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Chicago Elev8 Stories: Richlyn Whittaker

Richlyn Whittaker used the team-building skills he learned through Elev8 to represent young people at a Washington DC conference.

Alex Fledderjohn

On a Saturday morning in October, the Perspectives-Calumet Warriors freshman football team was taking a 16-0 beating from Simeon Career Academy. But Richlyn Whittaker, Warrior # 78, an offensive tackle and nose guard, was undaunted.

When a Warrior pass sailed wide, he quelled the bickering among his teammates. When a friend came off the field, he helped him stretch sore legs. When the defense stopped a Simeon drive, he led the applause.

On the field, Richlyn has some things going for him. One is his size. Although only 15, he’s already six feet tall and weighs 305 pounds. Another is his calm demeanor, which has won the respect of teammates and coaches.

Happy Warrior? For sure. Gentle giant? That, too. A kid just trying to find his way in the world? You bet. And that hasn’t been easy. Left to his own devices, Richlyn wouldn’t have graduated from 8th grade at Perspectives Calumet Academy in Auburn Gresham and entered Perspectives-Calumet High School of Technology. That he did is largely a tribute to the encouragement of his mother, Lynda, and the guidance he received through Elev8, a program at Perspectives that engages students and their parents in after-school activities.

Richlyn and his mother live in a two-story brick house on a quiet street in the Rosemoor section of the Roseland neighborhood, on Chicago’s South Side. Lynda, like her son, is tall and solidly built, with a friendly demeanor. Now 45, she works as a department manager for a Jewel grocery store and will soon start training for a higher position. She and Richlyn’s father divorced before he started kindergarten. Though Richlyn has regular contact with his father and half-siblings, the day-to-day work of parenting him is all Lynda’s.

For Richlyn, elementary school was no picnic. He attended three different South Side schools. The last one, South Chicago Elementary, was closed by the Board of Education due to low enrollment. His grades were mostly Bs, but Richlyn had a tough time socially.

“He was picked on a lot for his size,” said Lynda. “It sort of killed his self-esteem. Richlyn wants to be friends with everybody.”

Worse, in Lynda’s view, Richlyn’s size meant that teachers would over-focus on him and overlook the bullying.

“When there was a behavioral incident, it would come back to Richlyn because he was the biggest,” said Lynda.  For example, at South Chicago, after months of low-level bullying, another boy kicked him. His long fuse finally ran out and he fought back. Lynda can’t recall if he was suspended, but she remembers being told the school’s policy on fighting was “zero tolerance.”

 And she remembers the teacher. “The teacher kept telling me, ‘I thought Richlyn was going to kill the little boy because he’s so much bigger.’” This teacher’s fearful attitude contrasted strongly with memories of a teacher she had who gave her attention, jobs and a way to avoid fights when she was a slow-to-anger child facing problems with peers. “That’s when I got upset and started looking for other schools. I understand zero tolerance, but you need to work out issues.”

New at Perspectives

With that baggage, Richlyn arrived as a 7th grader at Perspectives. There, Lynda found a school that would support her efforts to raise her son into a well-rounded adult.

“When I got to Perspectives, I liked Perspectives,” she said. So did Richlyn. For once, he wasn’t the new kid.

“Nobody had been here before anybody else,” he said. “We did team-building things. I was friends with everybody.”

And he jumped into Elev8 with both feet, joining five different after-school programs in 7th grade. Martial arts, where he earned trophies at tournaments and strengthened his focus and discipline, had the most impact.

“It taught me how to be more conscious,” he said. “Now I’m thinking about things more before I do them.”

Richlyn Whittaker in Washington DC

Through Elev8, Richlyn traveled to Washington, D.C., where he told policymakers that safe passage is a crucial early step on the road to college completion. Thanks to this and other Elev8 experiences, Richlyn evolved from a quiet boy focused mostly on football and friends into a peacemaker among his peers and a national youth advocate. He has also sharpened his time-management skills, academic focus, and understanding of the wider world.

“A kid will watch the news but not understand it,” Richlyn says. “Now I get what they’re talking about. I can connect to it.”

Richlyn, according to his teachers and his mother, is a good kid. In English class, he eagerly raises his hand and answers questions. In biology, when the room gets loud and some students are out of their seats, he connects with his lab partner and avoids the fray. At no point in the day is he the one getting sent out of the room for disruptive noise or disrespect toward a teacher.

