Going to School in Gang Territory

Harper High School, from thisamericanlife.org

Many of us have heard the news stories over the past year or two about the recent run of gun violence amidst school-age kids in Chicago, but the story goes much deeper than just a few scattered incidents. Gang-related violence in Chicago schools has become a way of life for those who live there, whether they like it or not. To get a full idea of what life is like for teachers and counselors in one of these schools, WBEZ’s This American Life from Public Radio International recently had some of their reporters spend five months embedded at Harper High School in the West Englewood neighborhood of Chicago.

What these reporters found was a school environment operating in a world of barely-controlled chaos, where gang membership is mandatory and escaping the neighborhood is a dream few can achieve. The ever-present menace these kids experience while simply walking down a street is a feeling that’s almost impossible to imagine for someone who went to school in the suburbs. For students at Harper High, it’s just the way things are. In the first part of the story, the reporters spend time getting to know the staff and the neighborhood, and they learn that even for those students not directly involved, gun violence can still have a powerful psychological effect.

The most striking part of the story comes in the second part, where the perseverance and dedication of the counselors and teachers at Harper becomes clear. As they try to prepare for homecoming festivities, a normal part of the American high school experience, they attempt to make it a safe event amidst a recent flare-up of shootings. The reporters also get a glimpse of the gun culture surrounding these students’ lives and learn that, even with Chicago’s strict gun laws, these weapons are perhaps more common than anyone believed.

Maintaining an effective learning environment is a constant battle when faced with the fear that a student may not show up the next day because they’ve been shot. These educators fight to teach students as normally as they can, in the hopes that school can be a haven from the violence of the streets. I encourage you to listen to the entire story and share your thoughts about gun violence in the lives of your own students.

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2 Responses to “Going to School in Gang Territory”

  1. Janet Moro BarronOctober 10, 2013 at 7:01 pm #

    In some ways, the gangs and the Taliban have a great deal in common; preventing children from getting an education through the use of fear and violence. Watch this brave young woman tell the story of her fight for education in Pakistan. http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-october-8-2013/exclusive—malala-yousafzai-extended-interview-pt–1

  2. Screenflex Room DividersOctober 10, 2013 at 3:43 pm #

    What a stunning and enlightening series. Although I live in the NW suburbs of Chicago and hear the daily reports of shootings in the west and south sides of Chicago, I am far removed from really knowing how the residents live on a daily basis. The people inside of the schools are trying so hard to keep the chaos at bay, but unless what's happening outside of the schools changes, I don't think there is much more they can do to bring about change.

    This made me think of an experience I had while I was in high school. In 1980, I was a senior at an upper middle class suburban HS in the NW suburbs of Chicago. For one of my honors classes we participated in an exchange day with students from Wendell Phillips HS (http://www.phillips.cps.k12.il.us/) located at Pershing and MLK Drive in the Bronzeville neighborhood. For a group of kids from the suburbs it was certainly an eye opener and something I have never forgotten. We were shocked by the lack of basic services and condition of the facilities. What I also remember was that it seemed so loud and chaotic, and clearly, the students were in charge of the school. Looking at the 'History' page on their website, I see our visit was during a period of educational neglect. It seems the school is currently on a positive trajectory. I know the Bronzeville area has been on a steady economic upswing because of gentrification. They also do not have as bad a gang problem as they have in Englewood or the Back of the Yards neighborhoods.

    It seems Englewood is far too entrenched in gang warfare to recover, and until the gangs are removed, nothing will change. You can enact all the gun control laws you want but it won’t change a thing, as clearly gang members do not care that they are breaking the law. Unfortunately, generation after generation of gang affiliation and violence has numbed the residents to this way of life. I applaud the staff at Harper Highs School for what they are trying to do.