Passionate about helping at-risk students turn their lives around, Omar Moore and LaShaun Jackson finish each other’s sentences when the conversation is about the 8-year-old alternative school they’ve built their own lives around.
They were driven and focused thirty-somethings in 2008 when preparation and opportunity converged.
Th duo were running their own leadership development consulting firm, and they had laid groundwork to start a nonprofit foundation devoted to working with at-risk youths, when a charter school network that had retained their firm to turn around an alternative school decided they didn’t have the finances.
“We didn’t want the school to shut down, and students be displaced, and teachers not have jobs, so we decided to take over the school’s contract and keep it open,” said Moore, 43, co-founder of Innovations High School and the CIRCLE Foundation that runs it.
“It was March, the middle of the school year. The Bronzeville Academic Center closed on a Friday. We reopened that Monday,” said his partner, Jackson, also 43.
From 250 students in 2008, the school, which later moved from the South Side to 17 N. State, now serves 450 mostly African-American, low-income students.
This weekend, CIRCLE will hold its 8th Annual Fundraiser Gala, hosted by former Chicago Bear Matt Forte, now with the New York Jets. The running back — who spent eight seasons with the Bears before being cut last year, then picked up by the Jets in a three-year $12 million contract — apparently still has part of his heart in Chicago.
The All Pro established his own “What’s Your Forte?” foundation in 2013 after seeing statistics indicating that 14 percent of Chicago Public Schools high school dropouts were incarcerated. The “What’s Your Forte?” foundation provides scholarships and other support to at-risk CPS teens. It began partnering with the CIRCLE Foundation last year.
“The vision and purpose of the CIRCLE Foundation aligns perfectly with the ‘What’s Your Forte?’ foundation and what we’re striving to accomplish, not only with the youth but in the community as well,” said Forte, currently on injured reserve with a knee injury.
Even after the 31-year-old NFL player signed with the Jets last March, the two foundations continued to work together on initiatives serving Chicago youth. On Sunday, Forte will award a $10,000 scholarship to Innovation’s Student of the Year.
“It’s important to me, because the world needs more positive role models and mentors,” Forte said. “Nobody makes it all on their own. We all need help and guidance in some way throughout life. I want to help reduce the continued rise in gun violence in Chicago by mentoring and building up our youth . . . because Chicago will always have a special place in my heart.”
The scholarship winner, graduating senior Sihan Hussein, is a Somalian immigrant who fled civil war in her country at age 17, escaping through Ethiopia and arriving in the United States by herself. Helped to settle here by refugee assistance groups 2 1/2 years ago, she enrolled at Innovation High School barely able to speak English.
Today, she’s a college-bound honor student.
“Our students have a really rough situation here in Chicago, but Sihan is a little unique,” Jackson said. “To have left another country, and had to leave your family behind, then going to school with no English, excelling, and now going to college, is absolutely amazing. She’s in the running for valedictorian.”
Best friends since college, Jackson and Moore both live in the South Side Bronzeville neighborhood, each married with two children. They both obtained bachelor’s degrees in psychology at Southern Illinois University. Jackson grew up in Auburn-Gresham with both parents, attending Lindblom High School. Moore was raised in Roseland by his widowed mother, and he attended Kenwood Academy. His father died when he was 8.
Moore obtained a master’s degree in clinical psychology at Roosevelt University, then a master’s in educational leadership at Northeastern Illinois University, and he worked at various social service agencies before 2001, when he and Jackson started their consulting firm.
Jackson received a master’s in education counseling at Northeastern, also working for social service agencies until 2001. Their firm was retained by Bronzeville Academic Center in 2002, and the duo took over the school five years later.
“LaShaun and I both grew up in the inner city, in the midst of this violence, and had to overcome it when we were in high school, so we definitely understand what’s going on,” Moore said.
“Part of our challenge is getting our students to understand that there is a life beyond their neighborhood, a life beyond that violence. But we both live in the community, not far from many of our students,” he said. “We think just seeing two black men who actually made it out and achieved some level of success, who are not drug dealers or rappers, but made it out with their own tenacity and gumption, is one way of showing them those options.”