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Snapshot of a Small School

A walk down the hallways of one of Chicago's new experimental schools


The red and brown boarded-up buildings across the street almost seem to mock the massive greenhouse that sits in the heart of East and West Garfield Park. Up until last month, 14-year-old Jamara Ormond, like many people in her neighborhood, never set foot inside the Garfield Park Conservatory, though the site that draws thousands of people each year is right near her home.

"This was my first time being here," says Ormond, who now works at the conservatory three afternoons a week as part of an after-school program. "Most of the time I didn't really notice it."

In a section of Chicago where 25 percent of children live in deep poverty according to 2000 U.S. Census figures, few residents stop by the conservatory to view the bounty of colorful plants and flowers. In East and West Garfield Park, worrying about the environment or how to improve the community often takes a back seat to day-to-day survival.

A new high school that opened this fall in the former Lucy Flower Academy on Fulton Street is working to change that. Located across from the conservatory, the Al Raby School for Community and Environment focuses on environmental and social issues of East and West Garfield Park. Named after well-known civil rights leader and environmentalist Al Raby who died in 1988, the school was opened as part of Renaissance 2010, a plan by Mayor Richard Daley to create 100 new schools in the next six years. Lucy Flower Academy closed last year because of under-enrollment.

Ormond, a petite girl with aspirations of becoming a lawyer, is among 127 freshmen attending Al Raby, the school's first and only class this year. With small classes, the curriculum is focused on nutrition, as well as community and environmental themes such as lead poisoning, rats, traffic accidents, brown fields, toxic waste and industrial development. A $550,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation helped cover start-up costs such as computers, class materials and training.

Technology also is a major component of Al Raby, with its students being the first in Chicago to have their core curriculum revolve around the Geographical Information System, or GIS, a mapping technique that will teach them how to improve their neighborhood by plotting out on computers where problems exist and how to correct them.

"The purpose of all of this is to have them do something in terms of environmental awareness," says Al Raby lead teacher Nichole Jackson. "We hope it will make them more desirable when they leave the school. They'll have a skill that most people don't have."

Spearheaded nearly five years ago by Stephen Perkins, senior vice president for the Center for Neighborhood Technology, Al Raby was originally intended to exist as a small school at South Shore High School. But South Shore, which already has four small schools focusing on technology, entrepreneurship, leadership and the arts, did not have enough space for Al Raby, Perkins said.

Although the school landed in a different neighborhood, Perkins saw East and West Garfield Park as a place where students could learn how to address many of the same issues that plague Chicago's South Side.

"The essential characteristic about the school is that it's about the community," says Perkins, who also serves as an officer for the Coalition for Improved Education at South Shore High School. "Students will use state of the art community mapping. They'll figure out what they want to change and become change agents in their community."

Several Al Raby staff members came from South Shore High School, including principal Janice Jackson, who worked with Perkins on the concept. Jackson, a 27-year-old woman who previously taught history and economics at South Shore, admits there is a challenge in selling an environmentally centered education to students who face the social woes of East and West Garfield Park.

"If you're worried about eating, you're not going to worry about whether the food is organic," she says. "That's definitely an issue. It's harder to work to save a tree when you could save a life."

But it is a challenge Jackson and the 11 teachers employed at Al Raby are optimistic about undertaking. Eight Al Raby students now work in the Garfield Park Conservatory as part of the After School Matters Program, and four are interning there. Students are also interning at the Bethel

New Life Community Development Center in West Garfield Park, a major partner to the new school. The goal is for 100 percent of Al Raby graduates to attend college, with teachers weaving a heavy emphasis on writing and analytical skills throughout the innovative curriculum.

"We operate from the premise that all of these students will go to college," Jackson says.

And one needs only to walk through the halls at Al Raby to see that is the case. Banners from colleges throughout the state, such as Eastern Illinois University, Southern Illinois University, Western Illinois University and Chicago State University, dangle from the ceilings.

"All of those things will make you an effective college student and a successful college student," says Jackson.

On a Monday morning in October, Al Raby English teacher Lori Birenberg has her class reading an excerpt from Black Boy, an autobiography by Richard Wright set in the early 1900s during segregation in the South.

"If the laws have changed, why is there still prejudice and discrimination?" Birenberg asks the students before they start reading. "What you can't change is what?"

