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Mar. 13, 2006
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In November, Wells High School junior Eddie Cruz was jumped and beaten bloody in a school hallway by a group of freshmen. The emergency-room bill was $4,000.
Last semester, a Hyde Park Career Academy teacher was punched in the face after he asked a student for identification.
Last month, Clemente High School parent Beatrice Rodriguez was pummeled by a group of students who were taunting her for being a "big woman."
This is the kind of violence that is troubling Chicago's public high schools -- especially those accepting students from areas where failing schools are being systematically shut down under Mayor Daley's Renaissance 2010 initiative.
Wells, Hyde Park and Clemente are among eight high schools that each received more than 150 students from the attendance areas of troubled schools now tapped for closure and eventual rebirth -- Austin, Calumet and Englewood high schools.
Since they began admitting those students in the fall of 2004, all eight schools have posted an increase in reported violence that is at least twice as high as the average for similar high schools systemwide, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis indicates.
The most dramatic example was Hyde Park, where the average number of reported violent incidents per month jumped 226 percent during that period, the analysis of CPS data showed.
In fact, Hyde Park was hit by a double-whammy, being forced to accept more than 300 students -- more students than any other receiving school -- in the past two years because two schools closed to freshmen: Englewood this school year and Calumet the year before.
Some folks say the increase in violence at receiver schools has contributed to higher teacher turnover and has worn down principals who retired unexpectedly. Students say the fighting makes school a tougher place to learn. And West Side community group leaders say they worry school closings could unintentionally lead to a higher dropout rate.
"They have opened a Pandora's box," said Khalid Johnson, lead organizer with Westside Health Authority. "[CPS officials] did not properly plan for the transition of these students.
"They are taking kids from low-performing schools outside of their neighborhood [to] areas where there are cultural differences, gang differences, and there are no supports for the students. Out of that comes increased violence, increased dropouts."
However, some of the spike may be due to better training on reporting incidents, CPS officials said.
They also see some signs of progress. The violence level is lower so far this school year than last school year in most receiving schools -- though it's still higher generally than when those schools began accepting students diverted from troubled schools.
And, they say, they've learned some lessons. Chicago Schools CEO Arne Duncan said some schools, like Hyde Park, received too many new kids, "overburdening" them. Next school year, receiving schools will probably get no more than 30 such freshmen each, he said.
"We absolutely want to reduce the number of children going to any school [in the future]. It's the right thing to do," Duncan said.
But that's little comfort to students and teachers now forced to live with what they say is a new culture of violence and its impact on education. They note that two high schools -- Englewood and Collins -- that absorbed students from failing schools in the past few years wound up closed later themselves for lousy test scores.
"I believe the violence is going to get more severe, and frankly, it's going to lead to the school being closed," said Hyde Park teacher John Kugler, the school's teachers union delegate. "We need help fast."
Nearly every story in the November issue of the Clemente Voice -- the high school's student newspaper -- was dedicated to quashing violence.
One story started this way: "The Chicago Board of Education's decision to change Clemente's boundaries has resulted in an increase in school violence at Clemente."
Students and teachers at other receiving schools also say violence has invaded their hallways and surrounded their campuses. Some weeks at Clemente, Wells and Hyde Park, fights are an everyday event, they said.
"Students talk about it, how their school has changed and they can't have activities they normally would have. [They] even have concerns about having a dance because of violence," said a Wells teacher, who asked not to be identified because the principal there instructed the faculty not to talk to the Sun-Times about this story.
"The travesty is that we have students that would not have been injured if not for the transfer of students from Austin. It's upsetting. It disrupts the learning environment, and we're expected to raise test scores."
Wells mom Millie Rodriguez said a group of freshmen from the Austin enrollment area stomped her son, Eddie Cruz, so hard that imprints of their sneakers were left on his face.
Violence "is getting worse," so "I'm begging them to help me transfer my son to a school I think is safe," Rodriguez said.
