Pursuing a 'Culture of Calm' | WBEZ
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Pursuing a 'Culture of Calm'

Youth violence in Chicago has grabbed local and national headlines the past several weeks, following the beating death of 16-year-old Derrion Albert. None of the Chicago Public Schools students killed last year or this year died IN school. But CEO Ron Huberman is spending $30 million in education stimulus funds to tackle youth violence. Part of his plan calls for creating a "culture of calm" inside 38 high schools. WBEZ's Linda Lutton takes a closer look at Huberman's theory that what happens inside schools can change what happens outside.

Ron Huberman says he can walk into any one of the Chicago Public Schools he oversees and size up the school's culture in fewer than 10 minutes.

HUBERMAN: They really fall into two camps. One is disorder.

In those schools, he says, you see trash on the floor. A general lack of respect between adults and kids. Students still wandering through the halls when they should be in class.

HUBERMAN: And then you walk into other schools by the time the bell rings, everyone is sitting in their class ready to study. Kids are not hanging out in the hallways. When a teacher engages a group of students they listen. And so I call that the “culture of calm.”

Huberman wants this culture of calm to take hold in 38 high schools that have had students fall victim to violence. He hopes it'll help learning, but he also thinks the strategy will diffuse conflicts that could spill into the street and cost more kids' lives.

STALLING: So this was a hotspot.

Sean Stalling is standing at the main entrance to Manley Career Academy on the West Side. This school was trying to change its culture long before Huberman started talking about it.

STALLING: One of the biggest fights that I've seen happen, happened right here.

Stalling was principal here for three years. He recently became an area administrator, but he still remembers his first year at Manley:

STALLING: We had probably a fight every day or every other day. And kids don't fight one on one anymore. At the time, CPS was closing nearby high schools, and kids were crossing gang lines to get to Manley. That's an issue that's come up at Fenger High School too in the wake of Derrion Albert's killing.

STALLING: We had a very difficult year. Our first year here the whole thing was to stay off the news: that was really our mantra as an administrative team was just to stay out of the newspaper. I think at the time there was a shooting at CVCA. And I just said, “We can't be that school.”

Stalling replaced staff. He told security guards to quit yelling. The school kicked out troublemakers and added art classes. They cut down on suspensions.

But if you ask Stalling, he'll say the most important thing he did was get kids on his side.

Senior Joe Henigan spent a lot of time fighting during his freshman year. Now he's a school leader—stopping fights.

HENIGAN: Students would rather hear from someone their same age than from someone that's older than them. We're like a smaller version of counselors that help these students get back on track. If they hear from us and they stay around us and they came from the same neighborhood as us and they see how we've grown and got out of that same neighborhood, they're gonna want get on track and do what we're doing right now.

LEFF: When bystanders start intervening to break up a fight as opposed intervening to run to get to it, cheer it on, make sides, and possibly wage a bet, it's a very, very different school culture.

Lila Leff runs the Umoja Student Development Corporation, which is housed inside Manley and supports students and teachers there. It brings in an extra $700,000 a year. Few schools have these kinds of extra resources.

Manley made some real in-roads. Stallings says serious infractions dropped by 75 percent between his first year on the job and his second. But despite improvements, Manley is still among the 38 schools the district says need to improve their culture.

Gang affiliations and family feuds still enter through the front door. Kids still fight. It's like Manley has been able to better the odds against its neighborhood. But it hasn't been able to beat them outright.

LEFF: This work is messy and it's expensive and it's hard. And it is the only thing. It's also messy and expensive hard to bury kids.

Huberman is asking these schools how they plan to get to a culture of calm—and they're submitting wish lists of what they need. So far, CPS says social workers, counselors and security officers have been popular requests.
Melanie Flores is a teacher at Foreman High School on the northwest side, where a fight last year brought out the Chicago Police Department in riot gear.

When Flores and others from Foreman started talking about how to create a culture of calm, they figured they should start with the causes of school violence.

FLORES: Foreclosure of properties. Economic situations around the school. Parents living in different houses every other day because they're homeless.

That's right…she said FORECLOSURES.

Flores is talking about big-picture issues like joblessness that no school system is going to be able to beat, but she sees a direct tie to aggression and violence.

FLORES: If I have to worry about my little brother not eating and me not eating, Yeah. I'm a little aggravated. I'm a little annoyed, and maybe you talk to me wrong the wrong day, and I might snap.

Huberman admits that not everything is in a school's control—but he says the adults in the building NEED to set the culture.

HUBERMAN: Adults engaging kids in a respectful tone is a building block of this.

But in many neighborhood high schools, adults add to a culture of aggression. Security guards holler, teachers curse. Kids get physical and adults do to. 

A year ago this week I was at Robeson High School reporting another story. Robeson is now one of the 38 schools targeted for a culture makeover.

It was October 16, about 3 PM, sunny…Students were leaving school. I was driving out of the parking lot when I saw one of Robeson's assigned police officers grab a boy and slam him against a police car.

The officer raised his arm and hammered the side of the boy's head, smashing it into the car. Another officer held the boy, even though he wasn't putting up a fight. The first officer punched him in the face again.

I stopped my car and scrambled to turn on my tape recorder…This is all I got—the police sending away the crowd of kids who??d gathered.

POLICE: Get the f*** away now! Get this motherf***** in the back of your car! I headed for a group of kids who saw the beating.

LUTTON: Did you see it?

GIRL: Yes I did. OK. The little boy was walking he looked like he was on his way home. The police just ran up on him, grabbed him from behind, boom boom boom—started punching him all in his face

GIRL2: And then the other police officer… In the past four years, CPS says there have been more than 400 cases of district employees physically abusing students. That includes everything from coaches paddling athletes to kids being hit with staplers. Huberman says he wants to re-train security guards as part of his culture of calm—he's even suggested a security guard academy.

Huberman says one way he'll know how well a school is doing is by how many times the fire alarm gets pulled. Kids looking to brawl will pull a fire alarm when they can….what follows is total chaos.

Back at Manley High School, principal Stalling also measured the school's success in fire alarm pulls.

STALLING: In the first semester of our first year, we had 8 fire alarm pulls.

The next semester there was just one alarm. That's the sort of quick and dramatic change Huberman is looking for. And he hopes it makes a difference—inside the school, and out.

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