It takes a village to raise a child.

– African Proverb

If so, how does a village experience the successes, challenges, and setbacks of raising children? Envisioning a community celebrating the successes of its children takes little imagination. But how do modern day ‘villagers’ – relatives, mentors, neighbors, teachers, community members – unite to raise a child whose needs stretch their capacity and expertise to the limits? For thousands of students, families, educators, and school communities across Chicagoland, the answer is: they turn to CAAEL.

Origins of a Movement

CAAEL (pronounced: “kale”), The Chicago Area Alternative Education League, provides interscholastic, extracurricular programs for students from underserved alternative schools. Led by Sarah Lorenzi, CAAEL currently partners with 58 schools and serves 5,000+ students annually. Over 100,000 students have benefitted from the CAAEL since 1976, when John Martin (Sarah’s father) started the organization.

John’s gym students at an alternative school in Stone Park, Illinois had been removed from their public schools due to a broad range of behavioral issues. John quickly recognized that basketball offered unique potential to motivate and engage his students. With three other alternative schools, John founded a small basketball league for precisely this purpose.

By focusing on sportsmanship and teamwork (rather than winning), and by having his students earn the right to play each week, John saw his students’ motivation grow, leading to direct improvements in their attendance, grades, and behavior.

CAAEL at Scale

From that tiny four-team basketball league 43 years ago, CAAEL has grown exponentially. It’s events now bring together students from Chicago’s northwest suburbs to the inner city, and from many outlying rural communities.

caael at scale infographic

On Saturday and Sunday, March 23rd and 24th, CAAEL hosts its flagship event, their 41st Annual State Basketball Tournament and 21st Annual Art Fair. Teams of at-risk/special education students from 30 Illinois counties will come together in Arlington Heights’ Forest View Educational Center (located at Robert Morris University) for an inspiring interscholastic event that is the largest tournament of its kind in the state.

The Problem

The thousands and thousands of students in alternative educational settings are currently not included in Illinois State Board of Education-sanctioned interscholastic events. For educators and students in some of the most challenging and complicated situations, extracurricular opportunities are either utterly missing or severely limited. Currently, CAAEL is the only organization that provides such a broad scope of programming for Illinois’ growing number of special education and high-risk youth.

Individualized Impact

CAAEL’s impact in terms of students and communities served is impressive – as is the organization’s long-standing investment in Chicagoland’s youth. But John, Sarah, and countless educators and community members haven’t poured their lives into this effort for the sake of scale alone. CAAEL participation also catalyzes transformation for individual schools and students.

Demetris, long-time faculty member and CAAEL coach at Joliet Township Alternative High School, puts it this way:

CAAEL did amazing things for the students, staff, and the Joliet Community.  […] CAAEL gave [us] another tool to try and reach out to our students in a positive way.  Sportsmanship, Teamwork, and Leadership not only spread to our CAAEL participants, but pushed our other students to at least try to step out of their comfort zone and not be afraid to succeed.

Demetris, CAAEL Coach

The theme of students venturing beyond their comfort zones to explore new experiences appears over and over in reams of testimonials about CAAEL’s work. Peggy, a Program Supervisor, shared a story of a boy who joined a team for a sport he’d never even watched before on television. The school threw a pep-rally style parade through their hallways to herald their initial game in CAAEL. This parade coincided with that boy’s IEP meeting, and his family was in the building when it occurred. The students’ father -– typically a reserved, stoic individual – saw his son coming down the hall, surrounded by classmates cheering him on and handing out high fives. He promptly dissolved into tears and enthusiastically joined in on the cheering as well.

There are hundreds and hundreds of accounts like these from CAAEL’s history, many of which highlight the academic benefits of CAAEL involvement. Meeting weekly eligibility requirements for CAAEL events gives students short-term, tangible motivation. Eligibility criteria, customized by school, equip students to set and achieve goals, decrease impulsive responses, and understand the impact of their actions.

Student-centered Innovation

One of the most innovative aspects of CAAEL is this weekly cycle of renewing and resetting eligibility criteria. Most incentives, consequences, and milestones in American public education are set on relatively long timelines: yearly or grade-level promotions, semester-based grades and credits, and quarterly report cards or behavioral records. Poor performance during a given week or even a single day can derail a significant portion of a student’s year. Catching up is often exceedingly difficult. Compounding the consequences of this reality: students in alternative education settings are often precisely those students who struggle the most with long-term goal setting and delaying gratification.

CAAEL offers more timely motivation, feedback, and rewards for progress. When mistakes are made, students quickly transition into a new week with a fresh opportunity to meet their eligibility goals. Schools and students alike attest to how this paradigm shift has transformed their experiences.

Brigitte Swanson, Principal of Peace and Education Coalition Alternative High School, credits CAAEL for the success of one of her juniors. This young man transferred from another state with only 0.50 credits (out of a possible 11-14). In less than 3 quarters at the school, he had participated in three CAAEL sports, appeared on the honor roll every quarter, and was on track to make up more than a full year’s worth of missing credits. The student entered the school already enthused about the sports program, and early success built momentum for sustained improvements.

Longtime CAAEL affiliates still regularly encounter pleasant surprises in student growth. Kevin, a Behavioral Support Specialist and CAAEL Coach, recently shone with pride when sharing about a particular student. This student struggled mightily for four years, and had some of the toughest challenges and defenses built up that Kevin had seen in his 20+ years with CAAEL. This student finally ventured out of his comfort zone, met eligiblity criteria, and participated in his first CAAEL game. Kevin quoted John, CAAEL’s Founder, saying this reinforced the firm belief that: “you can never count one of “our” kids out.”

Expanding the Village; Empowering the Community

Why does CAAEL help transform learning environments and cultures in its partner schools? A mindset of mutual responsibility – shared successes as well as setbacks – is undoubtedly a key. CAAEL offers resources and opportunities that empower alternative school communities to better set up their students for success. Since programming is facilitated by school staff and within their instructional framework, the approach is inherently personalized and sustainable. Educators, support staff, family members, and the students themselves all expand their toolkits while also quite literally growing the network of people who are cheering for them. CAAEL becomes an integral part of the villages raising young people in each of its partner alternative education environments.

Indeed it does take a village to raise a child. For thousands of children across Chicagoland, they’re fortunate that their ‘village’ includes CAAEL.

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