Advertisements ad

September 13, 2009

Learning values while striving for college acceptanceMidtown Education Foundation focuses on the whole family

By Patrick Butler


What started as a tutoring program in Little Italy for about 15 seventhand eighth-grade boys in 1965 now serves more than 500 boys and girls from fourth grade through high school with the help of nearly 400 volunteers.

What makes the inner-city Midtown Educational Foundation special is that for the past 10 years, the Opus-Dei-sponsored program has had a 100 percent high school graduation and college enrollment rate, according to John Heyback, director of MEF’s Midtown Boys Center, located on the campus of St. Mary of the Angels Parish, 1819 N. Wood.

But unlike more typical college prep programs, MEF has a trifold focus on values education and character development, as well as academics, Heyback said.

And while the program is inspired by Catholic values, it’s open to pupils of every denomination, he said.

“Depending on what the parents choose, their kids can get a specifically Christian-oriented character development program or a secular character development course But everyone has to go through one of them,” Heyback said.

Even in sports, “the evaluation isn’t just on whether they won or lost, or how well they played, but how well they lost. Character development is a component of everything we do here.” He said.

Besides helping students with their classes, tutors and mentors also talk with students about how they’re getting along with their families, how to do their chores better and how to be a better leader with their friends and in their communities, said MEF spokeswoman Tessa McEwen.

And academics hasn’t suffered in the process, McEwen added.

“We’re definitely seeing improvement. Student performance improves an average of one and a half grades over a school year,” she said.

Mom and dad, too

Parent involvement?

“We demand it. Our role is to help support the parents because they’re the first educators of the kids.” Heyback said. “Our parent program also shows parents how to get through the college financial- aid process. It can be very daunting.”

Parent activities include father and son and mother and daughter nights, periodic orientation meetings and opportunities to meet with Parent Program Manager Arturo Baranda to discuss family issues.

Heyback and Petra Jaime, parenting program director at the Metro Center for Girls in the West Loop area, agreed that regardless of a family’s religious affiliations, a good moral grounding is more essential than ever.

“When I was growing up, TV and music at least imparted some values. Today it’s barbaric. Pagan. Pope John Paul II said today’s youth want to be called to something higher. And I haven’t seen much” out in the world.

Jaime, a 74-year-old grandmother who sent four sons to the Midtown program and her youngest daughter to Metra, said that when she was growing up in Mexico, “people didn’t know much about their future careers. Now people have careers, but don’t always know much about values.”

Putting it all together

McEwen said she went to a recent workshop where the most unmet needs in Chicago schools were listed as anger management, conflict resolution, longterm tutoring/ mentoring, relationship building and parent involvement.

MEF has been doing all this and more, she and Heyback agreed.

“I’d think there are a lot of great programs out there that focus on one or more of our components — character building, moral guidance and academics — but to my knowledge, we’re the only program putting them all together,” Heyback said.

Students attend MEF sessions two or three evenings a week during the school year and five days a week during summer. Although tuition would normally be about $1,000 per child per school year, the actual cost for most students is more like $200 thanks to generous support from major corporations, many of which now have MEF alumni among their employees, said Heyback.

MEF success stories, he added, include Juan Ocon, now principal at Juarez High School.

Networking has also made it possible for students to check out universities they might want to attend. And thanks to a partnership with the American Field Service, MEF gets to pick a student every year to go to places like China, Thailand and Argentina, McEwen said.

Students tend to return year after year, she added. “We have many who started out in fourth grade and stay throughout their high school years.”

And some, like a couple of Jaime’s grandchildren, make up a second generation at MEF.

For more information, visit