School violence report needs context

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I applaud Catalyst Chicago’s coverage of school violence in its October 2007 issue. Having spent many years in and around schools on the West Side, however, I think you failed to provide some critical context.

You mention in a sidebar that Manley High School was ranked the most violent high school last year, with 24 violent incidents per 100 students. In addition, Catalyst reported that while overall violent incidents dropped by 10 percent, a third of schools experienced a 20 percent or more increase in the rate of serious fights. What you failed to do was offer analysis or perspective on what might explain these trends.

In the case of Manley, the level of school violence is at an all-time high, having nearly doubled since 2003.

The recent spike stems in large part from the fact that when CPS closed Austin High and Collins High, it redirected freshmen to Manley (which at the time was underutilized). With hundreds of new students arriving from across the West Side, across gang territories and cultural divides, Manley has paid a significant, if predictable, price in school safety.

While CPS has provided additional resources in the face of this demographic shift, and the new principal has worked to find creative ways to respond to an inherently difficult situation, the environment at Manley initially went from stable to scary.

In light of this situation, and others like it playing out across the city, CPS is now looking to find ways to shut down failing schools without dislocating students. If this works (and such efforts are notoriously difficult), it will not only benefit the students and families who are able to stay in one place, but also will ameliorate the situation at neighborhood schools such as Manley.

It is also worth noting that despite a continued influx of freshmen from closed schools, the climate at Manley has dramatically improved this year. The calmer atmosphere at the school is attributable to the efforts of Sean Stalling, the principal, and the support work of Umoja Student Development Corporation (an organization housed in Manley and committed to providing counseling, programs and support to help prepare students for college).

The leadership at the school has worked tirelessly to develop relationships with its expanded student body, and to help incoming freshmen find a constructive place. These efforts to build social support into the daily schedule and life of students are paying off—as they were prior to the surge in enrollment—and they underscore the overall theme of last month’s issue: Building relationships with students is and should be at the core of school safety.

Robin M. Steans

Trustee, Steans Family Foundation

Editor’s note: For stories on the impact of school closings, see Catalyst, March 2006.