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Chicago Elev8 Stories: Vanessa Perez

Vanessa Perez, a leader in the making.

Alex Fledderjohn

As a brand new 7th-grader, Vanessa Perez often walked through the halls of Ames Middle School in Logan Square with her head down. Few could have predicted what she’d soon become.

 “I didn’t know I was a leader,” said Vanessa. “I used to be shy.”

The Elev8 program, launched in five Chicago middle and elementary schools in 2008, was founded on the idea that middle school years can make a critical difference in determining the direction that students will take in high school.

Now a freshman at Prosser Career Academy, Vanessa’s teachers describe her as outgoing, mature and ambitious. She’s quick with the answers in geometry class. (“She’s leading the class by example in participating,” said her teacher Victor Ciummo.)

The Elev8 program at Ames played a big role in her transformation, said Vanessa—not only because of the friendships that grew during summer and after-school activities, or through the supports, such as counseling and mentoring, but also in helping her develop her own skills and interests—particularly through two after-school leadership clubs.

Her Elev8 experience continues to guide her, Vanessa explained. Within her first two months at Prosser, she’d joined a leadership club for Latino youth, a Drum and Bugle Corps and a poetry club. “Elev8 got me used to doing stuff after school,” she said. Otherwise, “I would have gotten used to being lazy, to just coming home and doing whatever. I wouldn’t be in anything right now in high school.”

Recent research has found that developing extra-curricular interests pays big dividends later in life. According to one study of 10,000 high school sophomores, students who participated in extra-curricular activities completed more years of schooling than did their peers and 10 years later had higher earnings, even after controlling for their standardized test scores.

The same study, by Christy Lleras, a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, found that while standardized test scores did predict future success, social skills and work habits as reported by students’ high school teachers did so to an even greater degree.

“A big piece of the Elev8 program is not just helping kids develop academically but helping them develop socially and emotionally,” said Chris Brown, director of education programs for LISC/Chicago. “In the future, how they do well in work and life isn’t just going to be based on how well they did academically, but how well they can work on teams, take the initiative and lead others.”

Starting off

Five days before her first birthday, Vanessa’s family moved into their present apartment on the west end of Logan Square, a predominantly Latino neighborhood. Her parents, who adopted her at birth from a relative, have two older sons. Vanessa’s father works at the Blommer Chocolate Factory and her mother is at home due to illness. Both immigrated from San Luis Potosi a city in central Mexico, and speak only Spanish.

Vanessa has mostly fond memories of attending the elementary school across the street from her home, except for 6th grade, when she felt she didn’t fit in socially and had few friends. She didn’t join any afte-school programs that year, and doesn’t remember that many were available. “I just wanted to go home.”

The year that she entered Ames Middle, a 7th and 8th grade school, was a difficult one for her family, and it showed in Vanessa, said Ames Elev8 Director Maria Trejo.

“She was depressed," said Trejo. "She walked with her head down all the time. She cried a lot. [In groups], she didn’t participate.”

Vanessa had signed up for the Elev8 summer program that Ames offers to all incoming 7th graders from its feeder elementary schools. She enjoyed the activities and the field trips and the chance to meet new people. So when fall came, she signed up for the Elev8 after-school program—but often skipped.

Realizing that she needed some extra support, Trejo, then the Elev8 program manager, invited Vanessa to check-in with her before and after school. She soon convinced Vanessa to attend the after-school program regularly, and also referred her to a licensed professional counselor from Illinois Masonic Hospital who works at the Ames school health center. 

The Elev8 school health centers, a cornerstone of the initiative, provide a full-range of primary health services to students on-site. Counseling is in high demand—nearly a third of student visits are for mental health. Vanessa said she went once a week to talk and get advice. “That would be a way to cope with my problems.”

Elev8 staff also paired her with a mentor from Big Brothers, Big Sisters. “I got to get out of the house and go to places. It was also a person to talk to and have fun with.”

Taking chances

Joining a leadership group in the Elev8 after-school program was another turning point in Vanessa’s 7th-grade year. It happened unexpectedly.

One afternoon, an instructor walked into the lunchroom where the Elev8 students congregate before their activities. He passed out invitations to join a new club called Impacting our Community. Some of Vanessa’s friends got one, but she didn’t, and her curiosity was piqued. 

Fearing she might have been excluded because of a recent infraction—running through the hallways—she approached the leader and made her case. “I told him, ‘I got written up, but I’m a good kid. I’ll stay out of trouble.’

 “He was laughing. He said, ‘You can come.’”

