What we need to do to make schools work

October 07, 2005|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- Before she enrolled her daughter in kindergarten at Jordan Community School in a rough section of Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood, Rhonda Jones stopped to share a marijuana cigarette with her daughter's father in a nearby park. Just a little taste before facing the bureaucrats.

"I smoked reefer for breakfast, lunch and dinner," she recalls in the PBS documentary Making Schools Work, by Hedrick Smith.

If that was all that you knew about Ms. Jones, she would be an unlikely role model for a report on education. But stay tuned.

In a scary episode straight out of an anti-drug ad, Ms. Jones overslept one afternoon and missed the after-school pickup time for her daughter. When she called the school, no one knew where her daughter was. Her daughter eventually made it home safely, but Ms. Jones channeled her anger at school officials.

"After I blessed 'em out," she says, "I said they might as well find something for me to do because, from that day on, I was not leaving my child with them again."

That was just fine with Maurice Harvey. He has been Jordan's principal since it opened in 1993. He had walked into a boiling ethnic stew of parents who were mostly African-American, Mexican, Haitian, African and low-income. "A lot of parents in our school were drug users," Mr. Harvey recalls in the documentary. "A lot. So when she was saying she can change, I said, `Now we have someone who can help us, help our children.'"

Ms. Jones changed her life. She stopped doing drugs and became a parent leader, coaxing and coaching others to get onboard with their children's education.

And since Jordan embraced the Comer Process, a classroom management and conflict-reduction program developed by Yale psychiatrist James Comer, about 50 percent of Jordan's students perform at grade level or above in math and reading, compared with 19 percent for math and 12 percent for reading 10 years ago.

In his quest for schools that work, Mr. Smith explores the kids of Hispanic migrant workers at Centennial Elementary School in rural Seattle and the kids of white mine workers in Corbin High School in rural Kentucky, among other schools.

Yet the filmmaker's quest for good news gives short shrift to some agonizingly persistent bad news. He shows impressive district-wide progress in Charlotte, N.C., schools, for example, especially at narrowing the achievement gap among whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians in one of the state's poorest-performing elementary schools. But he does not visit the district's high schools, whose poor performance is a major local political issue.

The challenge of replicating success provides the documentary's most heated scenes. After exploring the nationally acclaimed success of East Harlem District 2 in New York, we see its reformers invited to San Diego, where they run up against a buzz saw of local politics and resentment, especially with officials from the teachers union. After a few years of struggle, the New York reformers are sent packing, but not before their reforms actually show some measurable, if limited, improvements in the performances of San Diego's students. Here, as in so many other school districts, one longs for what might have been.

With that stormy segment near the end of the program's marathon two hours, Mr. Smith adds something important to the canon of feel-good documentary profiles of heroic teachers and adorably energized students. He shows that no matter how successfully they produce good results, the best intentions can be trampled underfoot in the grind of political suspicions, ambitions, resentments and power plays.

In love, politics and school reform, it is only when circumstances become too desperate for us to argue anymore that real change begins to happen.

"You have to be dissatisfied with something in order to make change," one school reformer tells Mr. Smith. "Absolutely dissatisfied."

That's how dissatisfied Rhonda Jones became when Jordan Community School lost her kid. The rest of us need to be dissatisfied, too.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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