Chicago Public Schools students juke for success

By Shardae Smith

Footwork and juke are two Chicago-style dance forms popular with the city’s youth. A Columbia student inspired by tragedy has found a way to incorporate the dance into an education-related program with an organization called The Juke Institute.

Junior arts, entertainment and media management major Quiana Edmond co-founded The Juke Institute in 2009 and now is seeking a free-standing home for the organization. The program is dedicated to performing arts and uses juke music and footwork dancing as a catalyst to motivate youth to excel in school.

Footwork is an urban street dance. With emphasis on fast movement of the feet,it also incorporates special gestures and arm movements. Juke music is also fast-paced and is well suited to footwork dancing.

Edmond and Ryan Willis, an alumnus of DePaul University and co-founder of the institute, said they thought of the idea in 2004, but it was an after-school fight in which Chicago Public School student Derrion Albert was beaten to death, that pushed Edmond and Willis to put their plan in motion.

“I saw the video [of Albert’s beating], and it resonated something in me; something had to be done,” Edmond said.

“We didn’t want to be people [who] sat back and said, ‘That’s a shame, those kids need something to do,’ and we knew we were sitting on this idea.”

Edmond contacted Alderman Carrie Austin (34th Ward) about her plans. She was directed to Christian Fenger Academy High School, 11220 S. Wallace St., and the program was implemented as an after-school program under the U.S. Department of Education’s School Emergency Response to Violence grant.

For the 2010 fiscal year, CPS received a $500,000 SERV grant from the Barack Obama administration to go toward education-related services to help the school recover from a violent or traumatic event in which the learning environment may have been disrupted. A portion of the money was given to Fenger, where Albert and his attackers were students.

“[The program] is a way to notice the youth engaged in the [footwork] culture who attend CPS schools and use it as a way for them to do better and get out of their situations,” Edmond said.

The Juke Institute currently works out of three CPS high schools, Wendell Phillips Academy, 244 E. Pershing Road; John Marshall Metropolitan High School, 3250 W. Adams St; and Fenger.

Any student who attends these schools may be part of the program, but an elite group of students, who already knew the dance moves, were chosen as team members. They have the chance to earn community service hours when the program visits local elementary schools to teach younger children the dances.

Rashad Harris, an alumnus of Homewood-Flossmoor High School and a lead instructor for The Juke Institute, said there is a side of the juke and footwork culture people don’t get to see because the movement is local.

“I see how [The Juke Institute] affects the kids on the streets,” Harris said. “It gave them another outlet, something positive.My goal is to spread [it] out from Chicago and [reach out to] more kids.”

Edmond said the institute’s philosophy is to take the students as they are, regarding grades and behavior. But upon joining the program, students are expected to improve in school, although Edmond said that doesn’t always happen.

She said she has seen some improvements in students’ grades and sometimes gives wake-up calls to improve their attendance.

The Juke Institute is considered a short-term education-related service by the SERV grant guidelines, and the time span for the program was only supposed to be for one year. Fenger will continue to fund the program from its school budget.

Edmond and Willis applied for the Pepsi Refresh Project in an effort to win $250,000 for a building to house the program.

The Pepsi Refresh Project will award the top two ideas from businesses, nonprofits and people who will have a positive impact on the community. The Juke Institute is currently ranked 142 out of 1,095 ideas.

“We need a spot where people can check [our dancing] out,” Harris said. “There aren’t a lot of places where kids can go footwork, but footworkers need to come together and get more organized, then expand.”

Edmond said with Chicago youth violence spinning out of control, a permanent location for the program will help keep children off the street and footworking alive.

But because the program is being housed out of schools the students attend, Edmond said The Juke Institute can’t reach as many students as she would like to.

According to Willis, footwork has the ability to teach students responsibility and equip them for adulthood.

“The dedication, determination, perseverance and practice it takes for [students] to excel in footwork relates and transcends into everyday life, and those are the values we try to instill in them,” Willis said.