50/50 Series: Sarah's Rising at Robeson

December 17, 2008

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Sarah Vance is kind of unusual at her high school. Robeson is a neighborhood school on Chicago's South Side that has one of the worst academic records in the city. Sarah gets As and Bs. Although Robeson is working mightily to improve the quality of education it delivers, change is slow. So Chicago Public Radio's Natalie Moore set out to learn why Sarah is succeeding when failure is often students' default mode.

Sarah Vance is 14 years old. She has 14 body piercings.

SARAH: Six in each ear. That's twelve. She points to her chin. One right here and I got my belly pierced. I used to like to wear them little shirts to show off my stomach because I got a flat stomach.

Sarah changes her hair every couple of weeks. Some days her braids are red like velvet cake; other days she has highlights the shade of a sunset.

Sarah sounds like she's a rebel of sorts, but in class at Robeson, she's not one of the kids giving the teacher trouble.

ambi: classroom

She's the one raising her hand with the answer.

ambi: classroom…Give Sarah your undivided attention

The students in Ms. Payne's English class don't give Sarah their undivided attention as she tries to read a passage. Sidebar chatter is typical in Robeson classrooms.

But Sarah comes to school prepared and doesn't let student disruptions deter her. She's independent and motivated…

SARAH: 'Cuz I want to do well so I can go to college and get my house and make my own money so I won't have to ask people for stuff.

And Sarah has sharp thoughts about what should happen to students like the ones in Ms. Payne's class who treat class time as leisure hour.

SARAH: They should kick them out or the kids shouldn't come to school if they don't want to learn.

Getting parents into school does help, according to University of Chicago sociologist Charles Payne. He says mobilizing parents is a lot easier sometimes than mobilizing teachers. Parents patrolling hallways, playgrounds and lunchrooms could be one of the most cost-effective ways to create a more respectful school culture.

If Sarah ran Robeson, she'd …

SARAH: Start writing more people up or making they parents come up and do some volunteer work 'cuz I know some people don't act like that around their parents. They just think since you they teacher they can run over you.

But Sarah is respectful.

MS. C: She's definitely a leader. People listen to her, I think. She's respected. She knows how to handle herself, which is like 90 percent of the battle here.

Ms. C is Sarah's algebra teacher. Sarah got moved up to honors this semester.

ambi: Teacher doing math

The teacher says Sarah is in the top third among honors students and could definitely go to a four-year college.

MS. C: I wouldn't necessarily call her an overachiever, like if you compare to other students – mostly because of her attitude of 'I'm like going to do this and when I'm done I'm done.' Other students are like. 'Okay I'm done, what next?' But whatever I put in front of her she'll do it.

Sarah got an A in Ms. C's class. Math is her favorite subject.

SARAH: I want to be a doctor, work for health care for children.

She would be the first in her family to go to college. There's no doubt that Sarah's smart, but she lives in a struggling neighborhood, dropouts and drug dealers hang out on the corner. And she attends a struggling high school – where the average ACT score is 14.7 well below the state and even district average.

What Sarah does have going for her is a tight family where music and food aroma waft in the home.

ambi of house

The confines are tight, but in a two-bedroom, one bathroom apartment in Englewood, Sarah lives with mom, granny, a younger brother and two older sisters. The 18-year-old sister has two toddlers who sometimes bug the sisters.

ambi: fussing at nephew

Granny cooks twice a day for the family. When the kids were younger, family night consisted of TV board games like "Wheel-of-Fortune." Cousins and uncles often stop by. On any given night the home smells like chitlins or pot roast or cabbage. The mother works the night shift in a $7 an-hour factory job. Sarah shares a bed with her sister Toni. Like any teen, Sarah would love her own room.

SARAH: I'd never come out of there, that's all I can say. It'd be so lovely.

At first, she thought high school was going to be rough. Sarah's petite frame belies her tough-girl façade.

SARAH: I thought I was going to have to fight.
MOORE: Really, why?
SARAH: Because there were rumors going around that girls – they jump on people and all that.

Quite a dichotomy for a girl who wears a Hannah Montana bookbag and has Sponge Bob plastered on her bedroom walls.

But a real battle facing Sarah is the presence of teen pregnancy – at home and school. Last year 80 girls at Robeson got pregnant. So far this year 56 expectant moms walk the halls. Pregnancy is one of the reasons students quit school. Fourteen percent of babies born in Chicago are from teen moms.

Sarah's oldest sister had two kids while at Robeson but still graduated. Sarah's mother Karen Erwin doesn't want a repeat. She's gotten both younger sisters checked out at the doctor and can breathe a sigh of relief.

KAREN: I ain't worried about them dropping out of school. As long as I'm alive they going to school. I might die today or tomorrow, who's going to take care of ya'll then. Get out there and be independent. I don't ya'll depending on a man.

Sarah's dad Tony Vance lives nearby and is a custodian at Clemente High School. He's seen it all before. This is his reaction to the idea of his daughter dating.

TONY VANCE: No, no, no.

He has a "Cosby Show" philosophy.

VANCE: I don't want them bringing home boys. They can have friends. But as far as them bringing home a boy, get your education first and make boys second. At the same time it's okay to conversate...sort of like the Huxtables.

ambi: sisters laughing

Sarah's sister Toni is probably the closest person in Sarah's life. They have the same eyes, except Toni has a butterfly tattoo over her right eye.

ambi: Granny giving food

Sitting in her room, eating Granny's peppered rice and gravy, Toni confides that Sarah has been seen around school holding a boy's hand at Robeson.

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