West Side Stories - Education (2)

Damyra and Kion Tolbert, CPS students


Last week, in our “West Side Churches – Praise the Lord,” Dr. Marshall E. Hatch, pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, and trustee at Chicago State University said: “We were always taught in the Black community that education was one of the main things that no one can ever take away from you.” He believes that education plays a major part in the survival of the Black family, our institutions and the neighborhoods.

The communities of East and West Garfield Park, North Lawndale and Austin encompasses seven zip codes — 60608, 12, 23, 24, 35, 44 and 51 – and represents a total of 158 schools and 7,681 students in grades PK, and K-12. What started out as a single educational system in the mid-1800, has now fractured into a hodge-podge of charter, contract, magnet, military, non-traditional, Option, public neighborhood, special education and selective-enrollment schools.

With this many competing interests posturing for limited resources, sometimes the actual goal of educating the children — who are reportedly majority Black (96%) and majority from low-income families (up to 98%) — falls by the wayside because of partisan politics and government disinvestment.

Early Education Done Right

Before education became a battleground for corporate interests, it was treated as an extension of Black family values that thrived in the 1950s and 1960s creating a breeding ground for Black success, according to West Side educator and activist Prexy Nesbitt.

The early-education historical influencers were mothers and parents who combined their skills to create a curriculum that focused solely on the development of the whole child.

Barbara Bowman

Barbara Bowman – Early education pioneer


Nesbitt grew up witnessing many of these historical influencers living in the community and saw their collaborations firsthand “My godmother, Bernice Brunson, along with my mother, brought early childhood education to public school teachers here in Chicago working with the Erikson Institute,” Nesbitt said.

“The dean of the institute was Barbara Bowman, the mother of Valerie Jarett who works with Obama as a senior adviser.”

Erickson Institute was established in 1966, with its main focus to educate early childhood teachers on understanding more than just children learning their ABCs, but also their emotional and psychological development.

“High-quality early childhood programs are essential,” Bowman told the Defender. “The quality of a program is tied to the academic achievement and social-emotional well-being of a child.”

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Students engaged at Jensen Scholastic Academy


This approach has been used by Erickson Institute programs in East Garfield Park’s Jensen Elementary Scholastic Academy and Dett Elementary School — relocated to the former Victor Herbert Elementary School.

“I love Erikson Institute,” said Carolyn Bryant, Jensen Elementary’s lead Pre-K teacher who said that the institute gave her the techniques she needed to teach all of her students and help them understand learning material. “Seventy-five percent of your students are [usually] going to get it, but how do you reach the other 25 percent?”

Another pioneer in education reform is the late-Marva Collins, who opened the private West Side Preparatory School in 1975, insisting that you can teach a child anything if you hold them to high standards.

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Briana Collins, granddaughter of the late Marva Collins


According to her granddaughter Briana Collins, a TV reporter for WIFR-23 News in Rockford, Ill.: “She [Marva Collins] overheard some teachers at the local public school (Delano) say, “I hate these damn kids.” She promised herself she’d never be like that. Marva would often say kids would come to school with teeth not brushed, hair not combed, faces not washed, and clothes dirty. She realized if they weren’t getting love and attention at home and some weren’t getting it from their teachers, then they would need it from her.

“She not only taught them education, but self-love and self-worth as well. To kids who had often heard, “You’re stupid” or “I hate you,” this was a welcome and unfamiliar situation,” she says.

Many of her students grew up to be teachers, reporters, chemical engineers and lawyers, she states. These were professionals who benefited from an education that taught self-love and family values that built strong communities.

Contrary to this early humane approach, today’s system relies on Common Core curriculum that emphasizes memorization, test scores, rigid standardized concepts and a state-mandated School Quality Rating Policy (SQRP) – or scoring system for schools. The effects have been devastating to education and detrimental to the minds of Black children, forgoing activities that stimulate critical thinking, creativity and sometimes physical exercise.

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Screenshot of McNair’s student achievement by grade levels


For example, in the North Austin ZIP code of 60651, there are 17 schools that service a total of 7,681 students, grades PK-12. Based on SQRP score factors, 5 schools appear to be failing from this approach and have been on the “intensive support” list for at least nine years and the longest – McNair, 4820 W. Walton – has been on the list for 16 years.

“Common Core keeps skills in isolation,” a high school English teacher who asked to not be named said. “The child of today doesn’t understand that each score is built on each other. By the time they get to me in high school, and they don’t know how to explain themselves or their point-of-view. Now, CPS has moved to the SAT, which is all explanation, and because there’s no holistic learning and teaching going on, they don’t know how to explain themselves in a comprehensible way.”

Pride in our High Schools

Black high schools like Crane, Marshall and Westinghouse once were sought out and highly respected. When Nesbitt’s father was a teacher at Crane High School, it was an incubator for black professionals in every industry from accounting to sports.

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The old Westinghouse High School building before it was demolished in 2009


“High school back then was well thought out and taught you intellectual and practical skills,” says James Morgan, a graduate of Westinghouse. Home Economics taught the girls how to sew and cook, Accounting 101 taught you how to balance a checkbook. The guys took auto shop and drafting classes. We were prepared for the real world when we graduated,” he stated. “We knew how to get things done around the home. And what I didn’t know how to do, my neighbor did, this added to the community,” he said.

