PEAK: Time to Diversify

Author: Sean Callahan '87

Under his Holy Trinity High School polo shirt, part of the school’s uniform, freshman Jose often wears a turtleneck. That’s one way the 14-year-old, who recently emigrated from Ecuador, has learned to deal with Chicago winters.

This young man has had to adjust to many things since his arrival on Chicago’s West Side less than two years ago. Jose discovered the turtleneck on his own, but he relies on Miguel Hernandez, his Partnership to Educate and Advance Kids (PEAK) sponsor, to help him master English and to suggest strategies for avoiding the gangs that dominate his neighborhood.

Hernandez is one of nine Latino and African-American PEAK sponsors. Because of their Notre Dame connection and their own backgrounds, PEAK’s co-founders Eileen Cavanaugh Bender ’87 and Maria Madigan Kelly ’87 have tended to attract white, middle-class sponsors to the program. The partnership is striving to recruit more minority sponsors who might have similar life experiences to PEAK students, the majority of whom are Latino and African-American. The recruiting effort is yielding some success – six of 16 sponsors in the freshman class are minorities.

“The people who we’ve approached are stretched so thin,” Bender said. “It’s difficult. Minorities who are successful, everybody wants a piece of them.”

Hernandez, who is originally from Mexico, attended Holy Trinity on a scholarship. He swore he’d provide similar support for a student when he got the chance. With his job as an engineer for Motorola, Hernandez now has the means to live up to his pledge.

Like Jose, Hernandez learned English after arriving in the United States. He knows how difficult it is to excel in school in a language not your own. With fellow Holy Trinity graduate and PEAK sponsor Armando Rivas, he tutors Jose in algebra, which the young man finds a struggle because the teacher’s instructions are in English.

Rivas, a math teacher in the Chicago Public Schools, also sponsors a Latino freshman. “That was done on purpose,” Brother Phil Smith, president of Holy Trinity, said. “We chose them [Hernandez and Rivas] specifically for these kids, because they are not believers in a bilingual education and they can assist them to get a facility with English.”

The match of Hernandez and Jose has paid early dividends. Jose was failing English in September, but by January exams he carried a C+. Similarly, in algebra his grade rose from a D- to a C. “He’s improving,” Hernandez said. “It’s the language thing for the most part.”

Beyond the language, Hernandez counsels Jose in the ways to avoid the gunfire and gangs that hold sway in his neighborhood. Even though it added 45 minutes to his ride home, Hernandez used to travel by bus from Holy Trinity instead of the El train, because the bus didn’t take him through disputed gang territory. Jose has already applied some of Hernandez’s lessons.

“I’m always in my home, I’m always in my apartment,” Jose said.