While many focus on what needs fixing in Chicago Public Schools, Principal P. Joseph Powers from Jones College Preparatory High School looks at what is already helping his students succeed.
Principal Powers talks about schools as a haven.
Katy Fohrman, an elementary school student teacher on the South Side, talks about the role of teachers today.
Scott Chesebro from the Chicago Center for Urban Life and Culture guides teachers through the complicated background of inner-city students and their education.
Related LinksChicago Center for Urban Life & Culture
Security measures at Jones High School
Students wear I.D. badges at all times. Upon entering the school, they swipe their I.D.s through an electronic scanning device. All doors save the main entrance door are locked at all times.
Two uniformed CPD officers provide a police presence throughout the school day.
One measure occasionally draws complaints from parents: A random computer sequencing picks out students who must pass through metal detectors.
“I think it’s reasonable,” Principal Powers said. “All it takes is one person who’s had a bad day to do something stupid,” he tells parents.
Powers said that in past years, he’s seen students bring guns, knives, brass knuckles and mace to schools, underlining that these schools did not have metal detectors.
“Here, we just do it as a matter of course,” Powers said. “And we’ve had no evidence of those things coming into the building.”
The September murder of Derrion Albert put school violence on the front pages of the news and brought such heavy-hitters as the U.S. secretary of education to a much-publicized press conference in Chicago amid cries for action. But at a downtown Chicago public high school, Principal P. Joseph Powers said in his 37 years as a school principal, this past year was the first without a fight.
“School should be a safe haven,” Powers said. And at William Jones College Preparatory High School, that haven appears to be a reality.
Jones, in Chicago’s South Loop, has a highly competitive selective enrollment and 840 students. It’s different from other Chicago public schools in that it has no clear majority race or ethnicity.
The school uses both physical and psychological security measures to protect students. Electronic I.D badges, a uniformed police presence, metal detectors, a controlled building entrance and locked doors physically protect students.
The real key to security, however, moves into a mental atmosphere of safety, Powers said. And that combination of physical and mental safety contributes to a school where academics can soar.
Jones students, he said, have a 100-percent college acceptance rate. “The only reason for not matriculating to college would be financial,” he said. According to the mayor’s office, just more than half of all CPS students were accepted to college last year.
Building relationships, building safety
Powers said that building relationships with and among students contributes to the feeling of emotional safety.“Relationship building is more than just exhorting people at assemblies. It’s the day-to-day contacts that the teachers and kids have,” Powers said. “No student should feel completely left out.”
Violence can be as simple as a verbal assault, such as taunting a student for an incorrect answer in class, Powers said. But at Jones, students know that they can speak up in class and make a contribution. They know that they won’t be derided for incorrect answers, he said.
No school is invulnerable to the threat of violence – including Jones. “Anytime you put two or more teenagers together,” Powers said, “things can happen that you didn’t plan to happen because of their state of development and judgment.”
Powers said the few confrontations that did occur in the past year quickly dissipated through staff and student intervention. Instead of flocking to see the fight, or the fight they think might happen, Jones students are more likely to go tell someone, he said.
“By and large the kids do not want that kind of thing happening within the school,” Powers said.
Jones students come from all over the city – from the northwest to the southeast, Powers said. Since many arrive at Jones not knowing anyone, a five-week incoming freshman summer program helps new students meet each other, the school, faculty and staff. Retreats throughout the year help reinforce these relationships, Powers said.
“Whatever is going on outside in the world and in the communities and neighborhoods shouldn’t make it into the schools,” Powers said. “And I do think kids want that. When they get a chance where it is that way, I’ve seen some pretty tough characters conduct themselves pretty reasonably and pretty maturely because they didn’t want to mess that haven up.”
Changing role of teaching
A South Side elementary school student teacher shares the idea that instructor-student relationships are critical in the overall security of a school. Katy Fohrman, who teaches 7th and 8th grade social studies, said one of her students has been shifted around among guardians, with one parent recently released from jail and the other one simply absent. This student has been “really off” lately, Fohrman said, and doesn’t want to participate in school.
“With certain students you can give them a hard time and get them going,” she said. “With this one, we know we can’t. We try to talk to him privately.”
Her school, which accepts students city-wide through a random lottery, has some of the same safety measures as Jones: security guard and locked doors, minus the metal detectors. All students wear uniforms, adding an additional level of security. No gang colors are allowed.
Fohrman teaches through the Chicago Center for Urban Life and Culture, which works with colleges to place student teachers in urban schools.
The center’s director, Scott Chesebro, said teachers might feel helpless in the face of the deep-rooted problems of the city and its youth, “because there’s only so much a teacher can do.”
And whether or not teachers are trained with the skills a social worker would have, Chesebro said, students’ problems spill into the classrooms. In such cases, schools and teachers should, at the very least, acknowledge that such things have happened – and give students a chance to express their feelings.
Fohrman said that the role of teacher has expanded beyond simply teaching content.
“Teachers see their students more than parents might see them,” she said, despite the fact that many of her students’ parents are involved.
“There’s a lot of things that get brought into school that don’t necessarily happen at school,” she said.
Fohrman said that one of her fellow teachers, who has taught for more than a decade, told her recently, “You are more than just a teacher to them – you’re molding people who will become adults.”
And while Fohrman is brand new to teaching – she’s spent just two months in this position – she already sees that “it’s not always teaching them about science and social studies and math – this could be a lot more about creating well-rounded people.”