Dr. William Norwood agrees. He attended Marshall High School from 1960-1964: “It was a unique experience. I took all the accounting and history classes I could. They laid the foundation for my 35 years in education,” he said with enthusiasm.

His education took him and his wife around the world, he continues “I took those lessons that I learned and shared them with students. They were so inquisitive, and it really made a difference in their learning.”

Referencing the influence that educators have on students, the retired CPS principal knows the power of having positive role models in your life. “They need to see examples of folks who’ve been there,” he said. “They need someone to come alongside of them and show them. That will make a difference in keeping them off the streets.”

But his anecdote comes with a caution as he cites falling grades, politics and shifting priorities: “The money is not there and the pressure from the top to the bottom to improve academic achievement is,” Norwood said. “Teachers are stressed out, and selective enrollment, charter schools, and the lack of resources are some of the many forces chipping away at the CPS system.”

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Student at Crane Medical Preparatory High School practicing on a mannequin


Case in point: When Crane High School closed in 2012 because of poor performance, fewer than half of its freshmen were graduating within five years and only five percent of students met or exceeded test standards compared to about 30 percent of all Chicago Public School students. Later, in 2013, it reopened as a 4-year magnet medical prep high school, and not necessarily geared toward the needs of the greater Black community.

At Marshall, educators and parents say recent cuts have had a tremendous effect, hurting those who need resources the most like special education students, in which 33 percent of students had an individualized education plan, according to the Illinois Report Card. Budget slashes are particularly frustrating and negatively affect the students and their attitudes toward learning, says some of the parents. “It worries some of the kids, and you can see it in their attitudes when they’re walking down the streets. This ‘I don’t give a damn attitude.’ The changes in education and the family structure have taken a toll on the children.”

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Marshall High School circa 1910


Jennifer Jones, a physical education teacher, volleyball coach and homebound teacher at Marshall says that for a lot of her students now, the streets are doing the raising. “We’ve got to get these young men out of the streets and in school” she said. “The streets are saturated with young brothers who aren’t using their potential.”

Jones creates a school family for her students who may not have one at home. Celebrating their birthdays and asking about their time outside of school creates a bond. On game days at the school, she brings about 50 dollars to pay for students who may not have it. She’s even bought items that they need for school. She says her students know she’ll always be there.

“I let them know that I care about them, and that in this class, we’re a family,” she said.

In her nine years at Marshall, eight principals have come and gone. However, Jones stayed focused on the students giving them what they don’t get at home. Despite the lack of resources, she’s an advocate for innovative methods like her predecessors of the 1950s, and combines current technology with developmental training to keep her students motivated.

“We’ve got to use the old idea box today,” she’ll say, pointing at her head. Using sports terms to explain life skills like such as “don’t foul out in life,” she incorporates videos and any technology she can into her teaching. Even as pressure on educators mount to fill in the gap between family and school teachings, Jones said, she’s never giving up.

“I haven’t thrown in the towel with educating these kids,” Jones said. “It’s a steep hill, but it’s still one that we can climb over.”

The Switch to Malcolm X

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Herzl Junior College was named after Theodore Herzl prior to being changed to Malcolm X College in 1969


In 1911, Crane Junior College became Chicago’s first city college. It was created for the purpose of serving Crane High School students post-graduation. From 1934 -1969 it was named after Theodore Herzl – a Zionist Jew, according to historians.  In 1969, through the efforts of Black nationalists such as Standish Willis and the Black Student Union that protested and petitioned the board of trustees, they were forced to rename the college to Malcolm X College.

The school, which was known as a center of activity for Black culture and education has reinvented itself as a health care provider of education with partnerships with Rush Hospital, Walgreens and GE. As gentrification continues to spread from the West Loop farther into the heart of the West Side, this icon of Black history is taking on a new role.

City Colleges of Chicago just opened a new 1-million-square-foot facility that focuses on health sector education to prepare students for what it estimates will be 84,000 health care jobs coming to the region over the next 10 years.

City Colleges of Chicago students taking classes in the new Malcolm X College and School of Health Sciences


“With the opening of the new Malcolm X College, we have created a center of excellence in health care education that will offer our students the highest-quality programs, taught by the best faculty, informed by leading employers, and housed in a state-of-the-art facility,” City Colleges of Chicago Chancellor Cheryl Hyman said.

After decades of neglect and growing gang influence, neighborhood schools for some became too much of a gamble to educate their children. JC Bryant and his wife aimed to avoid this with his children. They opted for Catholic schools where they felt their children would receive a safer, more individualized education. Adamant that his kids were going to get a good education, Bryant used his entire retirement to pay for their tuition. “They were going to go to college and they were going to finish, if it was the last breath in my body,” he told the Defender.

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Tommie Smith (m) and John Carlos (r), 1968 US Olympic gold and bronze medal winners displaying the Black power sign


Bryant’s children all graduated with advanced degrees and eventually left the West Side. A lifelong resident, he believes “that no amount of education reform can work to improve the West Side as a whole until crime and gang violence can be tamed and families return to the morals he says helped his generation.”

“Children are coming out of dysfunction,” Bryant said. “If the home isn’t right, then education can’t save them. We have to get back to the church. We need to be back in Sunday school. We’re running the race in the wrong direction.”

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