Austin Career Education Center is a charter school on the west side of Chicago that provides students with a second chance at a high school education in a non-traditional setting. With a main goal of creating life-long learners, this guest blog from Yoel Nitzarim, an Austin Career Education Center teacher and TSC signatory, reminds us that by providing nurturing, safe environments, we can empower students to grow and learn with positive lasting effects.

The will to succeed is present and alive in every school, private or public, in the United States. My success story emanates from Austin Career Education Center on the west side of Chicago in the early 1990s. All of my students were high-school dropouts, single-teenage mothers, gang members, drug addicts and drug dealers, mainly functionally illiterate, all desperate to attain an education. Thei school day was wrought with just coming to school and getting home peacefully. School was a haven, a true safe zone. They would have gladly stayed in school for added hours daily, just to feel secure.

One nineteen-year-old male student and I met in the men’s restroom one morning. I noticed that he was taking his books and folders out of the vanity underneath the sink. When I asked him what he was doing, his response floored me. He said, “I have to hide my education from my homies. If they find out that I am going to school, they will beat me until my own family won’t recognize me. An incidentally, I have this bullet lodged under my breastbone.”

I learned that this young man had made the potentially fatal decision to acquire his high school diploma before undergoing open-heart surgery to remove a bullet in his chest he had received in a drive-by shooting. Somehow someway, he did finish his studies, graduated from Austin Career Education Center, successfully survived the surgery, and entered into the United States Navy. His story has never left my thoughts whenever I start teaching a new group of students: When there is a will, there is a way!