Narrated by Bridget Newsham
BRIDGET NEWSHAM: Things began to change by the mid to late ‘80s, both locally and nationwide. The gap in income inequality grew wider. The disruption in communities like Englewood caused by the war on drugs intensified. It was an overall deteriorating landscape that would lead to radical changes within Robeson and throughout Chicago’s public education system. Just imagine it’s the first day of your freshman year at the still relatively new Robeson High School. You’re one of about 400 incoming freshman students. But come graduation day, 160 of them will not cross the commencement stage.
In 1986, Robeson’s dropout rate was 10 percent, just slightly less than the city’s public school average. That might not sound too bad, 1 in 10. But it means that between freshman orientation and senior graduation, almost half of Robeson students had dropped out. And of the students that were staying in school, some graduated, only to find college too overwhelming. A Tribune article from 1988 featured students from Robeson and other South Side high schools coming back early from college with, quote, “a dropout slip instead of a diploma."
Robeson’s principal Dr. Simmons told the reporter about some of her students, like one who ended up dropping out of West Point to enlisted in the army, and a pre-med student who couldn't finish at Xavier University. And of the students that were staying in school, some graduated, only to find college too overwhelming. A Tribune article from 1988 featured students from Robeson and other South Side high schools coming back early from college with, quote, “a dropout slip instead of a diploma." Robeson’s principal Dr. Simmons told the reporter about some of her students, like one who ended up dropping out of West Point to enlisted in the army, and a pre-med student who couldn't finish at Xavier University.
Two decades later, Robeson’s “high-achieving” students would encounter the same problem. In a 2009 piece for WBEZ, reporter Natalie Moore found that Robeson students were coming in at lower levels, forcing them to play catch up.
(ARCHIVE RECORDING, WBEZ: MOORE: Robeson senior counselor Bonnie Miah admits the school's curriculum is not college ready. MIAH: And they get to college and it's like a deer in a headlight.)
NEWSHAM: Reports and articles from the mid-80s pointed to the fact that academically, Robeson students were literally failing. During the 1985 to 1986 school year, half of Robeson students were failing 2 or more classes. This mass of data and analysis led U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett to say in the fall of 1987, “Chicago schools are the worst in the nation. You’ve got close to an educational meltdown here.”
NEWSHAM: Tina Jackson graduated from Robeson High School in 1987. She experienced a meltdown:
(ambience of school cafeteria)
TINA JACKSON: It was a food fight through the entire lunch room and all the students would be throwing trays across the lunch room tables. The food was everywhere.
NEWSHAM: Yes—her meltdown took to the form of food fights.
JACKSON: We would all be sitting down eating lunch and one of the guys who would get into it with another guy and so what they do was proceeded to say to get us ready, they will say: what? What, what, what and all the cheerleaders know to get under the table because of trays was going to get it ready to start flying a few minutes. The snow fights were, oh they were the worst. so when it snowed, like really heavy, the girls were afraid to come to school because the guys, when you come walking up to the corridor of the school, the foyer of the school, there was a whole lot of snow piled on in the middle where the grass area normally will be. So the guys would dump all the girls in the snow right there. It was no way around it ever. You could never go into a side door because the way Robeson is made everybody had to the walk down and middle it was literally like a movie star rolled out the red carpet. You had to walk down this long walkway with everybody can see you.
NEWSHAM: Sounds like high school shenanigans, right? But, did they make for the best learning environment?
JACKSON: The small shenanigans to the side. The learning environment was very um, strict. I learned a lot. I was an A student. Um, they have very good instrctors. I had to actually Ms Dace geometry and Ms Richards, English, senior English class, the best ever. I still have her books that she let us have at the end of the day to this day because she was such an awesome teacher. It was mainly the grammatical with the English, and I was able to go on to college and just finish 10 page term paper just from the information she taught me in that English class.
NEWSHAM: Regardless, the high dropout rate, high failing rate, and low ACT scores were part of what motivated Chicago to work to improve its public education system.
The decided solution? It was called the Chicago School Reform Act. Passed in 1988, it was once described as“the most radical experiment in the history of public education.” The idea was to take power from the bureaucracy of the central school district and transfer it to individuals who were locally invested in schools, like teachers, parents, students, and staff. They would decide on matters like hiring and firing, school budgeting, and curriculum building. This plan was CPS’ form of “site-based management.” The group would consist of 6 parents, 2 community members, 2 teachers, 1 non-teacher staff, and the school’s principal. Local school councils were born.
[music fade out]
In an article from 1992, Principal Simmons described the change in the school climate with the implementation of these school councils. There were nine—as she called them, design teams—that focused on aspects like professional development and staff selection. Specified training sessions even occurred among teachers, too.
But how did that influence the educational landscape for students? Were learning outcomes improved?
DWAYNE BOOKER: Sit Down Johnny, stop playing Johnny, don't throw this, Johnny, stop doing that.
NEWSHAM: Dwayne Booker started attending Robeson in 1990. He remembers very few positive learning experiences, with teachers who couldn’t handle disruptive students in the classroom.
BOOKER: It was really hard for them to teach because their principal, 9/10 didn't want to throw this person out the classroom because he felt like that person needs to learn to, but the masses had to suffer because of one or two apples.
