Failing the Future: Chicago Public Schools Not Making The Mark

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As an incoming high school freshman at Senn High School in Roger’s Park, fifteen-year old Eduardo Ochoa is more worried about the Latin Kings recruiting him as a member of their gang than his upcoming homework assignments. Ochoa, the oldest of three boys, was born in Mexico and came to Chicago with his parents when he was 2 years old. Well aware of the circumstances of being a Latino male in the Chicago public school system, he vows to stay busy with the soccer team instead of the neighborhood gang.  “Starting high school is scary because of all the fights, I already know of a couple of gang fights that are going to happen in different periods at my first day of high school,” said Ochoa recently at his summer camp. “The last place I want to be is 6th period lunch, that’s going to be a huge one- you have to know when they are going to happen if you want to avoid them, ” he warned.

As the third largest school district in the nation, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) continues to flush students through a faulty system that only sees about half of its student population graduate from high school, with Latinos being the least likely group to graduate. Funding disparities, street violence and the bureaucracy of the second largest employer in the city, second only the U.S government itself, is failing to offer young people the opportunity of a well-rounded education and much less the opportunity to move on to college.

Students like Ochoa have have become desensitized to violence in their schools. Last Easter, one of Ochoa’s classmates stabbed a 21-year old man to death just a block from their school playground. Because the stabbing occurred outside of the school grounds, the school decided to not  offer counseling to his class. The student who committed the crime never came back to class and the stabbing became just another memory of his 8th grade class, along with a boat trip and graduation.
Violence among high school aged students in the city continues to claim the lives of black and Latino youth in an unprecedented numbers. Between September of 2007 and now, 36 Chicago Public School students have been violently murdered, and 15 of these were Latinos between the ages of 13 to 21. Of the 36 deaths over the last 12 months, 26 occurred during the school year and 10 so far this summer. Only three were non-gun homicides; one student was stabbed, another beaten with a baseball bat and another was intentionally run over with a car. This means young black and Latino males are killing their own on ground of drug trades and other gang-related activities.

The current state of escalated violence in the city has become unavoidable: its in the media, the streets and thoughts of elementary school-aged children. A month before the first day of CPS class on September 2nd,  the Field Museum opened an exhibit inspired by the Nicholson Elementary’s “Memorial Chair Project“. Every time a CPS student fell victim to violence, the students in this Englewood school decorated a school desk with pictures and personal objects in memory of that student who was killed.  The “Chair Memorial,” is currently hosted inside the Maori Gallery. Parents of the deceased attended the opening ceremony and expressed their deep sorrow for the loss of their children. A loss so great and so chronic that a major historical institution like the Field Museum of Chicago needed to include in it’s current exhibits.

Even if students survive the rampant violence that affects the Chicago school system, the disparities of funding among the 600 public schools with more than 400,000 students can also cut their aspirations short.  According to the Education Trust Report, in 2005 Illinois had the largest funding disparity in the nation between districts serving students in poverty.

Recent efforts Led by State Senator Meeks to boycott the first day of CPS schools are calling attention to the state funding of suburban schools versus inner city public schools. Meek’s plan is to pack dozens of school buses on the September 2nd and try to enroll kids at New Trier High school in the suburb of Winnetka, where the average yearly spenditure per-student is $15,000, well above the state and national average of $8,200 and three times as much the CPS average of $5,404 per student. Parents and students have expressed strong support to this protest.

Lack of funds not only translates into a poor social environment at a high school, it means schools are not meeting the most basic needs of its students. The Chicagoland Latino Research institute reports that only 30% of Latino students reported that a counselor had helped them choose their courses.  As the system stands today the student to counselor ratio for a CPS high school is of 360 students to one counselor. 

Not all is lost. Carmen Corona, 18,  a 2007 graduate from Mather High School says students and parents also have to step up the game and compensate for what the school can’t offer.

“If you skip your classes it only makes it worse- you have to stay involved in anything you like and make the school work for you if you want to graduate,” says Corona. “Even when it’s hard for the parents to be involved, they have to make the effort.”

Corona is currently enrolled in a community college in preparation for a four-year college where she can complete her studies and become a nurse. The main motivation for Corona came from her work at local community center, Centro Romero, where she was once a student and later spent her four years as a high school tutoring other young Latinos.

“I see myself the kids I tutor, there’s nothing like helping them with their homework and making them feel like they have a place in the world,” she said.

Networks of universities and federal programs (GearUP, Upward Bound, TRIO)are set in place throughout the Chicagoland area high schools looking to support students like Corona who are looking for guidance and aspire for opportunities in higher education. Four-year programs that adopt freshman students have proven effective solutions to keep students on track. Programs like Upward Bound that were first implemented in the late 1960’s post the the civil rights movement are still in play all across the country. Upward Bound is an example of a program designed  for first generation college students who come from low-income families and want to attend college. A counselor is assigned at high schools to guide these students through their four years of high school and ensure a fair transition to college. Cultural activities are combined with homework sessions and college visits throughout the years leading up to college.

Efforts such as this hope to level the playing field for the thousands of CPS students who face the daily challenge of chasing a quality education in one of the largest urban school systems in the country. As far as advice for incoming students, Carmen says to avoid the bad and keep in mind your motivations. “You’re going to see gang fights and drug trades and loose friends throughout the four years of high school but you have to stay focused,” she says.

Photos by Gonzalo Reyes