But even good kids can have friends who lead them astray. Last fall, as an 8th-grader, Richlyn hung out with a group of young people who liked gangsta rap and wanted to start their own rap and dance group, the Technically Cool Kids. Perspectives Calumet Academy Principal Tamara Davis looked at TCK with a wary eye, but she let Elev8 partner Ben Levine, from Mikva Challenge, a youth leadership and action civics agency, work with them after school.

“We liked to dance and stuff,” said Richlyn. “We had a little group. We wanted it to be our after-school program. They brought Ben to us and said he could be our supervisor.”

After about two months, “Ben created his program called Mikva and we turned into Mikva. We started doing surveys and learning about politics.”

Levine’s version is slightly different; though Richlyn himself wasn’t in trouble, many of his pals were.

“They were going to be thrown out of the school for starting this rap group,” said Levine. “So I made a deal with them: if you join my group I’ll help you out.”

It worked. Within a few months, Levine persuaded the group to focus on finding and addressing problems affecting large numbers of students. “Somehow we managed to get rid of all the other stuff,” he said.

The group surveyed their peers to determine students’ view of the most pressing school issues—fights led the list—and did research on crime statistics across Chicago. By December they’d learned to work as a team. On the last day of the semester, Levine ordered pizza and gave them a chance to put together a dance routine for a school event. 

“I sat back and let them run the meeting,” he said. “It was perfect. No one interrupted each other,” a stark contrast to the early meetings, when all of them were talking over each other in bids for attention.

For most of his life, Richlyn has been known as a quiet young man. “When he started being in Mikva he was not very confident in his speaking skills,” recalls Jasmine Heim, Perspectives’ Elev8 program manager.


Washington DC moment

Yet when Elev8 Chicago had the opportunity to send five young people to Washington to attend the U.S. Department of Education’s Voices in Action: National Youth Summit, Richlyn was Perspectives’ choice. “He was the most passionate about [Elev8],” says Mikva’s Levine, who worked intensely with Richlyn to prepare for the trip, coaching him in speechwriting and preparing him not only to talk with legislators about Elev8 but to train other students, too.

Richlyn’s public speaking debut was captured on video. On the stage of Howard University’s Cramton Auditorium, Richlyn sat next to Alberto Retana, Director of Community Outreach for the U.S. Department of Education. Richlyn was one of four young people invited to join the policy panel with Retana and other high-level education staffers. He was the only middle-schooler and the only African-American boy.

Richlyn gave an impassioned plea for increased attention to young people’s safety grounded in his own experience. “The Auburn Gresham community has the second-highest murder rate of any community in Chicago. We need to do something about it. … Students can’t focus on their education if they have to worry about how they’re getting home tonight,” he said to applause from the 350 young people listening.

Richlyn summarized his experience of Washington simply: “It let me go different places, see how different surroundings are, meet different people. It gave me a better outlook.”

“It has really changed his motivation,” said Heim. As a 7th-grader, “he was taking the route of being a jock. [Advocacy work] has really changed his motivation. It has opened up a horizon for different kinds of things he could do in school.”

Before Perspectives and Elev8, Richlyn said, “I was just about having fun. But now I’m more serious, more mature.”

Richlyn's public speaking skills improved dramatically through his Elev8 training.

Even good kids can face danger after school. One afternoon in fall 2010, as Richlyn was getting to know Levine and Mikva, he headed home from school with two of his cousins and a couple of other friends. While they waited for the State Street bus at 79th Street and Lafayette Avenue, a major South Side intersection near the Dan Ryan Expressway, a group of boys came off the Red Line elevated train and confronted them.

“I guess they thought it was their territory or something,” Richlyn said. “One of them pushed [his cousin] Teddy. My other cousin, Kenny, pushed him back and it started a fight.” When the bus arrived, the driver got off and broke it up, he recalled. One of Richlyn’s teeth was chipped in the melee. 

Getting to and from school safely is a serious problem for young people all over Chicago. For decades, turf wars among the city’s rival gangs have made travel across more than a few blocks perilous for neighborhood teenagers, even those not directly involved. Although the city tries to ensure student safety, most notably in the wake of the 2009 beating death of an honors student from a far South Side high school, for Richlyn and many other Chicago teens, getting to and from school remains a perilous experience.

