Melissa Millan's twins turned 2 a few days ago, and the next night, while her husband took care of them, Millan celebrated her 21st birthday by dancing the night away at her high school prom.
Her auburn hair piled high, dressed in a gauzy pink gown, Millan was one of several hundred students at Chicago's Palmer House Hilton enjoying a time-honored ritual for high school students around country.
Not so long ago, it was no sure thing that Millan would be graduating from high school. Turned off by a school she found too big and impersonal, she dropped out for two years. But eight months ago, wanting to be able to provide for her children, she enrolled at the Prologue Learning Center, one of about 25 alternative high schools here that have come together every year for three decades for a joint prom.
"I wanted to be a success, to be able to provide for my kids, so I knew I needed a diploma," Millan said. "At Prologue they give you a second chance. You can tell the teachers really care."
Starting in the early 1970s, Chicago teachers and parents worked together to found alternative high schools and the Alternative Schools Network. The organization provides resources to the schools, works on policy issues and organizes events such as the prom and basketball tournaments to help give students a "normal" high school experience. Today, Chicago's alternative schools are known around the country as some of the longest-standing and most innovative options for dropouts.
"They should be a model for school districts around the country," said Gary Orfield, a professor of education and social policy and a director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. "It's not usually a priority to give resources to adolescents in trouble at school. . . . But in Chicago, they've made a real effort to connect with the local political system and gather resources."
In Chicago, studies show, one in three black male students and more than half of Hispanic male students drop out of school. Many face danger from gangs, lack of family support and untreated learning disabilities. Many young women become pregnant and drop out.
Educators say many of the dropouts know they could end up on welfare or in jail and want help getting back on track.
Chicago's alternative schools, each of which serves about 50 to 120 students, bank on the idea that a flexible approach, smaller class sizes, child-care options and links to job training, counseling and other services help young people stay in school.
"The goal is to get kids off the street, get them into school where they are getting credits and a diploma, and then move them on to college or job training," said Jack Wuest, executive director of the Alternative Schools Network.
Avery Nelson, 18, found that an alternative school met his needs when he decided to return to school after dropping out. He had switched from a private school to a public high school on the city's south side after moving from his father's house to his mother's house. He was not happy at the public school and dropped out after six months.
"It was all a fashion show, the students weren't concerned about learning -- it was just cliquey," he said. He said he was also exhausted; he worked while going to school since he was 14.
Nelson soon realized he needed to be back in high school. "I saw the way people were living around me and I wanted something better for myself," he said. "So I knew I had to get a diploma."
He enrolled at Prologue on the city's north side, one of the first alternative schools in the city, created in 1972 by a group of Franciscan nuns.
"The idea is to serve the kids who otherwise would be lost in the street," said Pa Joof, who has been principal at Prologue for 20 years and was a math teacher there for a decade before that. "We get the kids who are lost in the shuffle at regular high schools; they all say the teachers don't care in those environments. We involve students in all the decision-making at Prologue."
Nelson said the classes at Prologue are on the easy side, but people are more down-to-earth and teachers give more individual attention to students. And, he added, "prom makes it feel more like a normal high school."
He said he has a friend who dropped out of school who wants to enroll at Prologue, but there are no spots open. There are more than 100,000 high school students in Chicago but only about 3,000 spots in the alternative schools. "We're making people aware that there's a real tragedy going on with kids on the street who want to go back to school but the resources aren't there for them," Wuest said.