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Alayna Washington: Inspiring Students In and Out of the Classroom

Alayna Washington always says that she wants to help her students not only learn, but also grow as people. This inspirational mission is very evident in her work at a nonprofit called the Chicago Youth Opportunities Initiative (CYOI). One of Washington’s close friends grew up in, and was eventually emancipated from, the foster care system. This friend realized how difficult it is for young people who don’t have a family to go to school and support themselves, so when she went to college she got involved with advocacy work for foster care and homeless youth. Meanwhile, Washington worked at DuSable High School, where many students approached her because they were displaced. After doing research into housing for such teens, she discovered there were very scarce opportunities for these kids. Saying it stemmed from her work as a teacher, Washington decided to do her part to help these sorts of unlucky youth. “Not only do I help students in the classroom,” said Washington, “but I want to help you as people.” She then worked to build a nonprofit with her previously mentioned friend, who in the meantime had worked to create the Kalamazoo Youth Opportunities Initiative in Michigan.

The dedication was evident; in the first year, the CYOI organization met every Sunday to make a business plan, file their appropriate papers, and reach out to existing foster homes. The organization chose to focus on 18-25 year olds, because that is the pivotal age range where the youth stop receiving support from the government. Unemployment for this age level is a serious issue. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, unemployment for 16-17 year olds hovers around 20%, and 18-19 year olds is not much lower. But it’s even worse for inner city kids. A study by the Alternative Schools Network found that almost half (46.6%) of black males ages 20-24 in Chicago are neither working nor in school. Although the number is lower for Hispanic and white youth (19.9% and 10.2%, respectively), the numbers are still alarmingly high. Many tie this to the huge cuts we’ve seen to the Chicago Public School system in the past years.

Washington masterminded the curriculum that focuses on such topics as career opportunities, goal setting, personal values, and purpose. Washington also focuses on exposure- she says many of us who live so close to each other have different viewpoints simply because of what we’ve been exposed to. The young people in the program have the chance to go downtown, shadow people at their work, think about what they like to do, and take part in internships. Washington works the teen/young adult program at two separate foster homes, which is where she spends all of her Saturdays. This is in addition to teaching several Honors Ethnic Studies and Honors Economics classes at Whitney Young.

Washington, who cites her mother as someone who’s inspired her greatly, has some advice to students who see community work in their future: “Number one, establish a goal… Then, you have to be steadfast. Any dream you have, you have to keep it in the back of your mind. Any time you learn information, think about how you’re going to apply that.” She is no doubt an inspiring figure to her students. Carolina Cannon ‘17 says that “with an already tight schedule, she is an incredible example of selflessness. She shows her students that there is no excuse not to be involved.” Past student Loulou Broderick ‘16 described her class as “a room where everyone is trying to learn and grow from one another. The teacher isn’t just a facilitator but an active participant.” Alayna Washington says she tries to connect with her students so they can grow even outside of the course material. Her students, both past and current, seem to agree that she fulfills this ideal.

Article Written by August Greenberg, Natalie Almanza, Anna Dennis, Emma Purcell and Emma Unterseher

The student news site of Whitney Young Magnet High School in Chicago, Illinois.
Alayna Washington: Inspiring Students In and Out of the Classroom