Winners of WBEZ’s Student Stories

We asked students to tell us what defined a “high-quality” education. Here’s what they said.

July 22, 2014

In March, Mayor Rahm Emanuel sat down for an interview with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, and in the course of a five minute conversation about school reform, Emanuel used the term “high-quality” 13 times.

The mayor mentioned a few things he considers high-quality: military schools, schools that test kids for admission, and elementary schools focused on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

By coincidence, the same week as that interview, a young man named Troy Boccelli wrote WBEZ with an idea. He thought maybe the wrong people are defining what “high-quality education” is.

“I don’t think you really gauge well enough what’s wrong with a school or what you can change if you don’t asked the students themselves,” Boccelli said.

So WBEZ put out a call for submissions. We asked students to tell us what they think makes a high-quality school.

We heard everything from more diversity to more student voice to bigger hallways and smaller class sizes.

The kids interviewed in this story went to five very different schools. Boccelli, the kid with the question, went to Walter Payton College Prep, a selective enrollment school on the north side. Several go to Hancock College Prep, a neighborhood high school on the South West side.  Two attend other neighborhood schools in the city and one attended a suburban public high school and will be transferring back into a private Waldorf school this fall.

Of all of the responses about high-quality schools, WBEZ picked two to highlight. The first comes from two recent graduates from Chicago Public Schools.

Mahalia Crawford and Rae Bellinger proposed their idea of a perfect school.

Our school was basically the American Dream High School. It would have like more vocational classes and classes we would really need like logical math. I go to a vocational high school, and I see how it benefited people who graduated before me and how it benefited me because I learned stuff and now I can go and get a job that I can help pay for college with.” - Rae Bellinger

Read Bellinger and Crawford’s complete submission

But lots of kids in Greater Chicago don’t go to Chicago Public Schools. We got a few submissions from outside of CPS and one was from a young lady named Olivia Love-Hatlestad.

Olivia went to Da Vinci Waldorf School in Wauconda until her freshman year, when she transferred into Grayslake Central high school. She talked to us about the culture shock….

“I went to this school where the teachers shook our hands every morning and asked us you know how we were and they got to understand who we were as people,” Love-Hatlestad said in an interview with WBEZ. “They could tell if you were sick or if you were faking sick or if you needed help outside of class because they knew you and they actually cared about you. And then I entered public school, where, to know our last names, teachers had to check a roster.”

She talked a lot about giving students individual attention and really focusing on comprehension, rather than memorizing facts, something she thinks public schools focus far too much on.

“I retained, like, zero information, because what’s being given to us are packets and lists of names and dates that we have to memorize,” Love-Hatlestad said. “That’s in one ear and out the other. And sure I can retain it long enough to be assessed on it and since that’s all that matters, that’s fine. That’s been swept under the rug. The actual comprehension is kind of just a byproduct. It’s a bonus, like if you actually get it that’s great, but you don’t really have to.”

Read Olivia’s complete essay

These are just two of the couple dozen responses we got when we put the question about “high-quality” education out to students.

In the interviews WBEZ did with Love-Hatlestad, Crawford and Bellinger, Boccelli asked the other students what they would change about their schools if they could change only one thing. So, I flipped the question on him.

He had two responses. First, he talked about the seminar classes at Payton, which are days when students can choose to do something separate from their regular schedule, everything from tutoring elementary kids in math to Tai Chi to hunting for vinyl records.

“My freshman year, it was pretty much like every week,” Boccelli said. “Then my junior and senior year, they made it every other week. I guess I would change it back. And that sounds like one of those 12-year-old/18-year-old decisions, but I felt like having seminars was really important just because it gave me a break during the week, but I was still learning to a degree.”

But the other thing Boccelli said he would change is that, with all the focus on college at his school, he didn’t get an opportunity to take any vocational classes, like Mahalia and Rae.  

Troy heads to Harvard in less than a month, and is confident he’ll do just fine. But still, he says, it would be nice to see what it’s like to be an electrician or a plumber, and it would be nice if every kid graduated with the ability to fall back on a decent paying job.

