley.

During Gidwitz's four-year tenure, about 1,000 teachers have been laid off and many off-campus site programs closed as part of his effort to cut the budget, eliminate remedial programs, and concentrate on one purpose: educating college students.

"Money was not the reason we cut the [evening high school] program. It's an issue of our mission," says Matthews. "It's a program that we got involved with in the 70s and it should be run by the public schools. Enrollment peaked at 12,000 in the early 1980s and it was about 2,000 in 1994. I think enrollment fell because students were disappointed with the performance."

But union activists say enrollment fell because Gidwitz eliminated sites where the courses are offered. "In the ideal world, junior colleges would only be involved in higher education," says Tyma. "But this is the real world, and it's a fact that there are a lot of people who need a second chance."

Johnson agreed with the teachers. She organized fellow students to join a union protest at City Hall, and she arranged a meeting with Omaro Suarez, one of the City Colleges vice chancellors. "I met with him in his office," Johnson says. "He told me that closing the program wasn't that big of a deal. He said the Board of Education would take over the evening schools and that if we didn't like the way they ran the program we could always get our GEDs. He said the program wasn't working, that six out of ten adult evening graduates fail the City Colleges enrollment test. Then he said something like, 'Besides, why are you worried? We're not closing Dawson.'

"I said I had called the board of ed and they told me they were not taking over the evening schools and if you're over 21 you're not allowed to enroll in a regular high school. So for students like me there was no alternative once these programs were cut. I also said that the GED doesn't do us much good, since places like the military and the police and fire departments require a high school diploma. I had answers for everything he said because I had done my homework. Then I said, 'And you are too closing Dawson.' He said, 'How do you know that?' I said, 'I read about it in the Sun-Times.' Then I looked him in the eye and said, 'I'm not one of the six in ten who can't read.'"

She left the meeting angry, convinced that City Colleges officials were concealing the truth. "They hadn't counseled us about alternatives. They hadn't even told us they were closing the program. I only knew about it because of the paper." She began calling reporters, aldermen, senators, and TV news personalities, trying to bring attention to the cause. "This was new for me--I'd never been a public person," says Johnson. "I remember calling Muriel Clair of Channel Nine. I was talking fast and she said, 'Kimberly, slow down.' I said, 'I have to talk fast because I have so much to say and I want to say it all.'"

In late May she testified before the City Council's education subcommittee in a hearing regarding Gidwitz's reappointment to the board. "Gidwitz was sitting right behind me, but I testified against him," says Johnson. "There I was, a girl out of the projects, and he's a millionaire. I told the aldermen, "He may be a great businessman, but you can't be ruthless when you're running a college. This isn't about takeovers and buyouts. This is education--you're playing with people's lives."'

So far her efforts have been for naught. The subcommittee voted to reappoint Gidwitz, and a few days later the City Colleges board voted to cut the program at the end of the summer. But Johnson isn't giving up. She says she'll lobby aldermen to vote against Gidwitz at the full council meeting in July; she'll also lobby the City Colleges board to reinstate the program. "All you have to do is look at my life to see this program works," she says. "College is next--I want to be a nurse. My sister says I'll be the first woman black mayor. I laugh, but now that I have my diploma I feel I can do anything I want. They can't stop me."

In a feeble admission of impotence, the CTA has removed the troublesome no smoking signs at the Harlem Avenue bus depot.

Actually, it wasn't so much the signs that caused the trouble as the fact that antismoking activist Lynne Lohr caught two CTA bus drivers smoking under those signs (Neighborhood News, April 7). Though Lohr demanded that the drivers be prosecuted for breaking the city's no smoking ordinance, the case was dropped. "The city and the CTA acted like they had more important things to do. Apparently they don't realize the dangers of second-hand smoke," Lohr says.

A few weeks ago, Lohr discovered the signs had been removed. "I called the CTA and they told me their law department had advised them to take the signs down," says Lohr. "I think they took them down because expediency is more important than the health of the people."

In other words, it's like removing a stop sign instead of prosecuting motorists who run through it?

"Exactly," says Lohr. "They think the best way to get rid of a problem is to pretend it doesn't exist. But I'll tell you what. If I see someone smoking there I'll call the police, with or without the signs. They haven't heard the last of me."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.

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