Wednesday, April 25, 2007

White Flight

Chicago has over 600 schools, with over 400,000 pupils. If it was a hospital patient it would have been in intensive care if not a coma for years. The drop out rate in High School hovers around 50%.

Charter Schools have been an attempt to break the cycle of failure. I visited a small High School with 350 girls chosen by lottery from all over Chicago. There was a ratio of 1 teacher to every 10 pupils. Sadly when they talk about "diversity" in America it means there are very few, if any, white students, this school was only 7% white, 88% of pupils were on free or reduced price dinners.

The school got about $8,000 per pupil from the state and raised $1.3 million in private funding so that figure averaged $12,000. We were shown around by two charming, intelligent girls that would have been a credit to any school in the world, they answered questions with ease, poise and confidence. The school was run by a dynamic young Director.

Next stop was the Chicago Teachers' Union, they have 35,000 members (including teaching assistants), dues for teachers are $800 a year and they have 65 full time workers.

In 2005 to try and break the cycle of failure they adopted ten schools that had low test scores under a programme called 'Fresh Start'. Staff had to vote by an 85% majority to come into the scheme. Two of the schools have subsequently closed and the rest will stay in until 2010. The Chicago School Board put in extra funding and businesses have donated money. The property tax system is very regressive, in Chicago pupils in the public system recieve around $5,500, in the wealthiest suburbs it can reach $17,000. Four schools have come off the 'notice to improve' list under 'No Child Left Behind'.

The 'Fresh Start' scheme is based on 'Success For All' which is a very prescriptive system of lessons with 90 minutes of literacy and an hour of maths. Children are tested every eight weeks.

The Chicago school syatem is chronically underfunded, there is gross inequity between the inner city and the suburbs, many children come from extremely poor backgrounds and teachers' pay is very low in a city where property is very expensive (I'm coming to the conclusion that to teach in America you must be mad, desperate or truly dedicated, on the empirical evidence most seem to be the latter).

Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in America, schools are either 97% white or non-white. I raised the issue with the girls from the small High School, they were very gracious, it didn't seem to trouble them they were confident about their own indentities. But how do you build a tolerant, inclusive society under these conditions?


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