In that context, Richlyn last January joined yet another Elev8-related activity, peer mediation training, in which he and 16 other students completed 24 hours of training, including role-plays and personalized feedback. He’s put his training to work resolving conflicts at school during lunch periods, among friends outside school, and even used it while on the Washington trip.

Research shows that it’s often petty arguments that spark heated violence. Richlyn has intervened in a number of these conflicts among his friends. For example, he describes a time when his friends were arguing about the merits of Xbox 360 versus Playstation 3. “People got real mad and wanted to fight.”

Richlyn stepped in with a common-sense observation: “P3 has something 360 doesn’t have, and 360 has something that P3 doesn’t, so they’re kind of equal. That calmed everybody down.”

In Washington, two boys from another school got into a fight in Richlyn’s room, Levine said. Though he and another chaperone sat down with the boys talking late into the night, it was Richlyn and another student who initially broke it up. “Richlyn and the other kid separated them and talked to them: You can’t do this. You’re supposed to be leaders,” Levine said.

Lynda credits Elev8 for helping Richlyn grow. “It gave him a sense that he can do something really great,” she said. “I think he has finally built back his self-esteem.”

Yet even with all this growth, Richlyn still struggled to graduate from 8th grade. Teachers, Elev8 staff and his mother all agree he’s bright but not inclined to push himself in school.

In 1st grade, his teacher commented on his report card: “Richlyn is a great reader, but doesn’t complete all assignments and plays too much.”

In 9th grade, his English teacher, Noe Janus, sang a similar song: “He’s a smart kid. The motivation’s not always there.”

These days, Richlyn himself is saying the right things. “I want to go to college on a football scholarship and play in the NFL,” he said. “If I don’t get that, I’m trying for all A’s so I can still win a scholarship to college.”

And so far in 9th grade his teachers say his grades are OK—good enough to play football, which means at least a C average.

The Elev8 element

Richlyn credits Elev8 with sharpening his focus and overall discipline. “I can do more things at one time,” he said, pointing to his ability to keep track of high school homework on a block schedule where classes don’t meet daily as an example. He knows he has to do homework over the weekend for his Tuesday class, and do homework on Monday night for Wednesday. “I couldn’t have done that in 7th grade.”

His people skills also helped him make adult friends who kept an eye on him. “By his 8th-grade year he had more support,” observes Heim. “He was on a lot of different people’s radar.”

But despite the best efforts of some of Richlyn’s Elev8 friends, he did not graduate on time. Everyone agrees Richlyn didn’t turn in his homework; Lynda says he did it but it often got lost in his book bag. “He would do homework and forget to turn it in. Then you look in his book bag and it’s all jumbled up.” Though Lynda sat down with him and color-coded his folders, he wouldn’t stay on track with the system. “I still can’t get him to this point with organization,” she said.

When the word got out that Richlyn was struggling, his Elev8 connections did their best to help.

“Toward the end of year he started to get overwhelmed with make-up work,” said Levine. “In May, we found out he probably wouldn’t graduate.”

Richlyn, Levine and social worker Michael Kristovic worked out a daily plan for his makeup work. “He tried to make a major push, but he was unable to complete all his work,” said Levine.

Richlyn with his mother, Lynda.

Alex Fledderjohn

In the end, Elev8-funded summer school was there to help him catch up and start his freshman year of high school on time.

“He didn’t do well,” says Tenisha Jones, Elev8 director for Perspectives/Auburn Gresham. “We still saved him.” Richlyn was able both to make up his course failures and attend summer football camp. 

For Jones, Richlyn’s story is a reminder that all kids, even the good ones, need Elev8-style supports. “I think any of our kids can go astray,” she said. “That’s why Elev8 is a gift to our community and to our kids.”

Seeing a student as involved in Elev8 as Richlyn miss graduating with his classmates is spurring Jones to look more closely at individual student performance.

“My hope going forward is we would identify indicators,” she said, “do some sort of plan with a teacher involved. How can we use all these services to ensure this kid won’t be going to summer school?”

“Richlyn is a great kid,” said Jones. “For him to have all these wonderful things going on and something was still missing – he didn’t graduate with his class – shows we need a next phase. We need to do more targeted services.”








Posted in Education, Auburn Gresham


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