Urban Education

July 14, 2004 1 min read

Reality 101

For one group of Chicago 5th graders, a semester that began as a civics lesson ended as a life lesson.

The students from Brian Schultz’s class at Richard E. Byrd Community Academy drew national notice when they launched an all-out bid to replace their dilapidated building with a new one.

The project began in December, when Mr. Schultz—a passionate proponent of experiential learning—used the Project Citizen curriculum to engage his students in public-policy formation.

They brainstormed about problems that affected them, and zeroed in on deficiencies in their own building. They surveyed their school population, analyzed the data, and made pie charts and graphs about their most pressing needs. They researched what sorts of folks influenced such decisions, and wrote them blizzards of e-mails and letters.

Sidewalks outside the building were repaired. Water fountains inside began to work. New light bulbs suddenly brightened classrooms. And one of the students’ biggest gripes—no soap dispensers in the restrooms—was addressed as well.

“The students were so excited about the soap,” said Mr. Schultz. “They were coming out of the bathrooms with their hands all lathered up, yelling, ‘We’ve got soap!’”

But on June 23, the Chicago board of education voted to close Byrd, largely because of low enrollment. The Cabrini-Green housing project, which supplies most of the school’s 380 students, is slated for closure. Byrd students will attend nearby Jenner Academy next school year, and some of the Byrd faculty members and administrators might transfer there as well.

While the 5th graders were bitterly disappointed at their school’s fate, Mr. Schultz sees the semester as a lasting lesson in empowerment, and in making their voices heard.

Little by little, he said, the students are realizing that while they didn’t win a new school, they still learned a lot.

“I’m a little bit mad,” 5th grader Daviell Bonds wrote in his journal when he learned the school might close. “We have done all this work … [but] even though we are not getting a new school, we have done great things.”

Another student, Lamarius Brewer, wrote: “I am going to be somebody, and I am never going to give up.”

—Catherine Gewertz

A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2004 edition of Education Week