Being the who at the heart of transformation

Ted Christians '96


Spring 2012

In 1997, less than 10 percent of the graduates of Manley Career Academy High School on Chicago’s west side went on to college. In 2011, college-bound seniors made up 65 percent of the graduating class. What accounts for such a dramatic increase?

Not what, but who: Umoja.

Umoja, shorthand for Umoja Student Development Corp., is 27 adults invested in long-term, supportive relationships with students at Manley.

Ted Christians ’96 has been one of those adults since 1999 and is now Umoja’s executive director.

“For us, relationships open the door to helping our young people see and believe in the best version of themselves,” Christians said. “We ask, ‘Who are you meant to be? What do you have to offer the world?’ Then we say, ‘Let’s talk about what it takes to get you there.’”

But Umoja goes way beyond talk. It walks students along the road toward their dreams. That can mean academic skills workshops, job shadowing and internship opportunities, leadership and service training, scholarships and college visits.

Umoja is the Swahili word for unity, and Umoja, the organization, puts all these components together in a unified approach. For example, the Community Builders summer internship program sends students on what Christians calls “a deep dive into a community issue—violence, for example, or food justice. They debate, learn how to think critically, do surveys, analyze data, meet with city council members, speak publicly and develop media messages. They become part of the solution.”

Crucial to Umoja’s success has been its unique partnership with Manley High. Housed within the school itself, Umoja staff members develop programs in collaboration with teachers and administrators.

“They understand that we have to see our young people holistically,” Christians said. “We have to address their social-emotional needs. If we don’t, it doesn’t matter what anyone teaches. It’s not going to take.”

One way that happens is a weekly advisory period. Teachers meet with students to talk through personal development issues using a curriculum they’ve created in concert with Umoja staff.

Every Wednesday, Manley social studies teacher Tyler Zwagerman ’06 meets with the 15 freshmen in his advisory.

“It’s a time to help them see their own potential and to take ownership for where they’re headed,” Zwagerman said. “That time is something I cherish.”

In another address to students’ social-emotional growth, Umoja has initiated a restorative justice program. Before or after a conflict erupts, students can choose to participate in a peace circle, where trained peers and adults help them talk through a dispute and reconcile.

Zwagerman has participated in those circles. “It gives students a place to defuse,” he said. “Almost always they see it’s not in their best interest to go down the path of violence.”

Last year alone administrators recorded a 43 percent decrease in disciplinary infractions at Manley.

That Manley High School was becoming a dramatically different place caught the attention of Arne Duncan as early as 2002. Now U.S. Secretary of Education, Duncan was then CEO of Chicago Public Schools, and he encouraged Umoja to expand its model. After working carefully for years to develop a replication process that, in Christians’ words, “is organic, and is thoughtful and respectful of each school’s felt needs,” Umoja now partners with nine other deeply challenged Chicago schools, bringing long-term, supportive relationships to over 8,000 students.

And they mean long term.

“The support doesn’t end when they walk across the high school stage,” Christians noted.

Morgan Davis ’07, pictured above with Christians, is Umoja’s alumni coordinator. She spends her days calling, e-mailing and meeting with graduates, whether they’re in college or on the job.

“We remind them that we can be a resource for them—whether linking them to a business professional or scholarship help—and that they can be self-sufficient persons,” she said. “It’s wonderful to see the fire in their eyes, the drive to do and be more.”

Davis, Christians and Zwagerman are quick to add that all this long-term relationship building is hard work: “intense conversations over long days in an emotionally charged environment.”

But it energizes them, too, to be part of the who at the heart of transformation.

“Giving our students the opportunities more privileged schools take for granted not only transforms them, it transforms us, and it’s transforming this community,” Christians said. “Educational equality is a justice issue that could transform this country.”