U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin spent about an hour Monday afternoon visiting Lincoln Middle School to listen to the ways AmeriCorps volunteers are working with educators and students there to make a difference in the lives of seventh- through ninth-grade students.
He also observed one classroom, which is referred to as BAGS. This is the classroom where students with behavioral, attendance and grade challenges are assigned. They get one-on-one help and the focus is on helping them overcome the issues that got them there to begin with. there.
East St. Louis School District 189 was one of 10 districts nationwide to receive a $1.7 million grant from the Corporation for National and Community Services and a state match to fund AmeriCorps’ efforts. The two-year grant is designed to help fund a program in which volunteers will work with teachers to provide academic support to students in grades 7-9 and to help with after-school and summer programs for at-risk youths to improve student achievement, student attendance and the graduation rate. The volunteers also will do career coaching, mentoring and community cleanup.
Durbin engaged the students in conversation about the president, which they seemed to really enjoy. And, they asked him how it was working with the president. Durbin said President Obama was his boss and it was fun working with him.
One student asked whether he and Barack ever hung out when they were not working. Durbin said it was very difficult for Obama to get out like that because there are people out there who want to hurt him. Durbin told them everywhere he goes he has to be protected by Secret Service agents. He told the students the president’s job was much bigger than a normal job.
“He has to worry about the United States of America. I have to worry about Illinois,” he said. “But, when I call him, he calls me back. Pretty cool,” he said. This elicited a laugh from the class and Durbin, too.
He told the students he was born and raised in East St. Louis and went to college at Georgetown University, got into politics and went on to become a U.S. senator, where he has served for 19 years. He pointed to a sign in the classroom that said: If you expect respect, be the first to show it. “Respect yourself and other people You learn this here, from teachers, coaches ministers parents and people we respect,” Durbin said.
AmeriCorps members will put together a citywide College and Careers Pathway program to focus on academic achievement and college and career planning. At the end of the grant, the AmeriCorps participants will be responsible for completing a pathways program, expanding youth access to after-school and summer pathways programming and fostering youth volunteer and civic participation.
One of the volunteers, Tela Lury, is from Oregon. She told Durbin she was worried when she made the decision to participate in what AmeriCorps is doing in East St. Louis because she didn’t know whether she would be accepted, since she is white. The district is predominately black.
“I was worried I wouldn’t be accepted. But, the students are very receptive to what we are here to do,” she said.
“AmeriCorps programs embody our country’s spirit of volunteerism,” Durbin said. “I’m proud to see this new initiative come to the metro-east. This federal investment will allow East St. Louis schools to expand and strengthen their academic preparation in advising opportunities for young people.”
Devon Horton, a district 189 staff member said data shows that African-American students were being suspended at an alarming rate in schools across the country when compared to other nationalities. He said, “We want to stop this from happening. We want to teach the students behavior.
“We have to give the student the opportunity to have a discussion about what’s happening in these homes in the community that is having an impact on them,” he told Durbin.
Anna Allen said the group works with other programs, makes phone calls to parents if the student is absent, urging the parent into creating a plan. She said parents, when brought in, are talked to about improving their child’s grades and why they are not in school. If that doesn’t work, a meeting is set up with the Regional office of Education. If those measures fail, a judge is brought into to talk to some of the older kids about what some of the consequences are.
Dianne Sonneman, director of the Griffin Center, was excited to talk about the AmeriCorps workers and what their help means to the children in District 189.
“We are so happy to have 20 of them right here in East St. Louis. They will build relationships with the kids. They will have someone who will greet them in the morning. Then, they follow after school activities. It will be a great collective impact. It is an opportunity for East St. Louis to develop a model program which other schools can get involved in,” Sonneman said.
“When this two-year grant is concluded, East St. Louis will have put more students on a path to academic success,” Durbin said.