I now drop the mic…

A thank you note from Chicago high school students.

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

IMG_2316made 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 brooks_geeseand 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.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

15 thoughts on “I now drop the mic…”

  1. Pollack, you express your views with a gentleness that makes them more attractive when expressed by the, ahem, more spirited Mark Kleiman. Nevertheless, they are objectionable.

    This time, it was the line about Rahm Emmanuel that really chapped my ass. After he earned over $15 million working on Wall Street (despite lacking an MBA), what are the chances that his Precious Little Snowflakes ever attend a CPS school–whether “selective” or not.

    Nevertheless, you top this by heavily implying that “engaged parents with incomes…between $70,000 and $150,000” should subject their children to a suboptimal educational experience in order to raise average scores or contribute to diversity or end marginalization (I can’t tell since you didn’t say). Look, other people’s children are NOT mere resources and inputs for your discretionary allocation to further your utopian dreams of urban uplift. Just as the much maligned “White Flight” is a sensible strategy when neighborhoods and cities are being destroyed by misgovernance, pulling your children out bad schools is both prudent and moral.

    Worst of all is when the Chief Chicago Hypocrite, Barack Obama, sends his (literal) princesses to a $30,000/year school while opposing school choice for the common DC rabble, “Let them eat cake. And get shot. Whatever.” OyVey.

    1. I may be a little bit more “spirited” than Harold (who after all is pretty much a tzaddik), but at least I can read. You’re furiously disagreeing with something he didn’t say. The point of the post is that selective schools are a necessity.

      1. I was challenging his unexamined priors. Pollack’s point was that, despite our ambivalence, we should support selective-enrollment and magnet (public) schools because otherwise affluent, engaged, influential parents will take their children out-of-district or into private school.

        My point was that the children of the privileged (Barack Obama, Rahm Emmanuel, U of C faculty) have real choice; public, charter, and independent schools. And, lo and behold, when people with options are in a position where we can see their revealed preference and not just their cheap talk, we see that they send their kids to private schools.

        So if you really want to help children from all social strata (and i believe that Pollack does) then maximize the options available to their parents. We don’t need a reconfigured org chart, we need more parents at the economic margins to have more choices–public, charter, and independent.

        1. = = = (Barack Obama, Rahm Emmanuel, U of C faculty) have real choice; public, charter, and independent schools. And, lo and behold, when people with options are in a position where we can see their revealed preference and not just their cheap talk, we see that they send their kids to private schools. = = =

          (Some) Catholics excepted, that’s a post-1980 phenomena (see my post below), and a self-fulfilling prophecy.

          Cranky

        2. My point was that the children of the privileged (Barack Obama, Rahm Emmanuel, U of C faculty) have real choice; public, charter, and independent schools. And, lo and behold, when people with options are in a position where we can see their revealed preference and not just their cheap talk, we see that they send their kids to private schools.

          Does it even need to be said that everyone individually pursuing their own interests can sometimes lead to sub-optimal results, on average or even for everyone? That’s a fairly basic fact that everyone should be cognizant of.

          If you want to declare that everyone individually pursuing their own interests is the only goal that we should be concerned with, then go for it. But that’s an statement that only a libertarian will find convincing and absent that premise, your statements here mean absolutely nothing.

      2. I’m challenging Concerned’s empirics, not his relevance. I live in a big poor city (Newark, NJ), and have the income to choose between public, private and charter schools. My wife and I picked the charter school for my kid. The choice wasn’t a no-brainer for us, and we may re-evaluate it later. But it makes sense, at least now.

        btw, Newark has extraordinarily good early childhood services. Yes, I’m comparing it with NYC, Westchester, and corporate NJ. Try top-notch full-day pre-school at $70/week.

    2. Not “concerned” enough to read the post before responding apparently. Why didn’t you attack his support of artificial turf while you were at it?

    3. = = = This time, it was the line about Rahm Emmanuel that really chapped my ass. After he earned over $15 million working on Wall Street (despite lacking an MBA), what are the chances that his Precious Little Snowflakes ever attend a CPS school–whether “selective” or not.

