Kimberly Mitchell didn’t fit the typical high school dropout profile.
A good student, she was in class every day, earning good grades and making the honor roll at Orr Academy, a Chicago high school on the city’s West Side.
But between the chaotic environment she said was prevalent at Orr—a long-struggling school that has been subjected to several turnaround efforts over the years—and a spate of violence in her neighborhood that killed some of her friends, Mitchell slowly drifted away from school.
“It was just too negative for me,” says Mitchell. “Two of my friends were shot and killed in my last couple of months at Orr. I was depressed.”
By the time Mitchell made up her mind to return to school in January 2012, she had lost a year.
Through a friend, she’d heard about CCA Academy, a small, alternative school for dropouts in the nearby North Lawndale community. But she was reluctant to enroll, assuming it must be a place where violent and disruptive students land when they get expelled or drop out.
“It’s a perception we have to fight all the time,” says Myra Sampson, the principal and founder of the school. “Students like Kimberly are surprised when they walk in here and find a place that’s conducive to learning.”
No longer skeptical, Mitchell says she had never had meaningful connections with teachers until she came to CCA Academy. “They know me here,” she says. “They ask me all the time what I need, what they can do to help.”
Three students who dropped out of Chicago high schools found a path to graduation at a Youth Connection Charter School—a network of schools that specialize in serving recovered dropouts or students at high risk of not earning a diploma.
She caught up quickly on lost credits through CCA’s online credit-recovery program and has discovered a deep interest in environmental science.
“I’ve never learned in such a hands-on way before,” she says of the school’s urban-ecology and aquaponics programs. In the past two years, the aquaponics program—which involves raising fish and food in a symbiotic system—has become its most promising engagement tool.
“It’s totally opened my eyes to nature, to fish, and to plants, and to the whole idea of understanding and reducing my carbon footprint,” Mitchell says.
Rosemarie Markopoulas, CCA’s science teacher, says students who show up with little interest in science quickly turn into some of the most devoted keepers of the fish tanks and the gardens.
“They get so excited when the fish get pregnant,” she says. “They are in here, every day, measuring the nutrients in the water, researching what they want to grow. It’s amazing to watch the transformation.”
Nancy Zook, who teaches art at CCA Academy, has been intimately involved with the aquaponics program. She works with students to harvest the plants, extract essential oils from them to make soap, and design homemade stationery.
“To create something and nourish it really excites them,” Zook says. “It also gives them a much bigger idea of what’s possible for their lives. Too many of them can’t see beyond the neighborhoods they live in.”
That’s what happened with Mitchell, who is set to graduate this month from CCA and now has her hopes set on becoming a lawyer. She has applied to two colleges: Northern Illinois University in Dekalb and DePaul University in Chicago.