A few years ago, Jeremy Mitchell wasn't doing well in school. His grades were slipping, and he thought his best shot at a better life was playing professional basketball or football.
He soon learned that wasn't a realistic plan.
"I woke up. Most people don't make it in sports," said Mitchell, now 17 and a recent graduate of Chicago Excel Academy of Englewood, an alternative school where he transferred his sophomore year when he fell behind in his studies at Simeon Career Academy. He then realized, "I've got to start working (after graduation). The whole family, they depend on me."
During his senior year, Mitchell, who lives in the Englewood neighborhood with his parents and sister, heard about a new program designed to give students without a solid plan after high school an opportunity for not only steady, full-time work, but a career path beyond minimum-wage jobs.
Mitchell enrolled in the program, graduated last spring and started a new full-time job as a patient care concierge at Warren Barr Gold Coast rehabilitation facility. He plans to obtain his certified nursing assistant (CNA) license soon, and perhaps college and more nursing degrees in the future. He said he sees it as "a way out of the neighborhood, to a better life."
Not only does Mitchell enjoy his work, helping patients in the rehab facility, but he said he can now pitch in on bills at home – something he couldn't do without steady work. "I can take care of my family."
The Lumity Pre-Apprenticeship Program aims to provide at-risk Chicago Public Schools students with life coaching, entry-level job training and networking skills before placing them in full-time jobs. Lumity, a Chicago-based nonprofit that works to bring STEM opportunities to underserved teens, facilitates the program, which is funded through a $150,000 grant from Chicago CRED (Creating Real Economic Destiny), an organization that aims to reduce gun violence through job training and other initiatives.
Jadine Chou, CPS chief safety and security officer, helped develop the program after seeing a need for students in alternative schools. The pilot program identified 45 students willing to commit to after-school classes in their final weeks of school and during the summer, and recently placed two-thirds of them in full-time jobs. Program facilitators are still working to place the remaining students, she said. Besides health care, participating companies offer jobs in manufacturing and technology.
As CPS students return to school, Chou and others are working to expand the program, offering it earlier to students in their senior year.
"Every kid is supposed to have a post-secondary plan when they graduate, for college, vocational school, a job, something. And that probably works good for a good majority of the kids," Chou said. "But what about the kids who don't have everything going for them?"
For students with barriers like poverty, troubled family lives, substance abuse or other challenges, she said, "it's not enough to just do planning. We have to connect these kids to jobs ... so that kids will not slip through the cracks."
While existing job-placement programs set kids up in jobs during their time in high school, those jobs end once they graduate, Chou said, which can mean unemployment or dead-end jobs. The new program is designed to offer students additional tools to help guide them to a better career trajectory before placing them in more promising jobs. Mitchell and others who work as patient care concierges earn about $12 to $13 per hour, depending on location, plus benefits. And those wages will increase once they obtain their CNA licenses – with tuition reimbursement from the company.
And before starting their jobs, the Lumity program also includes skills assessment to find out what the students will enjoy "because it's not just about a paycheck," Chou said. "It's important to enjoy going to work every day."
Deon Brown, 20, of Englewood, said he was working as a cook in a kitchen while attending alternative school Ombudsman Chicago South. After enrolling in the Lumity program, instructors helped him see that fields where he can interact more with other people might be a better fit.
Now he's working with Mitchell as a patient care concierge and recently enrolled in Malcolm X college to obtain his CNA license.
"I was really lost" before this current job, he said. "They opened up my mind. This is a good path."
Darius Triplett, 18, a recent Hyde Park Academy graduate, said he felt "stuck" during his senior year. While he had many interests – including stand-up comedy, "I didn't know what I wanted to do," Triplett said.
The program and his job as a patient care concierge at Warren Barr's Evergreen Park location, made him realize he can connect with people by helping patients.
Tommie Arens, Lumity's director of teaching and learning, worked with the students over the summer and still checks in on them. She said she'll continue to do so until they're about six months into their jobs.
The program also offers the students bus tickets to get to work, as transportation can be an obstacle to keeping a job, Arens said. And when that's not an option, she'll order them an Uber or Lyft.
Arens said she wants to make sure the recent grads have every chance to succeed, and has seen the results from the time they started the program to now. Most didn't like school, she said, and now excitedly are pursuing certificates at community college to advance their nursing careers. They also talk about bachelor's degrees, whereas many of their friends don't have those plans and can't find jobs.
"I know, at the end, it's going to pay off," Mitchell said of working toward his CNA certificate. "I might just go further."
"I think you might," added Arens. "I think you could be a doctor."