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December 1, 2003
Vol. 61
No. 4

Voices: From a Charter School / Shaping a School Culture

Voices: From a Charter School /  Shaping a School Culture - thumbnail
The faded yellow structure on South Federal Street in Chicago draws little attention, but what's going on inside is worth a closer look. The little building is home to Perspectives Charter School, which serves 155 inner-city students in grades 6–12, 86 percent of whom come from low-income homes. The students are culturally diverse: 51 percent are African American, 46 percent are Latino, and 3 percent are white.
Perspectives—which in 1998 was granted one of the Chicago Public School District's first charters—can operate differently from other public schools, and the possibilities excited us as we sat down to create our vision for the school. After careful thought, we came up with “A Disciplined Life,” a set of ideals that encompass 21 broad-ranging principles centering on themes of self-perception, communication, and productivity.
The principles include such goals as “Take responsibility for your actions,” “Respect one another's differences,” and “Demonstrate honesty and integrity.” Much more than platitudes or rules for students to follow, A Disciplined Life is the foundation on which our students, teachers, and administrators are expected to live day in and day out. Our goal is to create a culture in which urban students can thrive and feel a sense of belonging. In the long term, we hope to provide students with the life skills that will help them acquire both a love of learning and the ability to succeed in college and the workplace.
Perspectives is a school of high expectations. Unlike magnet schools, however, we cannot screen or test applicants to identify higher-achieving candidates. Instead, with a waiting list of several hundred students, we use a blind lottery system to enroll students. And we believe that all of the students we admit, no matter how they have performed in the past, have the potential to excel. We try to teach them that it's “cool” to succeed academically. One 8th grade student says,It's safe to be smart here and to seek knowledge. When you ask a question, you don't get laughed at. You get supported.
Also key to our school culture is the idea of connecting with the community. We strive to connect students to the business, commercial, cultural, and political arenas of their city and provide them with opportunities to learn about and feel a sense of ownership in their community. We encourage students to ask questions about the relationships between the curriculum and their community: What does it mean to have a strong relationship with my community? Am I a citizen who positively contributes to my city?
The shared culture and philosophy at Perspectives permeate every relationship in the school—student-to-student, teacher-to-student, and administrator-to-teacher. Teacher Mary Cummane notes that A Disciplined Life helps teachersbuild relationships with students because we all understand the culture and the expectations. We're not just teaching a particular subject. We're teaching students what's expected of them.
A few of our students' stories help illustrate how the relationships built within the framework of A Disciplined Life have had a direct impact on young lives.

James, Grade 12

James first came to Perspectives as a troubled 7th grader. Removed from his home as a child because his mother was unable to care for him, he expressed his resulting anger and hostility by acting out. Now headed for the University of Illinois on a full scholarship, James notes thatThe teachers at Perspectives have worked with me over the years to find ways to better manage my anger, and it's helped. It's been hard, but the teachers listened and they set expectations for me. When I entered this school, I never thought I would ever finish. . . . Perspectives has made me a man. I'm compassionate, responsible, and driven.

John, Grade 12

“Before this school, I was selling on the streets with no thought of college in my future,” says John. “My grades when I came here were all Ds and Fs, but the people here care a lot and are there for you.” At a recent honor roll assembly meeting, John asked to read his transcript aloud, beginning from Grade 7, when he had nearly flunked out of school. He now earns As and Bs and will be attending Hampshire College in the fall. He says that A Disciplined Life has “made me a better person and I can take it with me wherever I go.”

Angel, Grade 10

Lured early into gang life, Angel wasn't quite ready to give up his old ways when he landed at Perspectives. “There was a guy who looked at me the wrong way,” Angel says, “and my first instinct was to hit him. But the teachers and codirectors talked to me. They showed me that they cared about me and I'd never had that before.” Now, he says, “I've been told I'm smart by so many of my teachers that I really believe it now, too.” Today, Angel is on track to graduate from high school because he has a solid support system that is teaching him to resolve conflicts positively and to strive to reach his potential.

Courtney, GED Candidate

Although we are deeply committed to all of our students, we do not reach immediate success with everyone. Courtney came to us in 1998 as a sophomore who could not read. She was disenchanted and had low self-esteem, but because she knew the doors here were open for her, she came to school every day. We tried everything we could to motivate her. We had countless meetings with her family, offered one-on-one reading sessions, and provided mentoring opportunities. Despite our efforts, Courtney failed to graduate with her class.
But the foundation and relationships that we had laid had an impact. Courtney recently called one of her former teachers at Perspectives and said, “I want to learn to read.” The teacher met Courtney at a downtown bookstore to purchase General Educational Development (GED) booklets. They'll be working together this year to help Courtney prepare for the exam.

Practicing Our Principles

Perspectives is not without its conflicts. Earlier this year, the issue of race took center stage following the holiday of Cinco de Mayo, which we celebrated with a lunchtime feast. We later learned that some of our African American students were upset by the event because we had not held a similar “party” during Black History Month. Although we felt that we had gone to great lengths to mark Black History Month, some of our students perceived that our school was being more celebratory of Latino than African American events.
These students sat down with us to discuss their concerns and identify solutions. As the conversation began to take a confrontational tone, one student interjected that “We've got to be careful. Why is this an ‘us versus them’ discussion?” After working with the students, we asked them to lead an all-school discussion on the issue.
The ensuing discussion showed us that our approach was working. It was an opportunity to engage in dialogue, involve students, and surface grievances for the good of the entire school. Such dialogue teaches our young people fair and just language to use when communicating about issues they feel deeply about.

The Personal Touch

As educators, our responsibility goes far beyond helping students achieve good grades; equally crucial is building strong bonds with our students. Accordingly, we have made active listening a vital part of our school culture. Such simple questions as “What did you think of math class today?” engage our students and help them believe that they are part of the world of the school. One student, Kendra, had no confidence as a learner when she first arrived at Perspectives, yet she is headed for college in the fall. Kendra recently told a visitor, “They love me here!” Students come here every day because they know that we care about them and want to help them succeed.
We have probably all had a teacher who made a difference in our lives. At Perspectives, we work toward being those kinds of educators, ones who never give up on their students. Nearly half of Chicago's high school students drop out before earning a diploma, but Perspectives has graduated 100 percent of its high school seniors for two years in a row. All the graduates will continue to college.
We are here to help our students rebound when they fall. It is our work to have faith in them when they don't have it in themselves. It is our job to ask the hard questions, listen well, keep expectations high, and give students encouragement and love. Once students know this, they rise to meet their challenges to make themselves, their families, and everyone at Perspectives proud.

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