Sunday, April 29, 2007

Scavenger Hunts

We visited a Youth Development organisation that works in a High School with disadvantaged young adults. It was in south Chicago, ringed by some grim housing projects. Driving through whole areas have been cleared, some buildings remain – abandoned, gutted or still lived in. Then there are a few up-market conversions where young professionals have moved in.

There were 1,000 students in the school grades 9 to 12. The youngest children were educated on a separate floor and the older children were split into five separate sections – Construction, Business, Graphic Design, Culinary Arts and Medical. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this because some children need vocational education, but there seems to be a philosophy in America that certain children are destined to become ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’. What route is there for the academically minded children?

Under ‘No Child Left Behind’ the military are able to come into schools and recruit, three sergeants were based in this school and they had their own drill hall. A disturbing development, what does this have to do with education? It is also the sons and daughters of the poor that are targeted for recruitment, in Michael Moore’s film ‘Fahrenheit 911’ he reveals that only one member of Congress has a child serving in Iraq.

As other schools shut down in the area numbers are rising, 400 in the current 9th Grade. The school is 98% Afro-American and is sited in the North Lawndale area where Martin Luther King lived for a spell during the 1960s when he was highlighting poverty in urban areas. After he was assassinated there was wide scale rioting and troops were sent in.

The Youth Development project tries to help students with college applications, academic support and leadership skills. Most of the funding comes through grants from foundations or business. This is another common thread, fine for funding extra activities but no way to run basic public services. Sponsors choose projects that are ‘sexy’ and often it comes with strings attached. PTAs reinforce this inequality because some High Schools raise millions of dollars.

The project does some really innovative work, they found an abandoned house and involved the students in renovating it, then selling it to local first time buyers. During the summer school they organised a ‘Scavenger Hunt’ where students had to use public transport to navigate around the city, they also made community based films.

Jo was our guide and its interesting when you visit a place the vibes you pick up, he introduced all the staff and they looked happy to be there and wanted to talk. The staff had all written an article about themselves, children, hobbies, favourite TV programmes – we all had a laugh about ‘The Office’, some of them claimed to have worked with American versions of David Brent.

We eventually had to make our excuses and leave, Jo could have talked all day about the project, his enthusiasm was infectious. A really inspiring project, as Jo said, “You can’t just wait for the revolution, you’ve got to do something with the kids now.”

However, the inequity in funding and the racial divide is troubling. There’s a tremendous book called ‘The Shame of the Nation’ by Jonathon Kozol, he quotes an advocate of free enterprise who believes that capitalism works best as a meritocracy, if wealth and privileged become entrenched it is a recipe for stagnation and decline. Examples where advancement depended on nepotism rather than innate brilliance – the ‘hero’ of the Texas Air Reserve and Michael ‘Good Job’ Brown the ex-head of FEMA whose previous experience before Hurricane Katrina was supervising horse show judges in Colorado.


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