An Asphalt Jungle

GEORGE F. WILL

June 09, 1991|By GEORGE F. WILL

Chicago -- Ken Van Spankeren has gray streaks in his beard and strong opinions in his head, both the result of 16 years as principal of Orr High School, where he is attacking the "991" problem of American education.

Only 9 percent of the hours lived by young Americans between birth and their 19th birthdays are spent in schools, and the other 91 percent often subverts what schools do. This subversion occurs amid the distractions of affluent suburbs. It especially occurs where Orr is.

Orr is three miles and a world west of Michigan Avenue's glittering Magnificent Mile, amid a jumble of storefronts offering chicken wings, check cashing and elemental Christianity, in a jungle of unemployment, gang violence and drug dealing. Orr, serving five square miles of Chicago's meanest streets, reflects the biggest problem bedeviling inner-city education -- family disintegration.

Seventy-five percent of Orr's students (who are 92 percent black, 8 percent Hispanic), live in poverty; 85 percent come from homes without fathers. They began falling behind most American children before kindergarten: They were not read to or even talked to enough, or played with or taken to zoos and libraries. (A visitor's question -- "Are libraries within walking distance?" is considered quaint. There is no "walking distance" across turf contested by gangs.)

So some Orr students come to school early -- fourteen years early. There is an infant-stimulation program for some six-week-olds. A few of them are children of the school's ninety or so unwed mothers, whose average age is 15 and who take classes in parenting. There also is child care for some neighborhood 3- to 5-year-olds who, because they enter a decade early, will someday present Orr with fewer remediation problems.

Classes begin at 8 a.m. but tutoring begins at 7:15 a.m., and on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays dropout prevention instruction continues until 9 p.m. A math teacher arrives at 6 a.m. to teach chess to children who never saw a set at home. The teacher's team recently won a city title.

With assistance from Continental Bank, Orr is bearing Chicago's burdens. But can schools do that and also educate?

Chester Finn, author of "We Must Take Charge" and formulator of the "991" problem, rightly argues that many schools spread themselves too thin and education becomes thin gruel. Every American passes through school at an impressionable age, so there is a perennial temptation to use schools for various ameliorative purposes -- combating AIDS and drugs, promoting racial harmony and environmental awareness, and animal rights and so on. These purposes often compete with learning.

Many schools unwisely chose to do peripheral things in the name of social reform. Ken Van Spankeren says he lacks the luxury of choice. Problems of the streets and homes are central, not peripheral, to urban schools' missions.

Mr. Van Spankeren prefers teachers from the inner city, who understand that students start unreceptive to learning and cannot be taught by having them open a text, read a chapter and answer questions. "Urban kids," he says, "don't learn that way."

But a danger is that educators will become too preoccupied with devising enticements to learning (for example, teaching Math and English through "entrepreneurship" projects, such as Orr's student-run catering business). If so, many inner-city students will be shunted on to an educational sidetrack that takes them away from society's mainstream opportunities that require competent reading and expository writing.

Orr's better students read Hemingway, Carson McCullers, Richard Wright, Maya Angelou. They particularly enjoy "Hamlet." All reading is done in class. Teachers assume homework cannot be done by most students, who have family responsibilities, or jobs, or both, and whose homes are unquiet and may not even contain a table at which to work.

Most of Orr's most successful students are girls. The best boys face peer pressure not to "act white." But the best male students tend to be athletes: If you can get your wrist over a basketball rim, you can be a bit bookish.

When Mr. Van Spankeren arrived sixteen years ago, Orr was too similar to the surrounding streets. Radios blared, caps and earrings were worn as gang indicators, and drug dealers, pimps and gang members roamed the halls. Today the radios are gone; hats and earrings are removed at the front door; no one enters without an ID card; no one leaves the building during the school day.

This is one way to tame an asphalt jungle: one school building at a time.

George Will is a syndicated columnist.

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