Without any prompting, 20 8th-graders at Perspectives Middle School in the Loop walk up to a startled visitor—one by one—extend their hands and introduce themselves.

“This is their home,” teacher Diana Shulla explains. “And when people walk into your home, you welcome them.”

Unique in many ways, Perspectives was founded a little over two years ago by Shulla and fellow teacher Kim Day, who wanted to work intensively with a racially diverse group of students not only on academics, but also on developing personal qualities like self-esteem and respect for others.

Technically a part of Dyett Middle School in Washington Park, Perspectives has only two classrooms, which are located in donated space at Columbia College. Most of its students—half of whom are African American, half Latino—enrolled in 1993 as 6th-graders. While a few were high achievers, many more had academic and social problems. “These were not cream-of-the-crop kids,” says Shulla.

Instead of looking for academic promise, Shulla and Day sought students and parents who seemed committed to their holistic philosophy. “School is not just about academics,” insists Day. “It’s about life, and how to get along in life.”

To help kids get along, the two developed 18 rules for “The Disciplined Life.” The rules—arranged in a sunburst pattern on a classroom wall—include maxims like “Be a giver,” “Respect others’ differences,” and “Use time wisely.” Students, who signed contracts to abide by the rules, seem to take them to heart.

“You have to live by these rules, not just in but outside of school,” says Anthony Bennett, 13. “Like if you see somebody standing on the bus for a long time, you’d be a giver, you’d give them your seat.”

Following the “Disciplined Life” helps students avoid conflicts, according to Ricardo Buitron, 13. Still, “sometimes you don’t want to live by the rules,” he admits. “But in three years, you get used to them.”

Teens have a tough time remembering rules when their minds are on personal problems, Day and Shulla believe. So, four days a week, they run a half-hour “advisory” to help students work through issues like racism, poverty, gangs or peer conflicts. Some discussions are student-led, others guided by the teacher. Day kicks off today’s with a timely topic: report card conferences. “How does it feel to walk down the hallway knowing that you’re going to get evaluated?”

“To me, it makes me feel like I’m just another number,” says a lanky boy at the back of the room, referring to the numbered grading scale. “I know that everybody needs room for improvement, but you shouldn’t put it in numbers and make the person feel bad.”

“If you have faith in yourself, you shouldn’t base yourself on that number,” another boy tells him.

“The way high schools look at you, they think of [you] as a number,” counters a third. “And if you’re not in the higher grade level, they’re not going to accept you.”

Day hopes this discussion will raise self-esteem, as students realize that everyone feels uneasy about evaluations, “that it’s natural, that they’re OK.”

Encouraging students to discuss opinions and feelings openly has boosted confidence levels, both teachers say. “You could do case studies about kids who came in here very self-conscious [and] who are now wanting to be the next Oprah Winfrey,” Day notes.

At Perspectives, raising self-esteem doesn’t mean lowering standards. In fact, it’s quite the opposite—Shulla and Day run a tight ship.

For one, there is a dress code— Burgundy polo shirt with the school logo, black slacks, black shoes, no gym shoes. When a student in “civilian” wear tries to slip into Shulla’s class, she tosses him a regulation shirt. “Make it snappy,” she directs.

Students who forget homework spend their lunch period copying columns from the dictionary.

The school’s small size makes for “total accountability,” says Day. “We know when they’re not doing well. And they have our phone numbers, and when they have problems with homework they call us. So there’s never any reason to not have homework done.”

Perspectives has small classes, too— only 20 students each—which it paid for through grants and foregoing teacher preparation periods.

Test scores indicate that the extra attention has made a difference. More than half of Perspectives students entered the program with reading scores below grade level. By the spring of 7th grade, about a fifth were at grade level and about half were above. Among the lowest scorers, some had progressed two levels in a single year.

Hands-on learning

To motivate students, Day and Shulla use hands-on projects and a theme-based curriculum. Among other activities, a recent “Flight” unit had students interview an aviatrix, construct paper airplanes and explain their aerodynamic properties, invent skits to illustrate Newton’s Laws of Motion, and visit the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

While studying the branches of government, students wrote letters to Congress, visited a juvenile court and conducted their own murder trial.

For each theme, students “[see it], hear it, read it, do it, speak about it,” says Day, noting, “students have their strengths and weaknesses in the way they learn.” Since all activities—from tests to essays to role playing—count equally, “everyone has an equal opportunity to achieve.”

Creating opportunities beyond the classroom, the teachers talked a number of organizations, including WBEZ Radio and a family health clinic, into taking students in one day a month for internships. They’ve also paired each student with a pen pal who is a professional. Day and Shulla want students to become familiar with careers and the education required, as well as give them a jump-start on networking. “We all know it’s who you know,” says Day.

Once Perspectives students graduate this June, Day and Shulla may take a year off to plan and expand their program. Eventually they hope to run a K-8 school. Perspectives parents hope they will, too.

When parent Willemina Sargent, an attendance officer, drops by, she’s greeted by students whose behavior used to land them in her office at Piccolo Elementary. “These are the same students that were suspended from school for fighting, disrespect.” she says. “It’s just amazing. I love it.”

Gail Lee says her son is “so excited about this school, he doesn’t want to miss a day. If he’s sick, he wants to come to school anyway.”

“The kids want to come,” Day agrees. “If you miss a day of Perspectives, you miss a lot.”

For more information, contact Diana Shulla or Kim Day at (312) 786-9447.

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