Leo High School embraces DePaul partnership with poetry showcase


Courtesy of Shaka Rawls

Jennifer Finstrom thanks Leo students for attending the open mic.

Students from Titus Redmond’s English classes at Leo High School promoted love and self-expression at a poetry showcase in collaboration with Jennifer Finstrom’s mentoring youth in community writing groups class, Tuesday, Feb. 14. 

Leo High School is an all-boys Catholic high school on the South Side with a predominantly Black student population.

10 seniors and 11 sophomores from Redmond’s English 2 and English 4 classes were chosen to perform their poems before the entire school in a display of growth and pride for students and faculty alike. 

Shaka Rawls, principal of Leo High School, applauded DePaul for making “a really concerted effort to support Leo High School academically and culturally.”

Rawls was impressed that many of the students who performed had done spoken word before. He is proud that the partnership provides an artistic platform for young Black men.

“Giving voice to young, urban African American males is huge,” Rawls said. “A population that feels disenfranchised or unheard has a stage and a platform in order to express themselves. That’s what you want society to be.”

Rickey Williams, Leo High School sophomore, presents his poem to the class. (Courtesy of Shaka Rawls)

Redmond called the relationship between DePaul and Leo a “godsend” because it gives students a chance to explore different mediums of academic engagement. 

He recalled a particular student who came out of his shell after being exposed to poetry performance. 

“He’s a shy kid, but when he was able to write his own poem and give the message he wanted to give, he was a star on the stage,” Redmond said. “It allowed him to get into an element where he was comfortable.” 

DePaul’s partnership with Leo is through the Egan Office of Urban Education and Community Partnerships (UECP). The Egan Office works to advance DePaul’s engagement with public agencies, nonprofits, community-based organizations and schools.

We connect our university partners, meaning faculty, and students, with our urban school partners,” said Monica Ramos, associate director of the Egan Office. 

In this case, Ramos said that Finstrom’s class paired with Redmond’s English classes because the timing and content of each class matched.

“[The class] has been partnering with Leo High School since 2021,” Finstrom said. “My class meets with Leo seniors and sophomores on Zoom approximately once a week.”

Redmond noted that writing a Mother’s Day poem was the first assignment facilitated with Finstrom’s class back in 2021.

“One of the projects coming out of this was a Mother’s Day poem, given that it’s been a tradition here at Leo that graduation is held on Mother’s Day,” Redmond said.

The two-school collaboration has since expanded to include more assignments and events. 

Since the partnership began during the pandemic, Finstrom said students have been building towards in-person events like the one on Feb. 14 for nearly three years

“The first year that we partnered, we met only on Zoom,” Finstrom said. “Last year, we traveled to Leo [High School] for an open mic, and this year, we welcomed Leo to DePaul for mini-writing workshops.”

Ramos believes this timing was meaningful. She said when the pandemic was raging, writing poetry gave students an outlet to express their thoughts. 

“The impact was really enriching for both DePaul and Leo High School students,” Ramos said. “Through poetry and spoken word, they were able, to a certain extent, articulate what was going on at that moment.”

Finstrom said her class works through lessons and supports Leo students as they write poems for the showcase. Her class is also a resource for Leo students to learn more about the college experience. 

“We all learn from and with each other,” Finstrom said. 

Redmond echoed this sentiment and said he has seen growth on all sides.

“Working with Professor Finstrom has taught me a lot,” Redmond said. “I’m going to look at becoming an adjunct professor now. It hasn’t only been a collaboration for the children.”

All parties involved wish to expand the connection between DePaul and Leo. 

Developing long-term partnerships, Ramos said, is key to fostering lasting commitments in urban communities. 

Finstrom agreed and said she and Redmond are “committed to growing the partnership every year by adding new elements and additional visits and events.”

Redmond said the all-school performances work to recruit new students to his English classes. 

“I’ve had a number of freshmen come up to me and say, ‘I can’t wait to be in your class next year,’” Redmond said. “My goal is to expose the whole school to Professor Finstrom and her writing crew.” 

10 Leo students will make encore poetry performances at DePaul’s Student Center on March 10. Redmond encouraged DePaul students to stop by and see this supportive, artistic partnership at work.