Sometimes DuSable High School senior Marquis Johnson gets depressed at the sight of drug dealers openly peddling their poison—sometimes even to Chicago policemen, he says. Or at kids being beaten by gang members. Or prostitutes hustling just below the Robert Taylor Homes apartment that has been his home for 17 years. To blot out that grim reality, Marquis, a WMAQ-TV intern, is set to graduate in June, earn a college degree in social psychology and counsel inner-city clients.
Tiffany Swain, who lives with her grandmother and aunt, rarely sees her mother, and shuns a father she has seen only once in 18 years. Stretching from 5:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., her schools days are filled with classes, a Gospel Choir, a Bible study club and the Academic Decathlon. After June graduation, she will use a Golden Apple scholarship to earn a college degree in education and then return to DuSable to teach.
Only 16, senior class president Van C. Williams, like Marquis and Tiffany, is enrolled in DuSable’s School of Journalism and Communications; he interned last summer at WBBM-TV. His sights are focused on Atlanta’s Interdenominational Theological Seminary and, beyond that, parish ministry.
Street-wise, idealistic, perceptive, these students give DuSable’s fledgling experiment in small schools generally positive reviews. From the start, they judged the new DuSable as better than the old one. And classes have improved over the first semester, they say.
In September, Marquis complained that teachers didn’t maintain order in their classrooms, or keep students fully engaged during 100-minute class periods, or convey information that connected with their sometimes sweet, often bitter reality.
Four months later, he says, “Everything is running smoothly now. Students have become accustomed to A and B days [four classes one day, five the next] , and teachers have readjusted in terms of having a good, strong, solid lesson plan for 100-minute classes.”
Since September, Tiffany has seen her grades go up from B’s and C’s to A’s and B’s. “I also have seen improvement in the way teachers run our classes,” she reports. “They prepare more work for us to do, if we finish our assignments in class before the allotted time.”
Even so, Marquis still doesn’t like the idea of having the same teachers for four years, since some are not as able as others. “Every once in a while they may let you cross over into another school,” he says. “Some of the students in Med-Tech didn’t have a math teacher and had to cross over to our Journalism School to get one. This year, I wanted music, but they wouldn’t let me cross over into the School of Performing Arts.”
On the plus side, says Van, the minischools give students a preview of various occupations, prompting them to ask: “Do I really want to go into health care, journalism, business, etc.?”
And since students enroll in the schools that interest them, top and bottom students are able to come together, an aspect that Marquis likes. (Typically in high schools, students are assigned to classes by achievement level.)
At DuSable, however, classes are bottom heavy: 61 percent of 161 seniors, 60 percent of 206 juniors, 71 percent of 447 sophomores, and 75 percent of 676 freshmen failed one or more classes during the first 10 weeks of the current school year.
These glaring statistics support complaints from Marquis, Van and Tiffany that only a handful of DuSable students really work hard on their studies. “Some simply aren’t cooperating with the teachers or are unwilling to learn,” says Marquis. “Others can’t find babysitters, or don’t have proper clothes to wear, or have some other excuse.”
The high-performers attribute their own academic success to a life-long thirst for knowledge, encouragement from parents and friends, and hard work. “If I don’t excel, then not only will I let myself down,” Van concludes. “I’ll be letting down all of those people out there that look at me and say: ‘He’s going to be somebody.'”