This West Side teacher wants her students to know ‘they can do anything and … be anything’

This article and radio segment were originally produced by WBEZ Chicago Public Radio. 

Chicago math teacher Jadah Dowdy was just 13 years old when she started her first internship at a charter school on the West Side.

Now, 13 years later, Dowdy runs the summer internship program and is working to expand it. At least 70 students landed spots this year at the LEARN Charter School Network program — nearly double from the year prior, according to a spokeswoman.

“We’re trying to prepare [students] for the workplace in the future,” said Dowdy, who also teaches at LEARN’s Romano Butler campus.

Students can apply for a job as early as eighth grade and can work every summer through college. Interns are placed in a paid, six-week job based on their interests. Some work with local elected officials, while others take positions in tech and finance at LEARN campuses. The charter network, which includes 10 campuses on Chicago’s South and West sides, also partners with local talent agencies that place older students.

“Even after they graduate college, we hope they’re able to come back to LEARN and give back in some way. That’s the ultimate goal,” Dowdy said.

The internship program started around 2010 when Dowdy and her sister got permission to work on campus after the school year had wrapped. The girls were looking forward to making a little money and staying out of the house by helping around the school. LEARN officials ran with the idea and formally launched a summer internship program.

“We just wanted to stay busy over the summer and what better way than to start at our school,” Dowdy said.

At the time, interns did a lot of maintenance work, like moving boxes and painting walls.

Now, students mostly work in office buildings. They also take workshops to learn resume writing and public speaking.

Jameire Brown, 14, is interning at State Rep. Jawaharial Williams’ office in the 10th District, which covers a large swath of Chicago’s West Side.

He spends his days taking comments and concerns from residents and spreading the word about upcoming community events. The soft-spoken teen says the job is pushing him out of his comfort zone.

“Like the first whole day that I started calling people I did not know how to talk on the phone. I was talking low and they couldn’t understand what I was saying,” Jameire said.

Jameire, who lives in the Austin neighborhood, will start at Whitney Young Magnet High School this fall. He has already joined the football team and takes two buses to get to practice every day after work.

That means he’s out of the house for about 12 hours a day, five days a week. Jameire doesn’t seem to mind. He’s been working hard to stay on track after struggling during the pandemic.

“My mama was getting phone calls every day and I wanted that to stop. So I had to change my ways and I started doing better in school,” he said.

The internship is helping Jameire build toward his ultimate goal of becoming a lawyer. He capped off middle school with As and Bs and wants to continue that in high school.

Dowdy wants students like Jameire to dream big.

“The way that the media portrays our Black kids is not always in a positive light. It’s always something negative that’s happening to them,” she said. “I want my kids to know that they can do anything and they can be anything.”

Nereida Moreno covers education for WBEZ. Follow @nereidamorenos and @WBEZeducation.

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