State budget blues: there goes another valuable program | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

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State budget blues: there goes another valuable program

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One day last spring, when he should have been in school, Max, 17, got caught spray-painting graffiti on an el platform. The police handcuffed him and slapped him with a felony charge. He spent two days in the Cook County Jail and might have faced a few months in prison had his probation officer not worked out a deal.

Max was sent to the Factory, a not-for-profit vocational program for wayward juveniles. Over the last few months, to the delight of his teachers and counselors, Max has flourished, picking up skills that could help him land a job after graduation.

"I love this place," says Max, who asked that his last name not be used. "Everybody shows each other respect. It gives you a chance to get your life together."

Now, however, he and his 31 classmates may be turned back to the streets because the state is threatening to cut all of the Factory's funding.

State officials contend that they have nothing against the Factory, which, they say, is a good program. It's just that the grant the Factory gets is only supposed to go toward helping the disabled. And according to a new federally mandated guideline, juvenile delinquents, like Max, are no longer considered disabled. As a result, programs that help them can no longer receive disability funds.

For the folks at the Factory, it's one of those mind-boggling, incomprehensible ironies of bureaucratic reasoning in which the government winds up spending more money--all in the name of saving money.

"We receive $198,000 from the state; in contrast it costs about $26,000 a year to keep one person in jail," says Albert Pennacchio, program manager of the Factory. "I guarantee you that if we close every single one of our kids is going to end up on the street and probably in jail. We are really up against the wall. We either find the money or go out of business. It's not a matter of tightening our belts. It's all or nothing."

The Factory is one of several programs operating out of an old warehouse at 2032 N. Clybourn, which is owned and managed by the Center for the Rehabilitation and Training of Persons With Disabilities.

The idea for the Factory was conceived in the early 1980s by social workers, teachers, and school officials who felt a small, regimented vocational training program might help juvenile delinquents turn their lives around. It's a joint effort sponsored by the center, the Chicago public-school system, and the state Department of Rehabilitation Services.

The students at the Factory are between the ages of 17 and 21. They're black, white, and Hispanic and they come from all over the city. What they share is a troubled past. "The kids who come to us have failed at everything they have tried--there's no delicate way to put it," says Pennacchio. "They got in trouble with the law. They got in trouble in school. They may have family troubles. We try to integrate some positives into their lives."

Most of the students at the Factory are inmates from the Juvenile Detention Center, where they were sent for a variety of offenses, including rape, battery, burglary, theft, and attempted murder. Pennacchio says he interviews roughly 200 candidates a year--most of whom are rejected.

"We can't help everyone," says Carol Woodworth, director of vocational services for the center. "In our screening process we're looking for signs of motivation."

Once accepted, the students must abide by a rigid set of rules, enforced by Pennacchio, a barrel-chested weight lifter. "I'm the disciplinarian; I make them follow the rules," he says. "We give them chances, but if they break the rules three times they are asked to leave the program."

The rules cover everything from what the kids wear to how they address one another. "I'd say that 80 percent of our students are in gangs, but we have a rule against representation," says Pennacchio. "No earrings, no hats, no gang colors. We have an absolute ban on weapons of any kind. If you're caught with a gun or a knife, you're out--period. We had a kid here, a great kid, who had a gun on him. I had to report him to the police. He said he had to carry the gun for protection because he had to go through a neighborhood controlled by a rival gang. I felt for him, but I had no choice. We can't tolerate that."

The students spend half of their day in the classroom, taking courses in English, science, and math, and the rest of the day on the job, where they do packaging and printing.

"The kids get paid on a piece-rate basis, according to how much they package," says William Cintron, production foreman for the program. "After this they will know what to expect when they get a factory job."

For most of the students it's the first job they have ever held. "In terms of skills we emphasize attendance, punctuality, dealing with supervisors, getting along with coworkers, and responsibility," says Michael Salon, the counselor at the Factory. "They learn that if they show up late, for instance, they make less money because they will have less time on the job."

Despite its strict rules, the Factory does have a softer side. "These are kids and you should never forget that," says Pennacchio. "They don't act like kids at first. They have to act defiant. But once you get to know them and get through the hard surface, they let down. I've had kids, even hard-core offenders, sit in my office and cry."

Pennacchio and Salon do not think they are being fooled by crocodile tears. "These kids are skilled manipulators, but crying is not in their repertoire," says Salon. "We're talking about 17-year-olds who have never been little boys. They didn't play with toys when they were kids. If they're going to challenge you, they'll fold their arms or cover their ears or represent, but they won't cry."

One of the more popular programs at the Factory is writing and putting together a monthly newspaper called the Center Factory News, filled with essays on a variety of topics.

"Greed--no matter how much money you have, you still want more," begins one essay called "Money, Money, Money," written by a student identified as M.P. "If you have money, you can rule the world. People will worship you--until it's gone. Then you see who your friends really are. . . . People don't realize that money isn't everything. It can't buy you love and it can't buy you happiness. But it can buy me that hunter green Suzuki Sidekick with a rag top, dropped 3 wheel hydraulic set up and low profile t/a wide tires, a Sony CD detachable face, a Sony walkman (so I could also listen to tapes), two 18's, two 15's, and 12's size speakers (the 12's would go in front, the 18's and 15's in the back), two Pioneer 1000 watt amps and a cherry on top. That should keep me occupied for a couple of years. LATER."

It would be politically embarrassing to Governor Edgar, who boasted that he would be the education governor, if the Factory was allowed to close. Not surprisingly, state officials are trying to shift the blame to the federal government, which is the ultimate source of the money that funds the Factory.

"About two years ago we went to these folks and said that under the tone and tenor of the federal Rehabilitation Act Amendment we will not be able to continue to fund programs like the Factory," says Melissa Skilbeck, a spokeswoman for Audrey McCrimon, director of the state Department of Rehabilitation Services. "Illinois is under an order of selection that means we must serve the most severely disabled people first. Given the nature of the behavior-disorder kids at the Factory, they do not fall under that order of selection."

Officials at the Factory say the new definition is too restrictive and ultimately self-defeating. "We serve kids who have exhibited unsocial and inappropriate behavior," says Stuart Ferst, president of the center. "They fight; they talk back to their teachers; they're truants; they're unmanageable; they quit school. This is not normal or appropriate behavior. Yet we have placed one-third of them in jobs. Compare the costs of keeping them in jail to training them and you realize it's an invaluable savings."

Skilbeck suggests that the Chicago public-school system pick up the Factory's expenses. But the schools are running a deficit of roughly $400 million and seeking more money from the state. For her part, McCrimon told Ferst that she would recommend that the state Board of Education fund the Factory. But so far Gail Lieberman, director of special education for that department, has ignored the Factory's pleas for assistance. (Lieberman would not return phone calls.)

"We don't care where the money comes from," says Ferst. "Ideally, we could form a coalition of funders so one particular state agency doesn't have to pick up the tab alone. This kind of program should be replicated five times over instead of being cut."

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

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