Social Justice High School: Little Village and Lawndale’s experimental high school, four years after the hunger strike

Little Village Lawndale High School; courtesy of OWP/P

Little Village Lawndale High School; courtesy of OWP/P

It was two days after a racial melee outside Little Village Lawndale High School led to arrests when an English teacher at the school’s Social Justice High School campus asked her students a question: “What gives you hope?” The most common answer: “Nothing.” Not the success of a 19-day hunger strike in 2001 that persuaded the city to build the school after years of delays and the disappearance of $30 million set aside for it. Not the four campuses built in response to local petitioning for emphasis on different subjects. Not SJHS’s gleaming new architecture featuring symbolic 19-degree angles and dozens of murals and mosaics. Not even the social justice curriculum, subject of a multitude of exegetic flow charts, vision statements, and back mapping curriculum frameworks.

SJHS opened its doors in 2005 following community input about an ideal learning situation. The hunger strikers and other activists received a variety of responses, and petitioned the city to build four smaller autonomous campuses sharing athletic and other major facilities. Thus, SJHS has three sister schools within its own halls: Multicultural Arts HS, World Language HS, and Infinity: Math, Science, and Technology HS. But what exactly is social justice? The high school manifestation was a response to parents who emphasized “keeping the values of peace and equity,” according to the school’s mission statement. In principle, this means ensuring SJHS students “never forget the physical, spiritual, and communal struggle it took to achieve justice.”

But social justice is a rather vague concept, one that even the school has trouble defining concisely. SJHS proclaims its purpose as “assur[ing] that all students become critical thinkers through a curriculum that is rigorous, innovative, and implemented through meaningful school relationships.” The subjects of their critical inquiry: “real world issues,” addressed through the “lenses of race, gender, culture, economic equity, peace, justice, and the environment.” The critical back mapping framework is clearer–by graduation, students should “understand mechanisms of power: name source of power in situations [and] name victims in situations.”

Earlier this year, the aforementioned English teacher showed her ninth-grade class the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” and in ellipses-studded sentences she later wrote on her blog “Teach. Eat. Run. Chicago.” that she was thrilled with the connections they were able to make. It’s part of the Colonialism Framework curriculum: “ENSLAVE ––-> COLONIZE ––-> A. SEPARATE B. NOT KNOWING/NOT UNDERSTANDING C. VIOLENCE.” She only recently understood the connections herself, but with the help of colleagues, she’s realized the parallels between Belgian colonization, Rwandan genocide, and life in Little Village. A close paraphrase of her own writing: By enforcing distinctions between Hutu and Tutsi, the Belgians manipulated new tensions to cement their own power, and decades later those tensions not only persisted, but spiraled into genocide…being colonized as a person of color in an urban area (acting white, assimilating to white culture)…divisions between black and Latino communities…strength in number is broken…the rebellion never comes…again, fighting one another rather than fighting the real oppressor…gang conflict, racism, prejudice, fear…she absolutely loves this unit. She feels even better the following Tuesday when a normally quiet student goes wide-eyed and announces that just like the movie, Greater Lawndale has been divided to maintain the colonizer’s power.

But make no mistake–SJHS bills itself as a college preparatory high school. It offers four AP classes: chemistry, biology, physics, and calculus. Though many teachers dissent from the idea that standardized testing is a good measure of academic competence, the school concedes that it is indispensible for college acceptance. “Rigorously prepar[ing]” for the SAT and ACT thus earns a spot on the classical back mapping curricular framework, and the school offers test prep classes. A pep rally precedes the ACT exam, and Roosevelt University offers a complete scholarship to SJHS students who exceed a 3.0 GPA. Nevertheless, the results are disappointing. This year’s junior class averaged a 17 on the ACT, and 33 percent earned a 19 or higher. By comparison, the national average is almost 21. And according to the College Board, the middle 50 percent of Northwestern University freshmen score between 30 and 33, while at University of Illinois at Chicago they’re between 21 and 26. Scores on the Illinois PSAE test are similarly lackluster. Zero percent of the entering class “exceeded” standards in reading, math, science, or writing; in writing 40 percent “met” standards, in contrast to 16 percent for reading and math and 6 percent for science.

In a music class, another young teacher explores social justice through popular songs. His choice is “I Used To Love H.E.R.,” Common’s wistful 1994 protest against the commercialization of hip-hop. The song, which presents the growing popularity of hip-hop as the decline of a virtuous woman, is a soapbox for edifying the class about the co-opting of hip-hop into the mainstream. Drowned in that iniquitous flow, hip-hop became a vehicle for spreading “twisted consumerism agendas, racist stereotypes, marginalizing ideas about minorities and their goals…to urban youth only to keep them in their place in society: the bottom,” as he writes on his blog “Bank the Eight.” A few weeks later, he uses Bjork’s “Earth Intruders,” and it’s a springboard for learning the following vocabulary: industrialization, skeptic, paratroopers, turmoil, voodoo, and morbid. Later that day, a bomb threat is called in to the school. No bomb is found. The teacher muses that while growing up in New Jersey, similar hoaxes led to his school’s evacuation. Here, that’s too dangerous.

LVLHS is located just south of the Cermak Street division between predominantly black North Lawndale and predominantly Latino Little Village, once known as South Lawndale. More meaningfully, it’s the division between the Gangster Disciples and the Two-Sixes. The school’s uniform prohibits a wide range of potential gang symbolism–rabbits are a Two-Six sign, and six-pointed stars represent Gangster Disciples. The index of prohibited items extends: cell phones, hats, hoodies, uncovered tattoos, large belt buckles, visible undergarments, and uneven numbers of earrings in each ear, to name a few. But even if campus is relatively safe, the neighborhood isn’t. An SJHS student was killed last year, and this academic year has seen at least 32 CPS students killed already.

Return to the riot. It’s February 25–a restructured Wednesday, so students are dismissed at noon while teachers stay to work on staff professional development. Rumors of racial tension and violence have spread, and the English and music teacher have decided to patrol the front steps. Two girls start fighting–“a brown v. black” incident, as the English teacher terms it on her blog, and police rapidly separate them. More fights break out, and more police break them up. Ethnic slurs are hurled and a group of black students heads towards a CTA stop to catch a bus back to North Lawndale. The fighting continues, and students begin confronting teachers as well as the police and each other. There’s no bus present, and the black students, escorted by police and more teachers, keep walking. Kostner Avenue is blocked, and at the intersection with 31st Street a standoff begins. On the north side, Latino students and Two-Sixers exchange slurs and insults with the police-escorted black students clustered on the south side. When they finally reach the bus stop, the driver won’t let them aboard. The teachers petition the police for an escort, and finally the driver relents and heads to Cermak without stopping. Before the obligatory staff meeting, the English teacher cries a little.

At the meeting, SJHS teachers and staff decide to visit the 10th District police station “to show solidarity for our students and staff members who had been treated poorly by the police.” Forty of them arrive, and after some time, the commander agrees to see them all. It’s a long meeting, and the English teacher feels good about it. She wakes up early the next morning, sobbing.

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