A Plague of Violence in Chicago: What Can Schools Do?

NPR’s Morning Edition has been running a series on youth violence in Chicago – yesterday’s story is here.  And it’s worth paying attention to.  I just finished a story for Ed Next on two new charter schools in the badlands of Chicago’s Westside (Catholic Ethos, Public Education) and know that if there’s any single challenge that defies a quick fix in our inner city schools, it is this: violence.

I have, over the years, done a great deal of reporting on childhood violence (see my book Death of Innocence), meeting my share of horror along the way.  It is not a continuum; it is a swamp.  (The book I wanted to write on the subject is called The Triple A of Childhood Violence: Armed, Angry and Amoral.) There is nothing worse than seeing a child arrive at school in the morning bearing the scars of such terror — these kids are victims.  (I have met kids who, academically, are reading two grade levels ahead of their peers, but who are unable to eat lunch using a fork and spoon.) But I can’t help but looking at these kids and thinking, `They are learning the ways of violence.’  And though there is plenty of research linking environmental and domestic victimization of children — sexual abuse is a terribly underreported story here — to future behavioral problems (that’s the anger part), I’m sure anyone who has ever worked in a school in a violent neighborhood knows the scene.

Here’s what Igbazenda Moses, assistant principal at the Catalyst Howland school, in Chicago’s devastated North Lawndale neighborhood (where approximately 10,000 adult males from the neighborhood were in prison (2000 census) and which has the highest incidence of HIV in the state and the highest rate of asthma for kids in the state, and the highest percentage of grandparents raising grandchildren in the nation) told me about his school’s challenges:

These children live in a world where you can’t appear weak—it can be deadly…. All of this makes the kids very uptight and creates a huge barrier to learning… Three weeks ago we had a child whose dad was shot and killed… We have two kids like that here now. There is so much violence in their daily lives. They hit you—and they’re used to getting hit back. Self-control is a big issue for these kids.

As I note in my story, “Howland’s was a student population suffering from enormous environmental, economic, and social trauma—a kind of permanent Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

Says John Horan, who opened the North Lawndale College Prep public charter in the neighborhood in 1998,

Job one in a school like this is to establish a culture of peace and high academic expectations and do rigorous social supports…. Stable leadership makes all the difference in the world. You can’t end-run this one. The principal makes it all happen.

The interesting thing about Horan’s approach, as stood up against that of the programs NPR has chosen to highlight, is its appreciation of the need for ”high academic expectations” within this war zone.  Indeed, though violence is contagious, you don’t solve the problem with classes about it – you provide a zone of safety, a “culture of peace,” within which you then do the hard work of education.

Yes, these are schools where education is, literally, a matter of life-and-death. But the educator’s goal remains the same: to educate.

–Peter Meyer

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