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Pilsen reform school receives grant for youth development, restorative justice programs

The Instituto Justice and Leadership Academy, a reform school focused on restorative and social justice, received an $80,000 grant from the Cook County Justice Advisory Council.

Principal Jennifer Ventimiglia speaks about the grant given to the Instituto Justice and Leadership Academy at 2570 S. Blue Island Avenue in Heart of Italy, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021.
Principal Jennifer Ventimiglia speaks about the grant given to the Instituto Justice and Leadership Academy, 2570 S. Blue Island Ave.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Carina Gutierrez always considered herself a “troubled youth.”

At 17, she was incarcerated. On her 18th birthday, she was ordered to enroll in school or face re-incarceration. But it was the middle of the semester, and most schools refused to admit her.

Then her mother told her of a school not far from their Little Village home: Pilsen’s Instituto Justice and Leadership Academy, an alternative school focused on restorative and social justice.

“Without hesitation, they took me in,” Gutierrez said.

On Monday, the school’s dedication to Gutierrez and other students in similar situations was recognized with an $80,000 grant through Cook County’s Justice Advisory Council.

Throughout her enrollment at Instituto Justice and Leadership Academy — fondly referred to as “Rudy” by staff and students in honor of the school’s founder, Rudy Lozano — Gutierrez said she received support she never thought she’d have.

School staff member Carina Gutierrez poses for a portrait at the Instituto Justice and Leadership Academy at 2570 S. Blue Island Avenue in Heart of Italy, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021.
School staff member Carina Gutierrez
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

“I was not judged, I was very supported,” she said. “I was accompanied to court every time and teachers would write letters on my behalf. They gave me the opportunity that no one else wanted to give me.”

When she graduated in 2009, Gutierrez wanted to remain part of “Rudy’s” community and help youth facing the same struggles she had. In 2014, she applied for a position in the registrar’s office.

Now, Gutierrez is entering her seventh year working on enrollment, attendance and program coordination for the school at 2570 S. Blue Island Ave. The school offers a two-year program for students 15 to 21 years old.

The grant is part of a $1.5 million investment in community-based organizations through the Justice Advisory Council, said Toni Preckwinkle, president of the Cook County Board.

The council aims to reduce the population of Cook County Jail and Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center through criminal and juvenile justice reform and public safety policy development.

“We’ve learned that we must invest in people and our communities if we hope to see positive change in our neighborhoods,” Preckwinkle said at a celebration outside the school Monday. “This approach has the power to transform marginalized communities throughout Cook County.”

The Instituto Justice and Leadership Academy plans to use the grant to support programs for their most at-risk youth, Principal Jennifer Ventimiglia told the crowd, which included staff, alumni and public officials.

The Rudy Lozano Leadership Program will benefit most from the grant, covering staff stipends, case management and mental health services, college and career counseling, and restorative justice training.

“With this approach, it’s really training the youth so that they can be peer mediators and not only mediate conflict that occurs within the school but within their community,” Ventimiglia explained.

Funds will also be used for retreats for students and a digital media component with Luv City Media “for healing and for creating a different narrative” about the students and their community.

Sebastian Zamora, a 2020 graduate and now an academic adviser at the school, said he hopes this grant is the start of something new for his alma mater.

“Every time I sit down with a youth, I see myself in them, having to grow up in the community with very little resources,” Zamora said. “I think this is a big help for our students, and hopefully we can get more funding to be able to offer more support for students.”

School staff member Sebastian Zamora poses for a portrait at the Instituto Justice and Leadership Academy at 2570 S. Blue Island Avenue in Heart of Italy, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021.
School staff member Sebastian Zamora
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Cheyanne M. Daniels is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.