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Teachers cite poverty, not violence as the key issue in schools

by Kelsey Snell
Oct 27, 2009

 Kelsey Snell/MEDILL

State Sen. James Meeks, who represents many South Side neighborhoods, speaks about Illinois needing a new approach to school funding and testing.

 Kelsey Snell/MEDILL

The relationship between poverty and violence is an ongoing concern for many educators in Chicago public schools. For state Sen. James Meeks, the pastor at the Salem Baptist Church of Chicago, the issue is both political and social.

Lockers line the hallways of a South Side school, desks and books fill its classrooms. The school has all the elements that should make it a school like any other – normal.

But the students make this school an outlier. Ninety percent of these students live below the poverty line, nearly 35 percent don't live with their parents, most read more than two grade levels below their class level and violence is just a part of life.

"For our kids, normal life isn't normal," said one teacher at this school, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his job.

His school is like many others in the area. Poverty and gangs are persistent problems in the community, and the students' struggles outside of school bleed into the classroom every day, he said.

Though he says daily life hasn't changed for his students or the faculty, the school is now under a microscope. The beating death of Derrion Albert at a school nearby put a national spotlight on one issue facing Chicago public schools – the violence.

The students have been suddenly drawn from an anonymous life to become elements of a story on TV and in the papers.

"We had a discussion about it in class when they asked why," the teacher said. "They finally came up with [Albert’s death] was on video. It made national news."

Though this teacher and a colleague, who also asked for anonymity, said they're glad to see attention paid to the issues in public schools, they don't have a lot of faith the attention will result in change.

"This is all a big, broad problem that can't be addressed in one article or one piece of legislation," the colleague said. "You can't separate [the violence and problems in schools] from the general environment these students are experiencing every day."

At many of these schools poverty is the real issue, experts say.

Teachers and educational theorists have been struggling with how to address the many underlying issues facing the Chicago public school system for years, said Horace Hall, an education theory professor at DePaul University.

For Hall, the solution to violence in schools begins with focusing on the underlying social issues teachers deal with daily.

"You have a loss of voice, people are taken out of the conversation and not even included or invited to raise real issues," Hall said.

Teachers are taught how to teach, but they aren't trained psychologists or counselors, two roles that most are asked to fill in today's urban schools, Hall said.

"We ask students explicitly and implicitly to leave their needs and concerns at the doors of the schools," Hall said. "That's not happening and that's a completely obsolete way of thinking. Until we are able to incorporate some of those issues into the school, we will continue to see the violence."

Lack of social service support hits close to home for the two teachers at the South Side school. Though their school has more than 800 students, they have only three counselors and one part-time social worker helping students, they said.

"Sometimes I know students will stay at home because they can't wash their clothes," the colleague said. "They have stench so bad that they're embarrassed to come to school, it happens pretty often."

Though he wants to help, he said a teacher's time is a finite resource. In a classroom of 30 students, one student who is angry, or lost, or struggling can distract from completing a lesson and teaching the students who want to learn, he said.

This is precisely the problem, Hall said.

"It's an incredible weight to bear," he said. "A big part of that weight is a time compression chamber that teachers are in. We can't ask them to continue to be all of these things and teach to the test, there simply isn't enough time."

Both Hall and the teacher point to school funding as a major issue that must be reformed before large scale improvements can be seen in schools.

"People have to have a little bit of vision about it," the teacher said. "Instead of paying a little extra money for five years to get him some tutoring or to give him something to do after school, you're paying 20 years to keep him in prison because he got into a gang."

In spite of the problems and the increased attention, he said he has to remember the bigger picture of being a teacher.

"Violence isn't the daily reality," he said. "The daily reality is you teach. You come in and everybody's goofy, somebody is talking too much, you have to calm them down. And then you teach."