Can schools make the American dream real for poor kids?
That’s the question Chicago Public Media asks in its multimedia story, “The View From Room 205.”
“The little kids I’m going to tell you about are fourth graders,” reporter Linda Lutton says in the audio section. “They go to William Penn Elementary on Chicago’s West Side.”
On the first day of school, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, head of Chicago Public Schools at the time, tells the students, “There’s no dream you can’t achieve, if you stay focused and persistent.”
It’s this phrase, “focused and persistent,” that the story confronts by asking whether children and public schools can overcome the challenges of poverty on their own.
Here are excerpts from Room 205’s story:
“I want to paint a picture of the neighborhood just outside Room 205, where these 30 fourth graders live,” Lutton writes in the print version of the story. “Imagine TV footage you’ve seen of Detroit or Baltimore, or the worst parts of New Orleans a few years after Hurricane Katrina.”
“Sometimes it feels like there just isn’t enough food in Lawndale. There’s been an increase in people living on $2 a day or less in this country — and Lawndale is one of the places they live.”
“‘I remember everything. My Uncle Ken got shot when I was five,’ Chelsee says. ‘I had another cousin named Will, I grew up with him. He helped my Mama take care of me when my Daddy was in jail. He had got shot in the head three times and Caprice got shot two times.’”
“Jamariya loves those illustrated encyclopedias and anything electronic. His current obsession is an obscure video game called Mugen. When I meet Jamariya’s mom, she tells me she’s sure he’ll be a video designer when he grows up, maybe a software engineer.”
“In the spring, when Principal Ollie goes to a performance management session with district officials, they pick apart every thing that can possibly be measured at Penn — test scores, attendance rates — all down to the tenth of a percentage point.
“When she gets back, she shares a torrent of frustration with her assistant principal.
“‘They don’t understand what we deal with,’ Dr. Ollie says. ‘I mean, 100 percent attendance would be perfect — if we had perfect families. You know? But we don’t.’
“‘Nobody cares about circumstances but us. They just want us, you know, “You gotta get this. Make it happen.” So we just keep spinning our wheels trying to figure out how to make it happen. How do we do it?’”
At City Connects, we’ve seen the effects of pervasive poverty. A high proportion of the schools we’re in have been designated “turnaround” schools because they have been unable to improve students’ test scores.
City Connects doesn’t help by building housing or eliminating poverty. But in every City Connects school, our site coordinators set up a proven system that identifies children’s needs and connects children to appropriate services and opportunities. The site coordinators match each child to a tailored set of existing resources in the school and the surrounding community.
Our results show that students in high-poverty schools — like Chicago’s William Penn Elementary –- can indeed learn at high levels if we both clear away some of the obstacles poverty creates, and if we connect students to opportunities that help them to develop relationships, skills, confidence, and resilience in the face of challenges.
What we’ve learned is that children and schools cannot do this work alone. To be focused, persistent, and successful, children need systematic connections to school and community services that help them thrive.