At Clemente, more violent incidents marred the first five months of this school year than in the entire previous school year.
Experts say spikes in violence can make students depressed, worried, anxious and, for the unlucky ones, victims.
"Students can have a high level of anxiety and distraction. That affects the ability to focus," said Northwestern University clinical psychology professor Douglas Breunlin, who has spent five years developing violence-prevention programs for high schools.
One 18-year-old senior at Hyde Park said school just isn't the same for him anymore.
"Every day you have to focus on not just your education, but your safety," he said.
Classes start late because teachers are in the hallway trying to calm rowdy kids who are "yelling, cursing, horse-playing [and] anything you can imagine," said the senior.
In class, it's not unusual to hear new underclassmen swear at teachers, triggering arguments that interrupt instruction.
Most of the bathrooms have been shut down due to a rash of arson fires in them last year. And the cafeteria has become the scene of so many food fights, the senior said, he doesn't go there for lunch.
"I don't want to eat with people who [might] start hitting me with an orange," the senior said.
'A bulge through the school'
Teachers and administrators are quick to say not all students from closing schools have caused problems at their new schools.
"It's important to note that not all [Austin] kids are bad. A lot are good," Wells English teacher Joshua Strend said. "But the problem ones that are bad are especially bad."
When sizable numbers of students come from different neighborhoods and cross gang boundaries, it can be a catalyst for more violence, education experts said.
At Hyde Park, Hirsch, Clemente, Orr, Manley, Marshall, Robeson and Wells high schools, the new number of students from closing schools accounted for at least 10 percent of the each school's enrollment.
"Ten percent is huge. It's like a bulge [of students] going through the school, and that will have a noticeable impact," Northwestern's Breunlin said.
Duncan says he now realizes too many outsiders flooded some schools.
"My goal this year is to reduce those numbers dramatically," he said. When troubled Collins High begins its phaseout this fall, the 200 to 250 freshmen in its attendance area will be split among 14 receiving schools, he said.
"You do the math. Twenty, 25, 30 kids [per school] would be tops," Duncan said.
Some contend the system was asking for trouble by sending kids from failing schools across gang boundaries to other schools.
"What you have is groups vying for dominance. And because they're crossing gang lines, there is more conflict," Strend said.
But CPS officials noted that gang turf lines change all the time. Rather than exclude schools from receiving kids because of gang turf, the system chose to address any problems by adding extra security, said Phillip Hampton, CPS director of community relations.
Security was assessed and adjusted where necessary, both before and after schools began receiving large blocks of students, CPS officials said. In many receiving schools, surveillance cameras have been upgraded, off-duty police officers have been added, and special "school climate" teams have swept in to handle flareups.
"Maybe we haven't moved to the degree that some groups would like. I would be the first to admit there's room for improvement, but I think we have learned and we are taking very seriously the implications. We don't want to see any of these kids get hurt," Hampton said.
By the numbers
According to CPS data, the number of reported violent incidents per month jumped by more than 30 percent at Wells since the introduction of students from the former Austin enrollment area.
But teachers and students dispute that, questioning whether leadership -- Wells has had three principals in the past two school years -- is reporting all the violence there.
"There are more frequent fights. Maybe not huge incidents. A lot more daily conflicts. It's two groups, gangs, neighborhoods, whatever you want to call it," Wells' Strend said.
At Hyde Park, teachers have a similar gripe.
The number of reported violent incidents per month climbed steeply, from nearly three in the 2003-2004 school year to almost 10 last school year -- and then dropped a bit during the first five months of this school year, the Sun-Times analysis indicates. But some teachers don't buy it.
"That can't be right. Someone isn't reporting the facts," said English teacher Maria Chavez.
Hyde Park also is on its third principal in the last 2-1/2 years.
And just this month, longtime Clemente principal Irene DaMota suddenly retired by sending an e-mail while vacationing in "sunny, balmy" Brazil. CPS officials have said DaMota was slow to report violent incidents, refused suggestions from CPS and left security positions unfilled.
