May 27, 1998
Ten years ago, nervous neighbors crossed the street to avoid
Sable High School, where, in 1987, a student was shot to death inside the
Now, people cross the street to enjoy the school's gardens,
flowers and vegetables, and to marvel at the peacocks, pheasants and
the courtyard atrium.
Down the hall, in teacher Emil Hamberlin's biology class, you'll
animals -- boa constrictors, pythons, a pot-bellied pig, an alligator,
and even a badger. When Dr. Hamberlin, who's taught at Du Sable for 35 years,
notices that students are having trouble getting to school, he assigns
"We see a dramatic improvement in attendance when we give the students
responsibility," he explains. One ninth-grader, Charles Armstrong, loves
feeding the animals -- the peacocks are his favorite. He's going to work with
Dr. Hamberlin this summer and plans to major in biology in college.
Now, the school wants to renovate the atrium as a memorial to
in the neighborhood. Last November, Du Sable's Gospel Choir members joined
their suburban counterparts at the top-ranked New Trier High School for a
fund-raising concert at Chicago's Orchestra Hall.
Du Sable was once one of the jewels of the Chicago school system
unlike New Trier -- boasting famous alumni including former Mayor Harold
Washington and Nat "King" Cole. But when Principal Charles Mingo arrived in
1988, the outlook was bleak.
It wasn't unusual to find more students hanging out in the
hallways than in
class, and on any given day, only about 65 percent showed up at all. Mingo
himself bought alarm clocks for some students, went to their homes and
on doors to roust them out of bed. Nonetheless, he says, attendance is still
his biggest problem.
Mingo also rid the halls of graffiti and declared Du Sable
"neutral turf" in
the gang wars that rage outside the door. He banned hats, coats, radios and
sunglasses inside the building. He has to be strict, he explains, because
dealing with "kids who've grown up without a whole lot of order." Eighty
percent of Du Sable students live in the Robert Taylor Homes, one of the
nation's three poorest communities.
It wasn't just the kids, though, who were underachieving. Some teachers,
disheartened and uninspired, didn't issue books, claiming students would lose
them. And many locked up classroom computers so that students couldn't use
them. One teacher explained, "I don't want kids to steal them." Now, Du Sable
prides itself on being the first public school in Chicago to be wired for
Despite the restoration of order, Du Sable's reading test scores
far behind national norms, so Mingo and his staff set out to create a
"Culture of Reading."
Teachers volunteer in after-school and summer reading programs. Everyone
learns a new vocabulary word each day -- it's not unusual to be quizzed
security guard on the "word of the day." And the daily curriculum now
a 30-minute reading class -- almost unheard of in high school.
Meanwhile, in 1995, the entire Chicago system undertook a major reform
initiative. Mayor Richard M. Daley took control of the schools, imposing
strict new standards and accountability. Schools that didn't perform on
national tests were placed on probation, and the worst schools were
"reconstituted" -- teachers and principals had to resign and reapply for
Two years ago, in a devastating blow for a community that was
trying so hard,
Du Sable was reconstituted. Mingo held onto his job, but many teachers did
not. He looks back now and calls the move a "blessing."
The school board assigned a new associate principal, Katherine Owens-Smith,
to deal solely with academics. She marvels at the way the school -- "everyone
from the engineering staff to the cafeteria workers" -- pulled together. And,
now, their hard work is beginning to pay off.
Last year, only 4.9 percent of Du Sable students met national
reading. On the latest test, the number climbed to 12.4 percent -- not enough
to take the school off probation but demonstrating they're moving in the
direction, although they still have a long way to go.
The Chicago school system's CEO, Paul Vallas, can't talk about Du Sable's
success without taking a moment to boast about the city's other schools. He
notes that every school in the violent State Street Corridor, which includes
Du Sable, and in the area of the infamous Cabrini-Green projects improved
their scores. The four Cabrini-Green elementary schools are even eligible to
come off probation now.
He's right. When we celebrate the success of Du Sable, let's also
congratulate the students, teachers, staff, parents and neighbors who are
working every day in schools all over Chicago to create safe havens of
learning for our children. And let's spread the word that even in our
country's toughest neighborhoods, we know how to make our schools work.
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