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.