A revolving door of principals doesn't help the system's efforts to stem violence and create a smooth transition for new students, Hampton said.
"When you lose your leadership, it has an impact on the school and the school climate," he said.
Creating 'sense of hope'
CPS security chief Andres Durbak said if teachers, students or parents believe violence isn't getting enough attention from school administrators, they should contact his office directly.
"The better we know what's going on, the better we are able to respond appropriately," he said.
If principals need help, Duncan said, they should call him. That includes the principal of Hyde Park, Duncan's own neighborhood school.
"If she wants more security, we'll give it to her," Duncan said.
Across the nation, urban school districts have grappled with how to fix ailing high schools. Solutions haven't come easily.
"Change is very, very hard. It's difficult," Duncan said. "We learned a lot. We learned we shouldn't have such a large number of students going to one school. . . .
"Is this change tough? Absolutely. But we are trying to change decades of neglect and create a sense of hope."
Teachers quitting 'out of fear'
After more than 30 years as a Chicago public school teacher, Betti Ziemba decided to chuck it all and bolt Hyde Park Career Academy in midyear. Why?
"I left out of fear,'' Ziemba said last week. "I've had it. I quit. There's no way I'm going back there.''
Ziemba bailed out of one of eight CPS high schools assigned to take more than 150 kids each over the last 1-1/2 years as the system closed failing schools. It is an influx that even CPS officials say has contributed to increased violence at most major receiving schools.
Teachers say the spike in violence is taking a toll on them. At Hyde Park, which saw the biggest rise in reported violence since 2004, at least three teachers and a programmer left in the middle of this school year. Two -- Ziemba and one other -- openly conceded that safety concerns pushed them out.
Another teacher, Marie Chavez, says she won't return next school year because of lack of support in addressing rising violence and discipline problems. More paperwork than ever is required of teachers, who must document at least four "disruptive'' incidents per student before administrators step in, she said.
"I try to stay in my classroom, but I hear fights all the time,'' Chavez said. "I close my door because I feel if I step out I might get attacked."
At Wells, 936 N. Ashland, English teacher Joshua Strend says a new culture of violence is driving away new teachers.
"After last year we lost a lot of good young teachers who decided if this is how it's going to be, they will look elsewhere," said Strend, the Wells teachers union representative.
In the past two years, Ziemba said, she's had fights break out in her classroom, been sworn at by students, and watched one angry student shove all the books off her desk because she flunked him. She says she's faced increasing aggression and abusive language among the school's underclassmen.
'They are coming to get me'
But the last straw was an incident last October. A sophomore lingered in class after second-period English and told her: "Miss Ziemba, they are coming to get me.''
As Ziemba moved to close the door, a swarm of angry students mobbed the entry.
"Kids started to push -- I'd say 30 to 50 people, guys and girls. And I knew none of them,'' Ziemba said. "I was almost trampled.''
Seeing the stampede, union rep John Kugler grabbed a pipe and jumped in to help.
"They were actually trying to kill somebody in there,'' said Kugler, the architectural drafting teacher. "There was no stopping them. I had to have a pipe in my hand to drag people out of the room. They were crawling over the chairs to get him. . . .
"They were saying, 'Get him. Kill him. Jump him.'"
The mob was finally dispersed without injury, but even Kugler was shaken.
"I locked my door for two periods,'' he said.
Though she wrote up the incident, Ziemba said, administrators never talked to her about punishing the orchestrator, who lived in the Calumet High attendance area that's been sending freshmen to Hyde Park.
Eventually Ziemba told officials at the end of the first semester she wouldn't be returning.
But as a result, Ziemba said, "I'm unemployed. I have no money coming in. I have two car payments coming due. I was hoping to retire this year, but I can't because [by leaving in midyear] I won't have 34 years in. . . . I'm in limbo.''
BY ROSALIND ROSSI, MARK J. KONKOL AND ART GOLAB