December 7, 2018 Blog, Principal Perspective

How a Humboldt Park high school gives students a second chance

When asked to describe a typical day at YCCS Association House High School, Principal David Pieper quickly settled on a word: chaos.

“Mike Tyson said, ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.’ That’s a school day,” said Pieper, who has overseen the Humboldt Park school for three years. “You walk in and you have a goal … and then there are five crises before you get to your office.”

But the hectic environment — the laughter, the meltdowns, the triumphs — is part of what Pieper loves about running the school. “I like to be in the hallways, in the classroom, learning students’ names. … I don’t get to start checking emails and doing paperwork until 3:30.”

For Pieper, Association House High School, part of the Youth Connection Charter School network, is a place for second chances. The school is small by design — depending on the year, attendance can swing between 140 to 170 — and serves students who struggled to succeed in traditional schools. An army of support staff, teachers, counselors and mentors help students navigate classes, internships, parenthood and home life. The key is to always keep the next step in mind, whether it’s college or a job.

“We’re not just a high school,” explained Pieper. “Our kids don’t just come here because they want to pass an algebra class and learn single-variable equations. They need to see that next step. They need to see that postsecondary opportunity. And we need to market it to them and demonstrate it to them with more stability.”

Association House High School serves primarily low-income students who are older than the traditional high school population. Most are between 16 and 21 years old, and at any given time, up to 30 percent of students are in unstable housing situations. Security, for both Pieper and his students, is essential. Wraparound services and mentorship programs — such as the school’s onsite childcare for students who are parents — are what keep kids on track to graduate.

But it can be difficult, Pieper explained, to find steady funding for the after-school and summer programs the school offers. When a grant falls through or the state cuts funding, Pieper has to make difficult decisions on what programs to prune. To add to the problem, enrollment fluctuates from year to year, which means the school’s budget also changes from year to year.

Pieper doesn’t dwell on the school’s challenges for too long. Despite declining enrollment in some district schools, Association House has a unique advantage: Its students are its biggest advocate. The school’s largest referral source is word of mouth. Students recommend it to each other, trusting that if they found success at Association House, so will their friends.

Some of that success has to be credited to Pieper’s energetic and transformational approach to leadership. As a former social studies teacher, Pieper takes the same approach to running a school as he did to running a classroom.

“In a classroom,” Pieper said, “you form the positive relationship with the class. You form the culture. You can take those skills and segue them into an entire school. So now the school is your classroom, and you get to impact the culture of the school. Staff and students are impacted positively by your decisions, your skill set, your mission and the energy level you bring.”

For Pieper, the real heart of his work as principal is connecting the school and its students to the community. It’s only through community partnerships that students can see how many people have a stake in their success and growth. Pieper and his staff weave these separate strands together, creating a safety net to support students as they take their first steps past high school.

The chaos just keeps it interesting.