My name is Jesus E. Velazquez, and I am a youth organizer with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association. I am a senior at Kelvyn Park High School and my experience in school has made me get involved in education policy because it hasn’t been the best. I was really interested in school before eighth grade. At my old schools we did a lot of hands of projects that were cool, and towards the end of my eighth grade year my friends were all excited and getting ready to go to high school. Everyone was excited but me because I didn’t really have plans to stay in school because of my undocumented status. I thought even if I get a good job not having a social security number would stop me.
My first year in high school wasn’t really anything new other than the people. It was the same “read a book and answer this sheet” routine for most of my classes. I had mostly regular level classes. I noticed we didn’t really do projects or go on field trips like the smarter classes. I thought this was just how things were and that’s it. I ended up getting suspended my second year of high school for ten days and when I came back most of my teachers didn’t really offer support or ask what happened; they just told me, “You should stop coming because your grades have already dropped.” Small things like that kept me from getting motivated, so I barely went to school that year because there wasn’t a point. I ended up going to court for a request of expulsion almost a year after the incident. When I went to the hearing they told me I could choose to go to an alternative school or stay in a CPS school but I would have to complete a smart program. (I felt this was really unnecessary because I had already served a two week suspension.) The smart program had lessons on how we could improve our lives. We learned about respecting ourselves and others, friendships, and alternative activities that wouldn’t harm our bodies. The students were brown, black, and white. Some were there for arguing, fighting, or for using or selling drugs or alcohol.
After that year I started getting involved with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association through an After School Matters program. I soon got really interested because I felt I could actually help people. LSNA is a community organization that helps and provides a lot of services like affordable housing, safety routes, parent mentors etc. They also help the undocumented community by offering legal support and space for D.A.C.A (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and T.V.D.L.S (Temporary Visitors Driver’s License) workshops. They also focus on education where youth play a big role. We were part of a coalition called V.O.Y.C.E, Voices Of Youth in Chicago Education, which is a student led group. Our purpose was to reduce the school to prison pipeline, reduce suspension rates for minorities, and help implement restorative justice practices that would reduce suspensions. We got a couple of state bills passed, like one that limited suspension from 10 days to 5 days at most. We also stopped disciplinary fines and fees at charter schools and passed a transparency bill for charter schools requiring them to report the number of students they suspended, how long,why, and their race.
After learning about the school to prison pipeline from my LSNA and V.O.Y.C.E experiences, I realized that there was a system that had pushed a lot of my friends out of school, and I was almost pushed into that system as well. I felt it was time to end it, and that’s why I joined Generation All. Generation All is a group that I heard about from a staff member at L.S.N.A, and he encouraged me to come to their meetings. I liked it because it was a big group of people trying to improve the education system. Besides me and a few students, principals, teachers, CPS staff and community organization representatives were working and talking to each other. Everyone was passionate to help improve schools, and it was a really great learning experience because I was able to ask questions about certain terms or conversations I didn’t understand. I also learned how difficult the principals and teachers’ jobs are. Principals worry about increasing test scores because they influence the school’s report card, and as a result teachers aren’t able to teach certain ways or use methods that might improve their students’ learning experiences. Instead, teachers often teach students how to take test instead of teaching them the actual material. I know this because I had an experience with a teacher from a different high school who used drama to help students understand the reading better. When I asked why she did that instead of just reading the book, she informed me that sometimes teachers can’t use certain methods if they’re not improving the test scores.
I’ve seen a huge difference in neighborhood schools that are in low-income neighborhoods compared to schools up north where the richer folks stay. They have a lot more resources and because of that they are able to let teachers teach how they want because they are “showing progress.” If neighborhood schools had all the same resources as more resourced schools we would progress just as much. It’s not fair that we are held to the same standards as people who don’t have to worry about money, safety, or even a place to stay. I want to continue working with Generation All to present a plan and help improve how the whole system operates. If we as a city help students get those essential things they will have less to worry about and more time to actually focus on their education. I’ve appreciated my experience with Generation All so far because in the meetings my voice was heard and valued. I also liked that adults gave me and other students feedback on how we’re so young but involved. That type of positive feedback makes me feel a little relieved and supported because it’s nice to have people who feel just as passionate about something as you do. I also really like how we were learning from other people but also teaching them a little too.
After high school I plan to enroll at Wilbur Wright Community College for Occupational Therapy but continue my involvement in community work and helping others any way I can. Then I want to go back to become a chiropractor. I chose this career because growing up my parents have always had hard labor jobs and complained about back pains but couldn’t afford medical assistance. I figured I can combine my community work with occupational and chiropractic experience to give back to the community and those in need.