Bellinger and Crawford’s submission

Our best school in the world would have:

  • Vocational classes: learn how to do hair, cook, nurse, and housework.
  • A student government
  • Job opportunities at or through school
  • Big Brother and Big Sister
  • Gardens and nice sports fields
  • At least 12 counselors
  • Available to everyone
  • Classes that make sense: logical math,  engaging reading
  • Life planning classes
  • Hands-on learning
  • A healthy environment. (Sometimes we can have salad and sometimes we can eat ribs.)
  • “Giving back” programs, to make it easy for us to do service learning.
  • Instead of calling them field trips lets call them GOAL TRIP.
  • Cultural festivals and make the schools more diverse.
  • Classes where students can learn each others cultures.
  • I want my teachers to be able to have faith in me when they walk outside the classroom or when they test us.

Olivia's Essay

I attended a small private school for ten years, by the name of Water’s Edge Waldorf School. The classes were small, with the same teachers every year. We had a snack time and a lunch time, two recesses, Spanish, German, woodworking, painting, handwork, language arts, hands-on science and practical math. Every morning our teachers shook our hands and asked us how we were. They cared about us, and made the consistent effort to connect with and understand us. We not only learned the (what I now realize is invaluable) skill of engaging in conversation with an adult, but we developed deeply respectful relationships with our teachers. We were inspired to strive for excellence not by the pressure put on a grade, but by the desire to please these mentors to whom we looked up so earnestly. Every day as a child, I’d come home from school, and my father would ask me, “What did you learn today that you didn’t know this morning?” And every day, for ten years, I could tell him something different. I was as eager to relay the information as I was to learn it. I loved school. I loved learning. I didn’t realize how rare a quality that was until I entered a world of total apathy. A world of standardized tests, worksheets, and a mass of people who literally couldn’t care less about any of it. A system of education making teachers obsolete by pushing independent projects, independent reading, and packets to be done (wait for it) independently.

Ask any random public school student what they learned on an average day of school, and they will tell you: nothing. Nothing is being taught in public school. Facts are drilled, not taught, memorized, not learned. Posters on the walls of every classroom scream “BE YOURSELF,” “DIFFERENT IS GOOD,” and yet every student is force-fed the same material in the same dry, loveless way. Where in all these fill-in-the-blank worksheets and assigned textbook readings is there wiggle room for individuality? How can we be ourselves if we’re being drilled in droves to be basically indistinguishable? Millions of colorfully unique children should not be taught in an identical way, let alone expected to perform with equal aptitude. It would seem that the goal is no longer to build a brighter generation, but to breed instead a population of brainwashed, mindless yes-men.

In the best school in the world, creative opportunity is present in every class, so the students can take pride in their work and have the freedom to create something truly uniquely beautiful. There is hands-on study in things like science, as well as relevant, relatable sciences classes. Math is taught not for blind memorization, but for actual comprehension, exercising critical thinking skills. There is outdoor time at least once a day, as well as an additional 15 minute break in the early morning, because not only is it scientifically proven to stimulate neurological function, it just makes good sense! Lectures are delivered with context, opportunity for questions, and by a teacher who in turn asks the students about said topic, so as to ensure that they not only know, but understand  and can discuss it. Teachers make an effort to connect with their students, so as to better understand their weaknesses/strengths. Educators are given the freedom to do just that, unencumbered by the ties of a government-set standard and curriculum. There is study of other cultures in multiple classes, drawing parallels between them.  Religion is not pushed, but multiple religions are studied, so that students may better understand the world as a whole.There are a wide range of subjects, all required, so that each student can  discover his/her passion, and pursue it. No one feels talentless or worthless, because differences are not only celebrated, they are nurtured.

This school is not a pipe dream. It is not some unachievable fantasy. It exists. School has become demonized as this thing we all hate and suffer through because we have to, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We can save the world by putting a stop to the breeding of quietly dispassionate conformists, and allowing humanity to embrace its natural diversity. We can really educate, and raise people who care about what’s happening in the world, and why. If there is to be any real hope for humanity, schools must stop being so concerned with teaching “what,” and remember how to teach “why.”

Becky Vevea is a producer and reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation.