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Teachers, also on the front lines of violence, grope for answers

by Bree Tracey
Oct 28, 2009

Imagine your day has just begun as a teacher in Chicago's public schools. You arrive early, ready to start another day. Students file into their seats as the bell rings and you notice one seat is empty.

You think, maybe that student is sick. No… maybe they are late. Or maybe they are just skipping class.

But in the back of your mind, you dread it could be something worse -- one less student in class because of violence.

This is the reality that many teachers in Chicago Public Schools fear every day.

“We have kids that are basically living in war zones,” said Karen Lewis, a teacher at King College Prep High School, 4445 S. Drexel Blvd.

Lewis is the chair of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, or CORE, and leads a group of teachers and community members that analyze Chicago Public Schools policies.

“I think one of the things that are so difficult is that teachers are not understanding what to do,” Lewis said. “I think a lot of us are afraid. We understand what’s going on and why this violence is erupting.”

This erupting violence in schools could stem from a problem with Chicago Public School policies regarding turnaround in schools, Lewis said, a program meant to create a new learning environment by replacing underperforming teachers in underprivileged schools. Under a turnaround, all teachers at the school must reapply for their jobs, and many positions go to teachers who were not at that school.

“If you want to cut down on the violence in schools, put more adults in the schools,” said Michael Brunson, a displaced teacher and member of CORE. Brunson said the Chicago School Board is “taking adults out of the schools and making classes larger and larger.”

“We don’t support the turnaround model,” said Rosemaria Genova, press secretary for the Chicago Teacher’s Union. “You need stability on staff. Sometimes these violent outbreaks are because there is a turnover on top.”

Both Brunson and Genova mentioned the turnaround model of Fenger High School, the school 16-year-old Derrion Albert attended before he became a tragic victim of youth violence.

Describing Fenger as a “dumping ground” for students, Brunson said the school “had a group of teachers that had been there for years and had built up relationship with those students.”

“They cleared everyone out,” Genova said. “You did not have to get rid of all the teachers.”

Of course, not everyone thinks turnaround creates more harm than help. Donald Feinstein, executive director of Teach Chicago Turnarounds, believes people cannot attribute the increase of violence in schools to teachers, saying teachers in turnaround schools feel “safe and supported.”

“The schools need to stop shutting down,” said Lewis. “That has to stop and it needs to stop now.”

Franklin Shuftan, a spokesman for Chicago Public Schools, said four schools were closed for poor performance this school year by the board.

He also provided the school system's safety and security strategy that said over 500 shootings have occurred among Chicago public school students. Eighty percent of shootings occurred outside of school, with African American and Hispanic males at a higher risk of becoming shooting victims.

These statistics become all too real for teachers who work in hostile learning environments.

Genova recalled how a principal at Robeson High School once got an answering machine message that a student had been killed in school.

“This is the kind of stuff that teachers are facing all the time,” she said. “You can’t teach in an environment where you are dealing with violence.”