Duncan says turnarounds not to blame for school violence

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Before a room filled with foreign, national and local media, former CEO, now Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke passionately about youth violence as a product of hopeless teenagers, saying this is not the time to blame anyone and that money is not the problem.

Duncan announced a $500,000 emergency federal grant for Roseland’s Fenger High, and sought to shoot down the notion that his policies as CEO had anything to do with the increased tension around the Far South Side school.

 

Before a room filled with foreign, national and local media, former CEO, now Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke passionately about youth violence as a product of hopeless teenagers, saying this is not the time to blame anyone and that money is not the problem.

Duncan announced a $500,000 emergency federal grant for Roseland’s Fenger High, and sought to shoot down the notion that his policies as CEO had anything to do with the increased tension around the Far South Side school.

The principal of Fenger and the feeder elementary schools can decide how to use the money. Fenger Principal Elizabeth Dozier didn’t return calls.

Duncan bristled when I asked him whether the district’s turnaround strategy had anything to do with increasing violence at Fenger, calling the notion “absolutely ridiculous.” He then countered a suggestion from community activists that transforming Carver High School into a selective military academy, then sending some neighborhood students to Fenger, may have contributed to tensions that led to Derrion Albert’s murder. (Duncan said that since the change at Carver, only 18 more students from Altgeld Gardens—the area around Carver—now attend Fenger.)

Carver became a military academy in 2000, but only in the past few years has it gained a better reputation under the leadership of John Thomas, who this summer was named a chief area officer.

Last year, while still at the helm of CPS, Duncan announced that he was turning Fenger around; all its teachers and staff would have to reapply for their jobs. From what I understand, most were not rehired.

Principal William Johnson, who had been assistant principal at Carver before coming to Fenger in 2004, was initially supposed to remain at the helm. But he eventually left also. The district’s turnaround chief, Donald Fraynd, says Johnson “decided to transition” to another CPS job. Dozier, who had been a co-principal at Harper High in Englewood, became principal.

At a Tuesday evening press conference outside City Hall, activist Victory Grandberry says he feels the removal of tenured teachers has made the situation more volatile.

“I’m sick and tired of the politics they’re playing with our schools,” he said. “How do they expect the kids to be safe when they’re taking the support mechanism away?”

Admittedly, it’s too simplistic to blame school changes alone for a young person picking up a 2-by-4 and bashing a boy over the head with it.

But it should not be news to Duncan that big changes in schools can lead to increased tension and fights. In 2006, Catalyst wrote about an increase in violence at high schools, in the wake of closings that displaced students and sent them to school with kids from different neighborhoods.  Last year, Catalyst again wrote about increased security concerns in the wake of more closings.

Also, activists who work with students at Orr High School, which became a turnaround two years ago, have sounded similar alarms.

At a policy luncheon last year (co-sponsored by Catalyst) students from Orr noted that some good things had been brought about by the turnaround, including more extracurricular activities, smaller classes and good teachers that cared about students.

Yet all the new faces in the halls lead to a lack of trust between students, their peers and their teachers. Rivalries among students remained a big issue.

Ana Mercado, a youth organizer for the advocacy group Blocks Together, says that Orr students were originally hopeful that the turnaround process would improve their school. But some of that optimism has been dimmed.

“Students did complain about tensions flaring up with new teachers who were not from the neighborhood, some of that hope started to wear down,” she says.

There also was continued violence during the first year, she says. In response, the Orr administration created a room where students were supposed to go to hash things out, but only this year has the room become a full-fledged “peace room,” Mercado noted.

Fraynd declined to be interviewed without the permission of spokeswoman Monique Bond, who didn’t return calls or e-mails.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Duncan and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder repeatedly said that what Fenger students wanted was mentors—people who can show them values and be role models.

New CEO Ron Huberman stood in the background during the press conference, occasionally checking his cell phone. If more mentors are the answer, might Huberman’s $30 million plan to provide mentors, jobs and other support to the most at-risk students do the trick?

Intern Margaret Rhodes contributed to this report.

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