      Nevertheless, you top this by heavily implying that “engaged parents with incomes…between $70,000 and $150,000″ should subject their children to a suboptimal educational experience in order to raise average scores or contribute to diversity or end marginalization (I can’t tell since you didn’t say). Look, other people’s children are NOT mere resources and inputs for your discretionary allocation to further your utopian dreams of urban uplift. = = =

      As late as my day (the, um, well, 1970s), many bigwigs who lived in the City of Chicago did in fact send their children to the Chicago Public Schools. It wasn’t any big deal about being ‘resources’; it was simply what you did if you were part of the City. [then as now many Catholic families sent their kids to parochial schools, bigwig or no, but many did not]. It was the abandonment of that traditional CPS by the Emmanuels et al (and later the Obamas) that tolled the death knell for CPS and, most likely, for free universal public schooling in Chicago at all. The US’ greatest achievement, 300 years in the making, down the drain in 1.5 generations.

      Possibly one reason for the more relaxed atmosphere at that school is that the historical side of Pullman isn’t particularly dangerous as city neighborhoods go. It has been a while since I lived there but I don’t feel any less safe when I stop by to visit friends; I would urge you to attend the historic house tour in October of each year. North Pullman (north of 109th St) is tougher, but not extreme on the South Side. The on-line crimes stats are for the Pullman police district which takes in more than the historic Pullman Company neighborhoods.

      Cranky

  2. I’m in favor of selective-admission public schools, largely because of my experience as a substitute teacher. The able students with engaged parents who make only $30,000/year don’t have a choice other than the public schools; they deserve to have schools that are sufficiently orderly, relaxed, and substantively academic to learn as much as the equally-able students with equally-engaged parents who make three times as much.

  3. Gwendolyn Brooks is a magnet school whose students come from all over the South side, not jut the Pullman area. You absolutely cannot fault parents for wanting their children to attend Brooks; other schools in the area are both unsafe and disorderly in many ways. Some students come from families who earn $70,000 to $150,000, but most are from families making less. CPS could open three more schools like Brooks and they would be fully subscribed. No one has figured out how to make the school climate in the regular high schools acceptable for parents and students with traditional expectations for behavior. I’m not criticizing the students who don’t have those expectations; they are merely behaving the way they see others behave. But it doesn’t lead to a good learning environment.

  4. I’m not sure what the appropriate policy should be. Everyone needs to have their needs met. Low-income, high-capital parents need to be able to send their kids into classrooms that will nurture them. Yet so do low-income, low-capital parents, even though they – by definition – won’t be proper advocates. Educating the former is easy. It’s the latter that we haven’t been able to figure out.

    As best I can tell, they need massive intervention and differentiated instruction: *very* small classes, highly networked social services doing outreach with their families. We’re making up for a lot of damage from these homes. Special Education has been bending to accommodate kids with emotional problems, but its catch-as-can, and I haven’t seen anything like the small classes and systems in place required. It really isn’t designed for kids with low levels of social/cultural capital, and seems to generally be a holding area until they either drop out or barely pass with severely limited skills (not just academic but emotional and cognitive). Mt guess is that we need an overhaul of Special Education law, at least in terms of restructuring the program to serve the needs of the low-capital. Special Education is in the main designed for kids with generally innate, mono-causal problems, and isn’t able to respond very well to dynamic environmental situations in which these kids are developing. Psychological and emotional problems are tough, as is dealing with a home life that you can’t do much to affect. But maybe if we did more outreach we could do some home intervention.

    Of course, all of this is remedial, and would have to be done less if we got at some of the inequity that drives dysfunction to begin with.

    1. Eli, not all of those low income students have pathology going on, they’ve just not been coached into good self-management skills. I think the proper approach would not be heavy-handed psychosocial interventions but rather a very carefully thought-out social development curriculum. But you could not expect students who already have those skills to be willing to spend that amount of time (and it would be time consuming)in a classroom that spent that amount of time on social development. Plus, we have to be willing to provide different curriculum options at the high school level — pre-technical classes that could seem more worthwhile to many students than a college prep curriculum does. In the community where Gwendolyn Brooks is located, some faculty at the other schools is interested in providing access to technical ed to their students — they see that college prep does not work for all.

      1. EB, I agree the pathology is broad. Some students might only need limited help. But those aren’t the students that are driving the drop out rate and who generally come from really screwed up situations. I’d love to think that this stuff could be solved merely with curriculum, but unfortunately the problems are vastly more serious. I’ve taught at-risk kids for years and their needs are profound. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is important here. And that this stuff builds on itself, compounding over years.

        I agree with your comments on technical education. I think a lot of that paired with social development could be powerful. But to be fair to the kids, to take their issues seriously, in my opinion we need to take a multi-facted approach. Whether that would be “heavy-handed” I suppose is subjective. But as a teacher, trying to reach parents and even then finding they were themselves at their wits’ end, I wished there were resources available that simply were not.

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