"People," answers 14-year-old Tacara Crump.

Crump, who plans to be a registered nurse after college, already can see the difference in what she's learning at Al Raby compared to some of her peers enrolled at other public schools in the neighborhood.

"There are a lot of people in their school, so they learn less," Crump says. "They really don't know about the community. If I ask them, ?What is the community?' [They say], ?We live in it.' I feel like you should take care of your community, and they're like, ?What for? We just live here.'"

For Birenberg, a long proponent of the small school trend in Chicago, being part of the Al Raby faculty makes this an exciting time to be a teacher.

"So often schools are just big bureaucracies," Birenberg says. "What's great about the small school model is we get to know our kids and everybody wants to be here."

In the afternoon, GIS instructor Yeni Hart is having students use mapping software to determine whether populations in certain countries correlate with the number of phone lines. Later in the week, students will work on an assignment to develop telecommunications systems for China, Brazil, Indonesia and the United States.

"GIS is a tool for ways of looking at the world," Hart says. "When you can see something clearly you can take action. Anytime you can understand how things are mapped out in the world you have a larger sense of orientation and a larger sense of place. That's a really empowering thing."

Students have personalized several of the computers in Hart's classroom, with screen savers boasting celebrities such as Beyonce and 2Pac. While she sometimes has to remind students that some screensavers are a little too racy for school, she understands many of the teens do not have their own computers at home to enjoy.

Hart's main goal in the class is to show her students how looking at the world that exists beyond East and West Garfield Park can teach them to help change their neighborhood.

"A lot of these kids, if you ask them to draw a map of Chicago, will draw their house and maybe two streets," Hart says. "The more you know about the way space is distributed, the more you know about where you are in the world."

As Al Raby students progress in GIS, they will begin to work out solutions to specific problems, Hart says, pointing out that the class could map out vacant lots in East and West Garfield Park and come up with a plan to replace them with community gardens. Another example Hart gives is mapping out crime patterns to determine the safest routes for walking home.

One of Hart's students, Taylor Dean, 14, considers herself lucky to have had her name drawn out from a lottery of about 300 applicants so she could attend Al Raby.

"It's a really nice school," she says as she prepares to head to her next class. "I wouldn't expect a nice school like this in Chicago."

And Dean is especially glad to be at Al Raby when she thinks about some of the other high schools in the city.

"They're bad," she says.

Other students say they already see the benefits of attending a small school.

"You get more attention when you need help," said Stephen Edwards, 15, who wants to be a chef. But even with Al Raby's predicted success and the optimistic visions of its faculty, school reform in Chicago is never without critics. Paul Street, Vice President for Research at the Chicago Urban League, says he supports school reform, but only in conjunction with social reform.

"What we tend to do with urban school reform and Renaissance 2010 is beat up on the schools and beat up on the teachers," Street says. "We tend to blame them and make them responsible for test scores and achievement when factors outside of school are playing a role. I could be the greatest teacher in the world, but those test scores are not going to be too high if the kids are hungry."

Street also fears that new schools opening under Renaissance 2010 are located in neighborhoods slated for gentrification.

"If kids are going to achieve then they're going to [have to] live in fair and balanced and equitable communities," he says.

Janice Jackson insists that opening small schools in neighborhoods like East and West Garfield Park is exactly what it takes to address the social problems students from low-income families face.

"The social conditions are definitely there," she says. "That's why converting larger schools into smaller schools is a good idea. Teachers are able to get to know students so they can deal with the social issues."

She also says the last thing Renaissance 2010 is doing is beating up on teachers, pointing out the faculty driven initiative at Al Raby. Fellow colleagues chose one another to create the staff.

"Teachers are happy here," Jackson says. "They are seen as experts on how to educate students."

And organizations like the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance could not be happier about the relationships they're building with the neighborhood's youth.

"I don't know why it wasn't in place for years," says Thomas Costanza, a horticulture teacher at the conservatory. "It's a really good relationship. I'm happy to be a part of it."

For many Al Raby students though, it is not just the smaller class sizes or the potential opportunities, it is the idea of making history and being a model for future schools in Chicago.

"We'll be the first class to graduate out of Al Raby," says 14-year-old Mark Robateau. "We [chose] the mascot. It was exciting."

Published: December 01, 2004
Issue: Holiday 2004