Vanessa said she didn’t even know what the group was about. “I just wanted to go see. I walked in and [found it] was a leadership group, I was like, ‘Oh, cool!”

The club became a place to make friends—“That group was like family,” she said—and to get her first experience at public speaking, an effort that didn’t go off perfectly.

The students had organized a summit for their peers to hear from a panel of community leaders on neighborhood safety. Vanessa’s job was to ask the panel a question. “I was shaking. They didn’t understand me, I repeated the question. Public speaking was not natural to me.”

But she was hooked. “Even though it’s scary, it’s exciting,” she said.

In her 8th-grade year, that club was replaced by one lead by the Mikva Challenge, a Chicago non-profit that helps youth develop skills as civic leaders. For Vanessa, a highlight of the year was a speech competition with Mikva participants at Chicago’s four other Elev8 sites.

In her speech, Vanessa spoke out against the stereotyping of teens based on their dress or other superficial characteristics. She didn’t win, but she enjoyed it.

Her growing skill with public speaking didn’t go unnoticed in the classroom. Her 8th grade English teacher Renata Sapa said she used Vanessa as an example for her other students. “She had notes on index cards, eye contact.”

At the end of the year, that skill, along with her writing ability, got her selected as one of the five student speakers at her 8th grade graduation, an experience she later recalled in an essay about the proudest moment of her life that was “three to four pages longer than anyone else’s,” according to her 9th-grade writing workshop teacher.


Moving up

While Vanessa’s didn’t win admission to her first choice high school, one of the city’s most selective, she did well enough in middle school to enroll in nearby Prosser Career Academy, where the average incoming student posts test scores near the 75th percentile, according to a school administrator. (Neighborhood high schools in Chicago typically enroll students with test scores averaging well below the 50th percentile.)

The transition to high school can be a difficult one, but Vanessa got off to a fast start, and was quickly promoted to honors geometry and science. She said that she’s more organized this year and reports using a strategy emphasized in the Elev8 after school tutoring program—keeping a list of all her homework assignments in one place.

Also, “I know now the consequences of slacking off,” she said, a mistake that she says led to some Cs in middle school. She expects first quarter to earn As, Bs, and only one C, which she intends to raise to an A by the semester’s end.

In high school, as in middle school, extracurricular activities have been a source of new friends for Vanessa, and above all—confidence.

No longer shy in any situation, her social network is deep and wide. She continues to visit Trejo at Ames, who is coaching her to research her options for college. She still has her Big Sister mentor and keeps in touch with her former Mikva Challenge leader, who she is lobbying to start a Mikva Challenge group at Prosser. Down the school’s crowded hallways, Vanessa shouts loud greetings to friends and teachers alike.

The best thing Elev8 taught her, she said, is to try new things. “I learned that if there’s something you don’t know about, you should try it. You never know what you’re missing. You’ve got to see what it’s about.”

This fall, her experience with Mikva led her to join Aspira, a leadership group that supports teens in organizing their own events, civic action projects and field trips around four themes— community, government, education and culture.

 “I want to continue with the leadership. I want more of it,” she said. “I want more experience—more public speaking. More of all of it.”

Vanessa said that her career goals are to be an 8th grade math or writing teacher and a published author. If she does ultimately purse a teaching career, her enthusiasm for extra-curricular activities may serve her even better than her rising G.P.A.

A recent study by Angela Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist, found that teachers who had had consistent participation and high achievement in college extra-curricular activities produced higher standardized test score gains in their students than those who did not. A teacher’s college G.P.A. and SAT scores, however, did not predict their effectiveness in the classroom, as measured by student test score growth. Passion and perseverance in pursuing one’s interests are qualities that made a difference in a teacher’s job performance, the researcher concluded.

Vanessa has both in spades. Her trumpet instructor, Major Herman Sheppard said, “I have a lot who give up very quickly on an instrument. They say it’s too hard. She has never said that. She will not give up.”

And while public speaking still scares her, the fear doesn’t stop her.

On a Thursday afternoon in Prosser’s poetry club, Vanessa clutched a poem on loose leaf paper that she was too nervous to begin reading, and instead laughed and paced in a corner of the classroom. Finally, her friend Adrianna offered to join her in a primal scream, a strategy the poetry club leader recommended for relieving tension.

After a scream and more laughter, Vanessa began, and the poem she read was a powerful one. Built around the refrain “Where I’m from,” she described all the experiences that made her who she is: the family dynamics, the neighborhood dangers, the Spanish-speaking household, the struggles of growing up and the loneliness she left behind.

“I am from being on my own for awhile,” the poem concludes, “but no mas.”



Posted in Education, Logan Square


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