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Streets of Despair, School of Hope

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Text by Deborah L. Cohen
Photos by Benjamin Tice Smith

It only takes 15 minutes to drive from the Congress Hotel in downtown Chicago to the Ida B. Wells Homes on the South Side.

But in the time it takes the scenery to shift from the posh hotels and department stores of Michigan Avenue to the maze of uniform brick dwellings on narrow, stark streets, an unwelcome wariness has settled in my stomach.

The last time I visited this part of Chicago--to observe the Beethoven Project at the Robert Taylor Homes--a man with a rifle was captured outside the child-development center moments before I departed.

By the time we enter the Wells housing project, named for a prominent African-American woman journalist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, conversation between Photo Editor Ben Smith and me has dwindled from easy banter to the clipped phrases necessary for navigation.

Ben is with me to take the photographs that accompany this story about a private, tuition-free K-2 school launched here last year under an unusual partnership between the U.S. Justice Department's office of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention, the Chicago Housing Authority, and educator Marva N. Collins.

As we approach the Madden Park Fieldhouse, the city park-district facility that houses the Ida B. Wells Preparatory School, we pull the rental car as close as we can get, only about five cars away from the door.

But on our brief walk from the car, we can't shake the feeling that we're encroaching on a landscape whose rules are unfamiliar and whose dangers are beyond our imagining.

Gathering up notebooks, cameras, and bags--objects that mark us as outsiders--and walking the 25 paces to the door seems to take as much time and energy as any 10K race either of us has ever run.

The somber feeling of the street is quickly erased as Marva Collins sweeps us into a classroom where teacher Otis Cromartie addresses mannerly children in crisp green-and-white uniforms as "bright boy, bright girl.'' He is leading his charges in a reverberant chant: "We are the kindergarten class at Ida B. Wells Prep, and we are the most powerful, good, luminous kindergarten in the whole world!''

Collins has been widely hailed for her work in founding Chicago's Westside Preparatory School and others like it elsewhere in the city and in Cincinnati, and her recipe for success in raising the achievement levels of low-income children unfolds before us.

Proverbs are recited and dissected. "Nostalgic,'' "hector,'' and "ambiguity'' are on the alphabet list. "Cogito ergo sum'' and "Listen, think, and execute'' are rallying cries.

Instructions and sums are doled out fast and furiously, sometimes with intentional mistakes in the teacher's answers to challenge children to think and question.

Physical proximity between teacher and pupil is close, eye contact direct, both praise and scrutiny liberally dispensed. A body language of pride is strictly enforced: hands out of pockets, no leaning on desks, sit up, stand tall.

"Society more or less tends to outcast certain people, not necessarily by race, creed, or national origin, but based on location,'' Cromartie says. "I don't need to tell them they are marked. I will tell them if they don't work hard every second, their opportunities will not be accessed.''

The expectations and attitudes being cultivated at Ida B. Wells are part of a deliberate effort to intervene early in the lives of children growing up in high-crime, high-poverty settings with a dearth of positive role models.

The Justice Department is funding Wells Prep as part of its "Weed and Seed'' program, which combines tougher law enforcement in poor neighborhoods with social programs to spur economic opportunity.

The school, which now serves 80 students living in the Wells homes, is modeling a "new and innovative approach to try to do something about juvenile crime and violence at the front end,'' notes Travis Cain, a Justice Department program manager for the initiative.

The Chicago Housing Authority, which maintains the facility and pays administrative and utility costs, also cites as goals keeping students in school and promoting family, personal, and civic responsibility.

Before this grant, Collins had routinely shunned offers of federal aid or involvement for 18 years.

"It was always my belief that my people could have never failed so completely without the government's help,'' she explains.

But the offer to apply her philosophy in a housing-project setting that could serve as a national model made her reconsider.

"I thought, 'Maybe I should take it and prove that it can be done,''' Collins explains.

"Most people see these children, and they think they can't learn. They never hear the words bright, brilliant,'' she observes. "The expectations are as high here as in the most nurtured suburban area. You create an image and you reinforce it.''

"We are known by our deeds, not our needs,'' she frequently chides children.

