travel to Chicago next week to address the brutal and tragic beating death of Derrion Albert. The plan is to talk to students, parents, community members, and school officials at Fenger High School, where Albert inadvertently got caught in a gang melee and was beaten mercilessly in a violent scene captured on video.
Parents and teachers have been shouting out warnings about the school for months. Maybe this time, someone will listen.
In a damning report in Substance News, former teacher and union security and safety director George N. Schmidt chronicles the story behind the story at Fenger. It’s must reading for anyone who cares about the public schools. Earlier this year, Fenger was subjected to “turnaround,” another word for draconian reform of a failing high school. Despite warnings from parents and teachers as early as February, the Chicago Public School system fired most of the staff in this “turnaround” in June and July. Students went back in September to a school where nobody knew them.
What does it mean in a gang-infested high school where tensions run high on a typical day? What happens when students walk into a building where no one, not even the janitors, recognizes their faces, knows their family situation, knows their affiliations, their histories? Teacher Deborah Lynch explains it eloquently in a column in today’s Chicago Sun Times.
No one at Fenger this year has known their kids for more than three weeks… I am not saying that knowing the kids better could have averted the melee and tragic death of last week, obviously. But trouble had been brewing at the school even before last week . Staff reported a riot the previous week inside the building, involving teachers being hit, and that two different police stations had to be called in to quell the disturbance. Those are the times when the staff members draw on their relationships with kids to urge restraint, to urge calm and peace, to try to talk things out rather than fight things out. Those are the times when a seasoned staff can identify strategies and resources to address and prevent further problems.
We give them bus money when they have forgotten theirs. We share our lunches with those who missed breakfast. We kid them, we laugh with them, we exhort them to do better, to get to school on time, to work hard. A colleague buys suit jackets for the guys to wear to graduation. Another takes kids to get prom dresses. The list of connections and affection and love and sharing goes on and on.And they comfort them when a student dies a senseless and shameful death.
There are lessons to be learned here, and the popular instinct to blame the teachers when a school is failing needs to be rethought. “Reformers” need to listen to the teachers who have been out there in the trenches all these years. They need to listen before a student is beaten to death. They need to listen before another young man like Derrion Albert dies and makes the headlines for a few days. They need to listen before, not after, a city has blood on its hands as it campaigns to host the Olympics. [emphasis mine]