Below is a section of the thank-you card I received from juniors at the Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy in Chicago. The card was a sweet surprise. I will treasure it.
Brooks is a selective enrollment public high school nestled on 40 acres near the Historic Pullman District on the far south side. It
made the news this spring when Chicago’s most famous selective high school—Payton–initially forfeited a baseball game. Apparently some Payton parents were nervous about driving their kids down to Brooks’ campus Mayor Emanuel made a point of visiting the rescheduled game, which I hope shamed some people.
The forfeit was really stupid, since my most frightening experience at Brooks occurred when some angry geese hissed at me after I accidentally approached their young. Don’t laugh—these birds can really mess you up.*
I addressed an assembly of the junior class. We covered the whole gamut related to youth violence: gun safety legislation, drug legalization, efforts to help young people improve their self-regulation and social-cognitive skills. I then shared a long lunch with about twenty students. It was a great time with the students and staff. I hope to come back.
I was inspired by the visit, but a bit saddened, too–not by anything at Brooks, but by the contrast with other places.
As in many schools I visit, the Brooks student body is overwhelmingly African-American and Latino. More than 98% of the students are nonwhite. For logistical and other obvious reasons, the school is a tough sell to families in Hyde Park or the near north side.Some students spoke with noticeable immigrant accents or the strong African-American cadences of the surrounding neighborhoods. It was hardly a rarified atmosphere, despite the surprisingly bucolic campus setting. Many of the kids come from modest backgrounds. They spoke of their need for minimum-wage summer jobs, of safety challenges and racism they sometimes faced outside the building. They expressed varied opinions on gun control and other matters.
Yet the orderly, relaxed, and substantive vibe was different from many schools I’ve worked in. If you heard This American Life’s episode about Harper High School, you have a sense of the tense and sometimes-chaotic world of many Chicago schools. People are on edge. Security is usually a heavy hallway presence. Security at Brooks appeared more low-key. Left to their own devices, crowds of kids in many schools easily become boisterous and disruptive. At Brooks, there was some short delay unlocking the auditorium door. Kids waited patiently, talking quietly or using their smartphones.
The place seemed like a nice public school. If one airbrushed the picture to account for one or two differences in income, religion, and color, it reminded me of the suburban public high school I attended in Rochester, NY.
Many people—me, for instance—are ambivalent about selective-enrollment and magnet schools. If these attract the most able students and the most-engaged parents, what happens to the neighborhood schools? It’s a fair question. Given the pervasive educational challenges Chicago faces, it also seems an overly fastidious one. Many of the most engaged parents with incomes (say) between $70,000 and $150,000 will either find a school such as Brooks or they will move out. We really, really want them to stay.
*Fortunately, the perpetrators were caught on surveillance cameras (see right). If you see these birds, do not approach them. They should be considered armed and dangerous.