Instruction at Wells is grounded in the Socratic method, with teachers posing frequent questions to which students must respond logically.

The curriculum is rich in basics, short on frills. The only recess is a brief interlude of song and movement in the classroom after lunch. The goal is to maximize teaching time.

"Learning is integrated; everything is interconnected,'' observes Sandrell Green, who teaches 1st grade. "They are not just learning facts or words, but practical application.''

"Everything we do from 9 to 3 is geared to seeing how we can affect them and keeping them striving for the best,'' adds Yvette McPhan, whose 2nd graders reel off lyrics of inspirational poems and parts of the human skeletal system with equal zest.

Parents, who are encouraged to play an active role in the school and to attend a series of parenting workshops, marvel over all their children have learned in such short order and draw a stark contrast between Wells and the local schools.

But they worry about what will happen when this sojourn ends.

At this point, the Justice Department plans to expand the program--which started with just kindergarten--only through grade 4.

Valerie Cannon, a parent-aide at the school, says her daughter has become so diligent and motivated that "she comes home and watches the news, and she doesn't get mad as much because they talk about your feelings'' at school.

"They are not going to get that kind of attention in the public school,'' she says.

The public schools "are not going to know what to do with them,'' adds Jimmy Thompson, the school's parent liaison.

"I don't care where you are or where you're from--there's got to be a foundation somewhere,'' says Mark White, who works in the building as an attendant for the park district.

Children at Wells who appear listless, sullen, or sad are hugged or walked to the board to lead an exercise, but never fawned over.

"I can cry more tears than you'll ever cry,'' Ella McCoy, the head teacher, says in a no-nonsense tone to a weepy 1st-grade girl in a vibrant vest and a rainbow of barrettes. "'If you strike a thorn or rose, keep a-goin'!'' she urges, quoting a poem by Frank L. Stanton.

We get a hint of how stinging those thorns can be after school on the first day of our visit, when Ben ventures outside to take photographs of children leaving for home.

Outside the door for just moments, he is ambushed by four young men who pummel him and lunge for his cameras.

The scuffle is headed off quickly by parents and police passing by, and a camera that had been taken is quickly returned intact by a parent. But Ben is bruised, and the brightness of our time inside is dimmed.

The next morning, we lose our course--and our courage--as we try to navigate ominous, unmarked streets to the home of a parent-aide who agreed to let us photograph her and her son en route to school.

When Ben ventures out again to capture images of children arriving for school, a parent-employee who has kindly offered to stand watch is shepherded aside by a gang leader, who suggests he tell us the photos are not a good idea.

Recent drug sweeps involving videotaped footage have heightened apprehension among gang members about strangers bearing cameras and notepads. Our visit, we learn, "came up'' at a gang meeting last night.

Offering their concern, school personnel are as shaken by our experience as we are and maybe more so--the incident is fleeting for us, but the risks for them remain. We are all left wondering what steps we could have taken to help protect each other.

Inside Ida Wells, the still-luminous kindergarten class is reciting Collins's "creed.''

"I was born to win if I do not spend too much time trying to fail,'' children intone. "My success and my education can be a companion. Which no misfortune can depress, no crime can destroy, no enemy can alienate.''

The educators here--like the gangs, yet for very different reasons--are trying to blot out the troubling images of the outside world for these children. Their ultimate goal is to steer children away from the kind of reflexive anger we encountered here.

Collins herself describes the school's mission as "recording a new tape'' to erase the "can't do's'' these children are up against and deliver a message of boundless possibility. "We have taken an unreal, fetid world and resculpted it,'' she observes.

Thompson, who has lived in the community for 17 years and has two children at the school, voices hope that no matter how abbreviated the experience, it will not be wasted.

"If it ends today, it was a great run,'' he reflects. "It's left to the parents to go to the public schools and say, 'My kid can do better than this.'''

"If nothing else, I hope we are saying to the child that we are here for them,'' McCoy says.

The threat of further violence limited our photographs of the world outside the Ida B. Wells Preparatory School, and our fleeting brush with that world has cast us as both the invader and the invaded. Fear, despair, and relief accompanied us on our journey out. But the faces of brightness we encountered have left a lasting impression.

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