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College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

This Way Out: Few Options for Average Students

By Marilyn Rhames — May 23, 2012 6 min read
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A friend I used to work with nine years ago recently contacted me in response to my post Amber Alert: Teenage Boy Mentally Kidnapped by Gangs. He wondered if the 20-year-old man in the post who was killed in an apparent gang shooting was the same student he had taught in 2004 when the deceased was in 6th grade. The answer, unfortunately, was yes.

I invited that friend, Faren D’Abell, to guest blog for me this week. Faren is a critical thinker and offers his thoughts on urban education from the perspective of an African-American man. Faren is a former Chicago Public Schools teacher and administrator and is now a school principal in Indiana. He can be reached at fdabell@schoolsleader.com

Four months ago I made the decision to move my 12-year-old son out of Chicago, thus ending my successful career in Chicago Public Schools. It was a tough decision. We’ve lived in Chicago his entire life. But two factors pushed us to make the move.

Being a Chicago Public Schools educator, I knew that my sixth grade son would soon be faced with the Chicago oddity of having to apply to get into a high-quality high school. Not being in the top 10 percent of Chicago students, my son had little chance to get a quality public high school education in Chicago. His best-case scenarios would be admission through one of the few random spots at Noble Street Charter or at a magnet school, or me paying upwards of $25,000 annually for private school. The neighborhood high school warehouses were not viable options.

The second factor that made the decision to move a reality was the continuing lack of safe neighborhoods in Chicago. Our Chicago home is about 10 blocks west of Obama’s Chicago home. In the span of about a year, our car was stolen, our garage was broken into twice, my son and his friend were threatened, and a new baseball cap was stolen from his friend’s head in front of our house during a birthday party. The police were called each time and the only crime that resulted in a visit, oddly, was the theft of the hat.

I try to be a positive force in the lives of the youth I serve. I have mentored dozens of young men over the last 10 years, taught in a juvenile detention center, and taught in some of the toughest schools and one of the best schools in Chicago. In every case I always saw hope.

Six of my former students are like sons to me. I help them make connections, try to get them on the right track when they wander, and expose them to cultural and educational opportunities that they wouldn’t otherwise get. Many more former students have connected with me on Facebook. One student, Alex, was in my sixth grade class eight years ago. He recently found me on Facebook and started an e-mail conversation.

The conversation went like this:

He never responded. Ten days later he was dead. He was shot in the head in an apparent gang attack—a block from the school he attended as a child and between two church buildings.

After the senseless death, I started talking to more of my former students - students in Alex’s class. Some didn’t remember him; some were posting “RIP” on his Facebook page. I urged my former students to get out. One is working on his associate’s degree so he can apply to the police force. He said, “It’s hard, sir. Me and other people who are blessed like me are lucky to be given the opportunity and chances we get. Everyone underestimates us because we’re young with no experience.”

No experience, a bottom-notch education, and little hope: Is this the legacy Chicago provides for our young, mostly poor, mostly minority children? After I made my off-the-cuff recommendation to “get out,” I reflected on my own decision to get out. I realized that, like Chicago’s mayors and our President, I have the education and resources to get out or to make additional sacrifices and put my child in private school. The families of most Chicago Public School students don’t have these luxuries.

Big cities introduce ways for a couple of schools to be high quality through magnets or charters but few have addressed the systematic problems. Even when magnets and charters work, it forces families to abandon their neighborhood schools. Schools are the glue that keep neighborhoods together. When they fail, neighborhoods fail. It’s a vicious cycle that results in helping the few succeed and the many continue to fail. The answer has to be holistic involving many more players than just the schools. That’s usually where failure starts.

I remember watching a video of a student from one of Chicago’s first turnaround high schools. He told the Chicago Board of Education that if they wanted to give high school students a chance they should open up spots at Jones College Prep and the public schools middle class families are willing to send their children to rather than “turning around” another bottom notch high school.

I don’t endorse continued support of a system that’s broken: a system that allows a school to have less than five percent of its students meet state standards. But I also don’t endorse continued economic, ethnic, and racial segregation in schools that results in a concentrated “haves versus have-nots” education.

In my effort to find a better life for my son, I accepted a position in an urban district in Indiana that believes all children should have a high quality education. I’m the principal of a school with similar demographics to the schools in which I worked in Chicago, but there are no tests to get in to our high school.

All students go to the same high-quality public high school that produced the likes of Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, singer Babyface, NBA player Eric Gordon, McDonald’s president Don Thompson, and thousands of educated students of whom you’ve never heard. The district does not rest on its laurels. All of the elementary and middle schools have embraced the International Baccalaureate Primary Years and Middle Years programs. Indeed, every student in the district has the opportunity to receive an International Baccalaureate education.

I still believe the “get out” advice is sound for my at-risk former students. Students should get out, if they’re able, for at least a few years to see what could be. College is expensive, but student loans and grants are available. The problem is that even if our children are emotionally and financially ready and able to get out, they’re not prepared by our neighborhood high schools.

In a Chicago public school like Crane Technical Prep where only four percent of students met state standards last year, we’re left to come to only two conclusions: Either 96 percent of the students in this school don’t care, or maybe, just maybe, there are students who wanted to learn, but were let down by their schools.

Even the public charter high schools in Chicago don’t post much better results when it comes to preparing our students to get out. Only 10 percent of Ford Powerhouse High students, 15 percent of Urban Prep Academy students, 19 percent of University of Chicago Charter School* students, and 37 percent of UNO Charter School Network* students met state standards on the PSAE test. Only Noble Street Charter can boast that 50 percent of its 11 graders met standards on the college readiness exam—on par with the state and twice as good as the Chicago district.

More opportunities need to exist for the vast majority of Chicago students so that students like Alex can envision a way out. The process of allowing only the best students access to a quality education is fundamentally broken. Only those with resources—intellectual or financial—can get out. Alex doesn’t have a chance to get out any more. Even those who make all the right choices often don’t have a chance to get out. What can we do to ensure that at least a few more students do?

While Faren’s experience with urban education has been mostly in Chicago, I know the challenges facing these kids and schools are not limited to Chicago. Sadly, similar stories abound in cities across our country and that is why, as a nation, we need to face this crisis head-on.

*These charter schools have elementary and high school data comingled. Data listed is based on high school PSAE scores only.

The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.