October 1, 2003 | Maureen Kelleher, Catalyst Chicago

Umoja blends counseling, academics,
real-world experience

Along with the city’s Gallery 37 arts program and the related Tech 37, Umoja, which means unity in Swahili, is the newest wrinkle in what traditionally was known as vocational education.

As schools narrow their focus on academics, these outside partners are bringing academics to life and helping students explore the workplace.

“We’re definitely making college and careers real for students,” says Carmen Mahon, Umoja’s career and college counselor. “They weave into each other.” In the six years Umoja has been at Manley, the West Side school’s graduation rate has improved and more of its graduates enroll in college. The graduation rate for the class of 2002-03—62 percent—was an 8-year high. (Official data for 2003 are not yet available.) More than 70 percent of Manley’s 2003 graduates were accepted to college, compared with less than 10 percent in 1997.

A student achievement report found that seniors who were highly involved in Umoja-related activities were more likely to enroll in a four-year college than those with lower participation levels. “This is extraordinary for an inner-city, low-income, minority high school,” according to the 2002 report by G. Alfred Hess of the Center for Urban School Policy at Northwestern University. The authors credited Umoja for contributing to the college enrollment gains.

Umoja’s Leff says changing high school culture is the key to improving advisory. “Schools don’t know how to be student centered and look at kids as whole people,” she says.

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