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Synagogue reaches out to high school students

Waukegan High senior Kaream Williams works with volunteer RobShapiro during  Gates Essay Writing Workshop held Thursday Jan. 2 CongregatiSolel

Waukegan High senior Kaream Williams works with volunteer Robin Shapiro during the Gates Essay Writing Workshop held Thursday, Jan. 2, at Congregation Solel in Highland Park. | Submitted photo

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Updated: January 15, 2014 12:29AM

Waukegan High School students, many of them children of immigrants, and mostly middle-aged members of Congregation Solel in Highland Park might not have a lot in common on the surface.

But blowing snow and hazardous driving conditions could not keep them apart on Thursday, a big day on the trail of the Gates Millennium Scholarship.

Awarded each year to 1,000 “leaders for tomorrow,” the scholarship, which pays nearly all costs of a college education, was awarded in 2013 to Josue Pasillas, the first Waukegan High student to win it. Pasillas received coaching last year through the congregation’s inaugural Gates Essay Writing Workshop.

Now a freshman at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., Pasillas thanked Solel member Robin Shapiro for guidance and mentorship that he said has been integral to his success and that helped clarify his own commitment.

“I will always use my success to contribute to the success of others,” Pasillas said. “Waukegan needs more of this, more partnerships with organizations that are willing to help Waukegan students.”

WHS College Counselor Chuck Gutman, founder and director of Envision Scholars, which works to send more WHS students to college and helps organize the workshop, said Envision aims to create a national model for closing the achievement gap that stifles the prospects of low-income students.

“There are many high-potential students in Waukegan, but financial concerns and other issues prevent them from pursuing a college education,” Gutman said.

“We can’t change that alone. But through partnerships and synergy, we can.”

WHS senior Logan Smith, 18, was paired with Solel volunteer Wayne Rhodes for one-on-one essay guidance. Smith plans to submit an essay on her family’s struggle to cope after her dad’s stroke.

“Without this, I honestly don’t think I’d have any help,” Smith said. “I’d be sending in my essays not proof-read.”

“This is an opportunity to help motivated kids get to the next level,” said Rhodes, a retired systems analyst. “Highland Park and Waukegan aren’t far apart. But working with these students you realize there’s a huge difference in economics and education.”

State school report cards attest to that difference. At Highland Park High School, where the average class size is 12 and 15 percent of students are low-income, 78 percent met or exceeded standards for the PSAE, which measures college readiness. At Waukegan High, where the average class size is 20, just 25 percent do well on the PSAE. In 2012, a reported 66 percent of WHS students were low-income.

“Many of our members have the experience of working with their own children in preparing them for college,” said Michael Ebner, Solel president and professor emeritus of history, Lake Forest College.

“We realize that experience is not evenly distributed. What makes this program so successful is the students we are working with are so dedicated to their own academic advancement and so eager to go to college. This is a great social mobility effort.”

In his remarks to students, Ebner held up as a role model Sonia Sotomayor, the Supreme Court’s first Hispanic justice, who reached out for help and mentorship at every step of her academic and professional career.

“You are not alone,” Ebner said. “Find someone you can talk with.”

Ebner cited a “historic commitment” to social justice issues by Congregation Solel, which was founded in 1957.

Members ran an interracial summer camp in the 1960s and sent tutors to work with children in the former Cabrini Green public housing project in Chicago.

“We marched with Dr. King in Selma and King visited our synagogue for a lecture in 1966,” Ebner said.

“It’s part of the Jewish tradition Tikkun Olam, ‘healing the world.’ We are seeing today a resurgence of this commitment within our own congregation.”

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