The progressive educator A. S. Neill has written, "Obviously, a school that makes active children sit at desks studying mostly useless subjects is a bad school." I disagree.

The Chicago public school system is, by any standard, full of bad schools. For the past 30 years, their dropout rate has been about 50%. Considering their excellent magnet schools (schools for gifted students), the remaining non-selective public schools must be performing even worse. At some schools, there have been dropout rates near 85%. The few exceptions appear to be radical departures from the traditional school model, with alternative philosophies and extra funding. Still, in many, the classes remain similar to traditional public school classes.

To understand why this is, one must first understand the difficulties Chicago public schools face.

Money: Chicago schools each receive $5,200/student/year for education. (Money for facilities comes separately from the Chicago Board of Education.) This is simply not enough. In the past thirteen years, private school tuition has increased more than 10%, but Chicago's per-student-per-year figure has not increased by a dollar. Failing schools are perceived a black hole for public facilities money and private donations. Broken-down schools, still containing asbestos and lead, continue to deteriorate, while proposals from rich magnet schools to increase the size of their windows are granted without hesitation.

Teachers: A teacher in a failing public school is asked to do the impossible. The students often read far below grade level, and they hate school; it is expected that they will not get along with their teachers. On a form regarding the Excellence in Teaching award, about half of teachers wrote that their pupils were the greatest obstacle to their teaching. Though many teachers have a better attitude towards challenges in teaching, the best way to attract these first-rate teachers is not to present them a crumbling school.

Poverty: The neighborhoods surrounding failing schools often jinx the schools from the start. In an impoverished area where few people succeed, it is unlikely that the choice to succeed in school and eventually attend college will be second nature.

Even if everyone involved is well-intentioned and hopeful, there is still another major problem: alienation. Large schools with thousands of students are impersonal. Large bureaucracies with hundreds of schools are inflexible. In such systems, it is trying and tiring to make changes in one's life or school.

This last factor changed dramatically in 1988. The Chicago teacher strike of 1987 (which lasted for 19 days, during which students and parents picketed as well) led to sweeping school reforms. The Chicago School Reform Act of 1988 put more control of schools into local school councils. The citywide board of education still controlled how much money was paid for school facilities, but otherwise the school councils gained control over their funds. Changes happened for which parents had been lobbying for years. About 80% of the newly available money was spent immediately on hiring new teachers. Finally, changes were able to happen for the better, and more importantly, the schools' newfound freedom led to a new hope. As a result of the school reform, some failing neighborhoods opened entirely new schools in old school buildings.

One such school, North Kenwood/Oakland, an elementary charter school, seemed eerily similar to the affluent elementary school I attended. It was designed as a radical alternative to the usual elementary schools. Its defining characteristic was its use as a teacher development school. Outside teachers aspiring to improve could observe a class and learn from its teacher's methods. When Marvin Hoffman, one of the two directors of the school, was describing the school to me, he attributed much of the school's success to its teacher development program. Teachers would question their teaching methods more because they were often asked to explain them.

Yet the school's teaching didn't seem to depart from the same traditional, disciplined teaching that goes on in most schools. Marv described the school as not using textbooks, except in social studies as a backup, but when the social studies class began, the first thing asked of the students was to "take out your textbooks". In English class, when the kids were talking so quietly that I couldn't hear them seven yards away, their teacher demanded their silence. I got the impression that Dr. Hoffman had had hopes for his school to be different, but under pressure the chance for change was lost. (The students had to wear a uniform, for example. Though this helped parental confidence, it could also stifle children.) Still, in classes very similar to those in which they had been failing before, these children were thriving.

I attribute the success to the hope that change brought about. With hope, and a chance to start over, there have been numerous other success stories in Chicago recently. Perspectives Charter School, a middle school and high school which also adopts a radical philosophy and fairly traditional classes, shows that with hope, the other obstacles to education disappear. As a charter school, they have to pay for their own facilities, but because the city has hope for their success, they can rent an old public school building for a dollar a year. Some teachers don't have credentials yet, but still they teach quite competently in the atmosphere of change. The surrounding area is crumbling, but students come from all over the city for the chance at success. And the school is small (150 students) in its youth, so small that some cite its size as the reason for its success.

Maybe the kids will never need to use what they learn in school later in life. They will at least have learned hope, and that is all that they need to go far when they're on their own.


Sources

William Ayers. Interview on March 3, 2003.
Michael Klonsky and Alfredo Nambo of the Small Schools Workshop. Interview on March 4, 2003.
Marvin Hoffman of North Kenwood/Oakland. Interview on March 5, 2003.
Glennese Ray of the Perspectives Charter School. Interview on March 6, 2003.
A. S. Neill. Summerhill.
Jonathan Kozol. Savage Inequalities.

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