To find out why students flee some high schools and flock to others, Catalyst Associate Editor Elizabeth Duffrin and intern Catrin Einhorn interviewed 50 parents and teenagers in Roseland and Auburn Gresham, communities where only about 25 percent of teenagers attend neighborhood high schools, Harlan and Calumet.
Safety concerns topped the list. Parents and students perceived these schools as gang-infested and dangerous. “You don’t know outright what happened, but people talk. You hear about shootings, fighting,” says parent Rhonda Woods, a postal worker from Roseland.
“People told me about Calumet. They said it was rough,” says Revo Harris, an 8th-grader at Oglesby elementary school in Auburn-Gresham.
Few of those interviewed had ever visited their neighborhood high school. Most relied on the word of friends or neighbors, including former Harlan or Calumet students. Some even harkened back to their own high school days.
Jacqueline Davis of Roseland graduated from Corliss high school in 1985 but recalls “a lot of kids who went to Harlan that liked to fight.” She steered her 9th-grade daughter elsewhere.
Parents also formed impressions of Calumet and Harlan students through everyday encounters. “One time I got on a bus with the Harlan kids, and I didn’t like the atmosphere. The language, the loudness,” complains Alyca Evans, mother of a 9th-grader at Chicago Vocational High School.
“They’re loud, they curse, they smoke reefer on the bus,” says parent Montoya Morgan of the kids from Calumet. She wouldn’t send her son there, not even if the school added Advanced Placement classes, she says. “The kids are horrible.”
Some parents thought, based on second-hand impressions, that schools could do a better job keeping students under control. Many felt, however, that there was nothing the schools could do that would change their minds. They simply did not want their children to associate with “bad kids.”
“You can have a good student go to a gang-ridden environment and drop out,” explains Ulysses Slaughter, a retired Chicago high school teacher who lives near Harlan and plans to send his 8th-grade daughter elsewhere. “There are certain environments where, if you strive to do well, you’re considered a nerd.”
Peer pressure concerns students as well. “You get into a lot of trouble with people that has some bad behavior,” says Cierra Moore, an 8th-grader at Bennett elementary in Roseland. She plans to steer clear of Harlan as well.
Lack of career programs
About 30 percent of students who leave Harlan and Calumet’s attendance areas enroll in selective vocational schools. Simeon and Chicago Vocational schools, located nearby, draw the most students. These schools require grade-level standardized test scores and offer a wider array of popular vocational programs than either neighborhood high school does.
Students cite interest in areas such as cosmetology, drafting and plumbing as reasons for wanting to attend a vocational school.
Some parents are eager for their children to learn job skills. “I don=t like the idea that they could come out after four years with no kind of trade because everybody don’t go to college,” says parent Denise Harris, who sent two sons to Chicago Vocational (CVS) and is considering it for a third.
Beyond the trades, some high schools boast pre-professional programs in law, medicine or computers. Two years ago, Loretta McDavid helped her daughter, an aspiring lawyer, select Hirsch High School’s Law Academy over Calumet’s. Hirsh held an open house for interested students; Calumet’s program was just starting. “There wasn’t much they could tell me.”
Although Calumet recently added vocational magnet programs in areas such as communications, construction, health and law, few parents or students seemed aware of these opportunities, which are still less extensive than those at the established vocational schools. Harlan has only two vocational programs, in carpentry and computers. Both schools have a junior ROTC.
Kids and parents become interested in career programs that they hear about from friends and neighbors. Eighth-grader Brittany Anderson knows highs school girls in Auburn-Gresham who study cosmetology. She won’t apply to Calumet. “It doesn’t have what I want to be: a cosmetologist.”
Students also get information from high school counselors who visit their elementary schools and from attending high school open houses. Eighth-graders were most interested in hearing from high school students, who often speak at these events.
Therdorra Mitchell, an 8th-grader at Oglesby elementary, plans to quiz business and cosmetology students to help her decide between Simeon and Chicago Vocational. She wants to know how many students successfully complete those programs and if they are able to land jobs. “I was going to go by the school that gives you better information.”
Students typically seek information on schools that interest them already, placing Harlan and Calumet at a further disadvantage. “Somebody from Harlan came to speak to our school, but I wasn=t down there because I had already made my choice,” says Ashenia Spain, now a 9th-grader at Chicago Vocational.
Bad academic Reputation
Having open enrollment is often enough to weaken a high school’s reputation.
“If you apply to that school [Calumet], they automatically accept you,” explains Andrea Thomas, an 8th-grader at Gresham. “You want a school that has high standards-not them low standards.”
Classmate Shanna Towns agrees that since low-achievers can get in, “That means it’s not for people that can work at a real fast pace.”
Sometimes teachers and counselors steer higher achievers toward more selective schools. Parent Elvena Williams favored Calumet because it was closer, but counselors at her daughter’s elementary school touted Morgan Park, which has selective magnet programs. “Morgan Park just has a better reputation,” Williams explains.
Reputation and an accelerated curriculum are both important to high-achieving students and their parents. “I’m looking for a challenge, for a well-known challenge, so I can get myself into a good college,” explains Shetara Warrior, an 8th-grader at Bennett elementary who intends to bypass Harlan.
Some students say they avoid Harlan and Calumet because of what they hear about the teaching. “They never break it down and explain so you can do it,” 8th-grader Therdorra Mitchell heard from neighbors graduating last year from Calumet.
One mother witnessed poor teaching herself. Frankie Harrison of Roseland says she visited Harlan some time ago and found her teenage son hiding out in the library. After dragging him back to honors Algebra, she stayed to watch. The teacher “put some work on the board and told them to do it without explaining it.” Disgusted, she transferred her son to Simeon.
Harlan and Calumet students respond
Harlan and Calumet students who spoke with Catalyst say they had heard the rumors before they enrolled; almost none of them wanted to come. But their schools are not what people think, they insist.
For one, discipline and teaching are both improving. “They have a lot of new teachers and a lot of new rules,” reports Felicia Walker, a freshman at Harlan.
Roger Conner, a Calumet freshman, says his older brothers and sisters said Calumet was nothing but gangs and bad teachers. “Back then, the teachers didn’t care,” he says. “Now they care about your grades—do you have a problem at home?”
New magnet programs are helping to combat the school’s negative image, they believe.
When junior Anthony Ellis hears someone call Harlan “one of the dumbest schools in Chicago,” he tells them about the accelerated classes in the school’s new Math, Science and Technology Academy. “I’ll show them my report card.”
At Calumet, students speak enthusiastically about their new career programs. Senior Ashley Bonds is training to be a medical assistant and is volunteering at a local hospital. “I thought it was a bad school; that’s why I didn’t want to come. But they have good programs. That’s why I want to stay.”
Many elementary school staff also think that Calumet and Harlan are suffering from outdated reputations. At Calumet, the programs have really improved, says Karon Purkett, assistant principal of Gresham elementary. “But you have to convince the kids of it.”