By Diane Friedlaender
In the heart of Chicago's south side, two large institutional-looking school buildings representing different eras sit across the street from each other. One is a classical building constructed in 1940 to meet the needs of the neighborhood's immigrant population, the second a modernist structure built in 1968 to accommodate a burgeoning population who wanted to attend reputable South Shore High School. The community has changed dramatically since then, and these once pristine buildings look rundown and no longer meet the needs of the students who attend this multiplex, which now houses four small schools.
In a community that has faced a dramatic racial and economic shift, South Shore High School's quality has ebbed and flowed. For several decades it was emblematic of the failing urban school system. However, in 2001, in response to community pressure and activism and teacher initiative, the high school began splitting into small schools, and two of these, the School of Entrepreneurship and the School of the Arts, enrolled their first students. In 2003 two additional small schools, the School of Leadership and the School of Technology, were formed, while the old South Shore High School gradually has been phased out. In the 2005-06 school year all students in the South Shore Multiplex attend one of the four new small schools. Each of these operates almost entirely autonomously, except for sharing athletics, band programs and a few elective teachers.
All the small schools in the South Shore multiplex have reduced discipline problems and increased personalization. This case study highlights one of these schools, the School of the Arts. In particular, this case focuses on the community- and teacher-led efforts to create the School of the Arts and its success in fundamentally transforming its culture into a nurturing environment for students.
For many students who attend the School of the Arts, coming to school can be a dangerous activity, requiring them to pass through rival gangs' territory. Once on campus, students step over trash, enter through the cracked glass doors of the cement monolith that houses their school and pass through a metal detector. Their entrance is monitored by staff clad in bright yellow jackets who check students' names against lists of those allowed in the building. The students walk through the barren and run-down ground floor, push open the door to the dark stairwell and begin their ascent to school. As they approach the School of the Arts floor they enter a transformed space. Student-painted murals of African American jazz musicians spill down the stairwell, welcoming them. As they push open the doors to the School of the Arts the murals continue to unfold, as every wall is covered with student art work. When students enter the school their bodies relax and smiles creep onto their faces as they greet their friends and teachers and move freely about their school. Their street personae of posturing and defensiveness melt away; they feel free to be themselves. As one student, LaWanda Green, explains, "When I get to school I feel safer because I am around people that care about me and care about my safety and care about how I feel."
Key to the School of the Arts is its history as a teacher-designed school, its emphasis on personalization and student ownership and its focus on arts-infused and African-centered instruction. At this writing in 2005, the School of the Arts has completed its third official year as a small school. Early signs of its effectiveness are demonstrated by improved attendance and graduation rates and a dramatically changed school climate. The following section provides the context for understanding the changes at the School of the Arts by describing the community's role in the redesign of South Shore High School.
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