Reflections on Chicago 2012

This post originally appeared on the Learning Lounge – the online community for the Future Leaders programme, the leadership development programme for school leaders committed to eradicating educational disadvantage. Along with participants on the programme – Future Leaders – I visited Chicago in October 2012 to experience school culture in this challenging urban environment.

Thursday 25th October. Two children, Andre Rice and Ravon Thompson, were caught in gang cross-fire and shot, while playing football in the Roseland neighbourhood of Chicago. The local news that evening only gave a brief mention to this tragedy of innocent 12 and 14 year old victims. Such news isn’t so ‘new’ in a city where 438 people have been killed so far this year, and 19 people were shot in one night of mayhem alone this summer. Most of this violence is focused on Chicago’s troubled south and west sides, exactly where our group of Future Leaders headed for that Thursday. 

The problems are not limited to gang violence though. Once the city of iron and steel, Chicago has suffered decades of industrial decline. Chronic poverty, unemployment and low aspirations bordering on hopelessness are rife in these areas.  I wondered as we set out on Thursday morning how schools could overcome such problems. How could inspirational school leaders make a difference? How could these brave men and women face up to the challenges of such an environment, in order to do the essential work of closing the achievement gap, and raising the aspirations of all their pupils?

These are my reflections on the four schools we visited. I’m sure many of you will have noticed, and thought more, about different aspects of those two days. I hope you share them in the comments at the bottom, or in your own blogs. I do not remember any statistics, although they would be helpful to add here, so I’m afraid there isn’t any mention of %s graduating from college, and so on. This is simply my personal account of our trip to Chicago.


Day 1

Pritzker College Prep

We were greeted by a military marching band, fully decked out in uniform and accompanying swords, as we stepped off the bus at Pritzker. The suspicion this was a school that believed in discipline and order was confirmed by our meeting with the headteacher, Pablo Sierra.

A product of the Chicago public school system, Pablo came from a non-traditional entrepreneurial background to found Pritzker in 2006. “I want an environment where kids can learn and teachers can teach”. To achieve this calm, the school consistently enforces a set of rules where there is no gum, no slouching, and certainly no late homework.

Pablo only hires the smartest, most motivated teachers. The first consideration is their academic achievement.  They must also be aligned to the mission, and many have taken massive pay cuts $15,000 in order to make a real personal difference. With the right people on board, he is free to let them teach with autonomy.”I’m very hands off. I just let them got on with it. We’re tough on the child, not on the teacher”

When students join the school they are given as much attention as any school, and gain the excitement to be on board and learn.Gradually though, as the years go on, there is less hand-holding and more independence. They are able to fall, and have the opportunity to then learn from their mistakes.We met five outstanding pupils, who truly owned their learning. Success is their own responsibility; these are aspirational stiudents with clear goals, aiming to be role models in their neighbourhood. How impressive is that? And what is the result of training pupils to be genuinely independent learners, working for their own success within a rigid, ‘no excuses’ framework? They persist; they are resilient and pro-active. They do not just go on to attend college, they go on to succeed at college.

Alain Locke Charter School

We then moved on to a primary school, in another Westside Chicago neighbourhood. Alain Locke is named after the first African-American Rhodes Scholar, an inspirational figure in black history.

The most impressive parts of this school were inside the classrooms. The enthusiasm for learning was clear, from the poetry of a 1st grade class (focusing on ghosts, with halloween just around the corner), to a 4th grade art history class (eloquently talking about the different artistic influences on Matisse). My personal highlight was winding through the maze-like building, to get to a small space at the top of the school: music class. Here we met the music teacher who talked with immense pride of how the the numbers in his orchestra had grown in recent years, and the different shows they had put on. As he spoke, his class silently marched in, ready to learn.

Outside each classroom a sign told us what year these children would be graduating from college; four year olds aspiring for their success in 2030.

Day 2

Amandla Charter School.

Little over four miles from the Roseland neighbourhood I heard about on the news, is the Englewood neighbourhood of Southside Chicago, and Amandla Charter School. It is an extremely deprived and violent place, even by the standards of Westside and Southside Chicago.

It was a difficult morning, to see a school where there was clearly much work still to be done in order to get consistency in applying rules of behaviour. There wasn’t the same success yet in embedding clear aspiration for college success, or a drive to learn, as in the other schools we had seen. Nevertheless, these children went to school in a calm, orderly environment; taught by teachers who believed in them. A newly qualified teacher two months into her first role, for example, had her English class in the palm of her hand, focused entirely on the task set. The foundations are there.

North Lawndale College Prep

John Horan, President of North Lawndale, is without a doubt one of the most engaging, charismatic, and inspirational men I’ve ever heard. I’m sure all of you who came to Chicago would agree.

With Future Leaders I’ve visited some exemplary schools both in the UK and now in the US. However I have never felt a school culture to be so ingrained into every child, and everything they do, as at North Lawndale. As we wandered around and chatted with pupils leaving school for the day, it was clear each child believed in, and understood, the ethos of North Lawndale.

There were so many incredible aspects of this school. The ‘Peace Warriors’ campaigning to spread their school culture out to the wider community; the senior projects pupils were working on preparing them for real success in life beyond their school; and many more. North Lawndale pupils became North Lawndale alumni with the ability and confidence to succeed in life, more than simply passing exams. I’m sure you all have different stories you heard from the kids you chatted to that afternoon, and it would be great to hear more about them.

As we said our goodbyes to North Lawndale, we all climbed back on the bus with huge smiles on our faces, awestruck. North Lawndale had shown the impact a loving, aspirational school culture can have on the life chances of every child.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Chicago and unknown to us, Andre and Ravon recovered in hospital. Those boys, the innocent victims of the shooting the day before, were two of the lucky ones – they had survived the gunshots, and lived to learn another day. As I watched the news that evening, I heard from a couple of people from that case, in a neighbourhood not yet lucky enough to have their own Pritzker or North Lawndale:

“It’s sad that he couldn’t come outside and play ball yesterday,” said Tkeyiam McNeil, Andre Rice’s sister.

“Be kind to your neighbors, speak to your neighbors. All this running around angry and bitterness, it’s brought on to affect the whole world, our kids,” said Eddie Reid, a father in the neighbourhood. “But I am glad mine are trying, I pray to the Lord, my kids trying hard.”


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