NEWSHAM: What’s happening inside a classroom is only a part of the picture. 17-year-old Gregory Archibald was a model Robeson student. He played football, was on the bowling team, and ran track, while maintaining a B average. He had hopes of attending college and majoring in Business. Gregory’s friends said he was "one of the good kids.” The teenager stayed out of trouble and even penned an essay entitled “Gangs’ Arrival in Our Community,” where he described the negative effects gangs have on young people like him.
Only weeks into his senior year, Gregory was shot near his home in the doorway of a sandwich shop near 70th and Parnell. He was the third Robeson football player to be killed in the previous year.
FAB COLLINS: As a coach, you lose a player, know it's really it's really hard because, you know, you really losing your own one of your child.” ]
NEWSHAM: Fab doesn’t remember Gregory Archibald’s death specifically. But over the years, he remembers the pain of losing players, members of his Robeson family.
COLLINS: Because he with you more than he with his family, you know, and you just, you grabbed him relationship, that feeling for each other and it's hard.
NEWSHAM: In a 1991 Chicago Tribune article reporting on the death of Gregory Archibald, Principal Simmons said, quote: “we have to save some of our other men from his fate. The streets are taking them away, and we can’t afford to lose them like this.” Dwayne remembers gang wars on Fridays that would mean running to catch the bus.
BOOKER: Friday we'd run to the bus stop to try to get on a bus to get out because we were so bad. The bus driver would never stop at umm I believe 69th and Normal. he would just wait halfway down the block and until the light turned green and just pass by the bus stop. So we have, on Friday, We have to run down to I think by Stewart to catch the bus to get out because we were so, so rugged and bad The bus driver wouldn't even Stop because he ain't want to be bothered.” [...] believe one day we was leaving school, somebody came on the bus with a gun and whatnot. you know, they didn't shoot anything. They flashed a gun, everybody got low.”]
NEWSHAM: For Dwayne, Robeson was learning about learning survival skills.
BOOKER: You didn't really learn too much, uh, educational skills. But survival skills, what I learned from Robeson carried over to my grown up years.”]
NEWSHAM: The challenges Booker and other Robeson High School students encountered garnered the nationwide attention of the New York Times. Titled “Lessons in Survival,” the article is a profile of the 1994 senior class, Booker’s class, where only one third made it to graduation. Along with the seemingly shocking statistic, acclaimed author Isabel Wilkerson detailed her observation of the 1994 graduating class, writing, “The class does not look like it did freshman year before some girls had babies and some boys started selling crack and the shootings began to take their toll in the Englewood section of Chicago.” Dwayne didn’t remember a journalist hanging around his senior year. But when I showed Booker that quote from the article...
BOOKER: (LAUGHS) So it's sort of disheartening because we're not all about this. We have some bad apples like any other areas, but we had engineers there. I'm a engineer that came out of this area. So just because we had a few bad apples doesn't really tell you the whole story.
BOOKER: So one Good occasion that happened at Robeson my senior year where I believe they had somebody that come speak to the senior class and I was telling the guy I was wanting to go to trade school to become an electrician and he talked me into. He was like don't be the um, don't become electricians, electrical engineer, but you don't want to design circuits. And that advice I took with me and that helped me out and I became an electrical engineer because of that particular person Advice to me.”]
NEWSHAM: It’s kind of odd that a speaker invited by the school his senior year sent Dwayne down an engineering path because, other than that advice, Robeson didn’t prepare him for his degree.
BOOKER: Robeson where I never took um, Trigonometry at Robeson. Never took Calculus one.
NEWHSAM: But if anything, Dwayne believes that just shows how formidable Englewood students are.
BOOKER: I could have just said, "you know what, I come from Robeson. I can't compete. I'm just going to get me a soc iology degree, or something, or business." No, I went uh, I went to the, uh, hopefully I'm pronouncing this right: [inaudible] law and chose one the toughest majors I could find to the show the world, or to sho— right, to show the world what Englewood was about. That we're not quitters, we're not losers. We can compete. We just need just a itty bitty chance or a opportunity, a speck of sunlight—not much, because I didn't get that much sunlight. Just a speck of sunlight just to say, "you can do it no matter what. You can do it. You can achieve if you dream it, you can achieve it.
ERISA APANTAKU: I think that that's the. I think that's what CPS or the city is saying that this new school is going to be. It's that, you know, it's that ray of sunlight that's hoping to uplift the community. DWAYNE: “No, it's not, it's just a building. It's a shiny thing. People mesmerize by new things. It's just like a—when you buy a new car. People are mesmerized by that new car smell and the shine on it, that's it. [...] They not saying nothing about the faculties, what type of teacher is going to be there. That's the bread and butter. The school not going gonna do anything. You can get some great teachers and put them in a shack and those students can do great things. You can get a great building and have crappy teachers and you produce crappy kids.”]
BOOKER: You know, the kids that went to Robeson, we still had the ability to learn, but the teachers didn't really know how to reach us.
[musical transition, somber, reflective]
NEWSHAM: The Chicago School Reform Act had failed. Six years after it began CPS had to restructure. Local school councils remained, but power shifted back to a district level with the introduction of a five-member board of trustees and the first ever CPS CEO Paul Vallas, appointed by then-mayor RIchard M. Daley. The “radical experiment” had failed. But the experimentation was far from over.