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Chicago Elev8 Stories: Brianna Reed

Alex Fledderjohn

Brianna Reed is the kind of student who often gets overlooked in discussions about education reform, which tend to focus on kids “at-risk.” An “A” student at Reavis Elementary School in Bronzeville, there was no doubt she would eventually enroll in one of the city’s most selective high schools.

But as a top student in her elementary school classes, Brianna said she did just enough to please her teachers. It was only through her Elev8 after-school activities, which over three years included tutoring, cheerleading, a science club, arts activities and a leadership group, that her focus shifted from pleasing adults to becoming a leader among her peers. Now as a sophomore at Whitney Young High, Brianna is returning to Reavis lead the youth leadership group she attended as a 7th- and 8th-grader.

Chicago’s five Elev8 sites are part of a growing youth development movement that sees teens from neighborhoods like Bronzeville— not merely as recipients of services like tutoring, mentoring and counseling and health care—which Elev8 provides, but as a community resource.

“Through the Elev8 program, I got exposed to more things and more people and it grew my leadership qualities,” said Brianna. “Without Elev8 I wouldn’t be as much of a leader as I am today.”

Brianna among many student leaders

Brianna isn’t the only Reavis graduate to return to the school as a leader, worker or volunteer. More than half of the 38 students who graduated with her in 2010 have returned on their own accord to help out, either informally or as part of one of the structured programs that Elev8 staff organized with outside partners. For instance, a university school of social work is teaching Reavis graduates how to mentor younger students while an arts group led a team of high school students last summer to paint murals on the Reavis campus.

Darius Loghmanee, a pediatrician who started the leadership group at Reavis that Brianna now leads, observed that young teens are typically viewed as problematic: “We talk as if a successful adolescence is one where you don’t get pregnant, don’t get on drugs and don’t go to jail.
“If instead we saw them as altruistic and having the ability to affect change in their communities,” he continued, “then we design programs in a very different way.”

Brianna joined the Elev8 program after returning to Reavis as a 6th-grader in 2007. She had previously attended the school from 2nd to 4th grade, but transferred when her family moved to the West Side in search of cheaper rent. But her mother, Wanda Hubbard, decided the quality of teaching at Reavis was worth the drive and re-enrolled Brianna and her two younger siblings a year later.

Brianna’s participation made it possible for her brother and sister, then in 4th and 1st grades, to join the Little People on the Move afterschool activities Reavis had organized for younger siblings, realizing that babysitting responsibilities might prevent the older students from signing-up.


The parental angle

Hubbard, a single parent who works as a certified nursing assistant, said it’s a huge help to have a safe place for her younger children to be until 5:30 p.m. each weekday evening. A lot of free activities in the city are only for kids of a certain age, she observed. “Either they’re too old or I can’t afford it. So we don’t have a lot of options.”

Brianna said that in the Elev8 after-school programs, teachers and instructors were able to offer more personal attention than she got during the school day, and pushed her to work harder. “And to not settle for, ‘I’m doing good,’ but to help people around me.’”

In cheerleading, “originally she just wanted to please,” recalled her cheerleading coach and 7th grade teacher Nicole Popwalski. “She just wanted to do well so that other people would see that and praise her.”

But as captain of the cheerleading squad, Brianna’s focus shifted. She grew to care more about her teammates working well together, and would effectively mediate their squabbles, Popwalski recalled. “She was respectful and loving and a lot of girls looked up to her and went to her for guidance and advice. I was able to take a step back.”

Chicago Youth Animators, a non-profit Loghmanee founded with some friends, started a Saturday program at Reavis that also gave Brianna a chance to develop her leadership skills. Students explored personal virtues such as compassion, generosity and responsibility through readings, discussions, writing, performances and civic action projects.

In 8th grade, Brianna and a couple of her friends in the group decided to organize a peace rally at Reavis to address violence in the community. They led small group discussions with other students about peace, based on selected quotations. At the end, each group presented a project based on ideas from their discussion—either a poem, a skit, a song or a dance. They also invited their alderman to talk with students and made some speeches themselves.

A natural role model

Before Brianna left 8th grade, she told Loghmanee that she hoped to lead the group someday. When he needed to step down this year, she and a former classmate stepped in and now lead the program each Wednesday afternoon for the 13 students who enrolled. 

Trenyada Kittler, a 6th-grader, said her favorite activity so far was one where Brianna brought recordings of songs the kids had named as their favorites and had them listen carefully to the lyrics. They identified the negative words and subject matter, like drug-dealing and gang-banging, and talked about the character traits of people who would speak that way. Later they wrote their own song lyrics, reflecting values that could have a positive influence on their community.

“Brianna likes to have fun with her work so you won’t be bored and not paying attention,” said 6th-grader Javontez Montgomery, who explained that she’s also teaching them how to work well together. “She will tell us in order to earn respect, you have to give respect.”

Javontez said he took her advice to heart. Another boy in the group was irritating him, but instead of getting into an argument, he gave the other boy some ideas for getting along better with his peers, like asking them questions about themselves. “At first he used it on me because I wanted him to practice. Then he tried it with other students.”

Trenyada Kittler, a 6th-grader, said she can see herself and her peers stepping into a leadership role similar to Brianna’s someday. “I feel like we can teach something that we learned. Maybe we can teach the next students."


Posted in Education, Quad Communities


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