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Students who 'want to have a future' take first steps

Two years ago, Leonardo Ocampo’s life almost ended at 15 when someone shot him in the back.

He had been flirting with gangs in his Little Village neighborhood and hanging out on street corners. One day, a bullet struck him from behind, exiting his chest after piercing his kidney and pancreas. About to enter high school, Ocampo was was in the hospital for a month and came out with a new focus.

“I started realizing that this is not the life I want to live,” Ocampo, now 18, said. “I want to have a future, I want to go to college.”

On Saturday, Ocampo took a big step in that direction inside the Illinois Institute of Technology. There, he became one of 550 high school juniors in Chicago to enter a fellowship program that aims to help under-performing students earn a four-year-degree.

The program, run by Urban Students Empowered, pairs Chicago Public Schools students from neighborhood and charter schools with aggressive teachers bent on making sure they succeed.

Jeff Nelson, the CEO of Urban Students Empowered, said the non-profit group is hoping to have a huge impact on under-performing CPS students. Only 7 percent of the district’s students earn four-year degrees by the age of 25, he said.

In the face of those kinds of statistics, “it becomes an economic and moral imperative to do something,” Nelson said.

Students accepted into the program come from disadvantaged communities and are screened through a rigorous application process. The program then pairs them with a pre-selected teacher, who will see the students through the last two years of high school.

The teachers will work with the students to boost their grades and ACT scores, while making sure they keep a good attendance record. They’ll then guide their charges through the college application process, including finding enough financial aid, program coordinators said.

Once in college, the students will continue to correspond with the same teacher during freshman year to guard against falling grades, financial worries or getting too homesick.

So far, the program that began in 2007 has been successful. About 99 percent of the approximately 1,000 students who’ve gone through the program are accepted into college, the group says. About 83 percent have continued to pursue four-year degrees.

On Saturday, students newly admitted into the program talked about overcoming the loss of loved ones, financial woes and concern over family members with illegal immigration status. Most said they’ll be the first in their family to go to college.

Hoping to become the first in his family to graduate college, Ocampo has already begun working on his own to improve his grades. His Ds and Fs have morphed into As and Bs, he said. He’s challenging himself with honors classes and ended sophomore year ranked in the top three.

“I began staying after shool, studying harder and asking my teachers for help,” he said.

After college, Ocampo hopes to become a police officer. He also wants to help other kids in his neighborhood get off the street, and, maybe, follow his path.

nahmed@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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