Back in 2006 for an episode of her show, Oprah Winfrey took black students from Harper High School in Chicago's low-income Englewood neighborhood and swapped them with their white peers attending Neuqua Valley High School in affluent, suburban Naperville, 35 miles away. Both sets of students were shocked by disparity in resources and academics at the two schools. But at the end of a harrowing day at Harper, the Neuqua Valley students went home to more than just an Olympic-sized pool and two dozen AP classes. They went home to a safe neighborhood, too.
Harper went on to become the first Chicago school "turned around" by then-Superintendent—now Secretary of Education—Arne Duncan. While the turnaround provided Harper with a functional swimming pool, computer labs, and a dedicated staff, last year 29 current and recent Harper students were shot. Eight of them died.
For the most recent episode of This American Life, staff producer Ben Calhoun, author and documentary filmmaker Alex Kotlowitz, and WBEZ education reporter Linda Lutton spent five months at Harper talking to students, teachers, parents, social workers, administrators, and police officers. The episode reveals in heartbreaking detail how hard the staff works to keep its students alive, and the social, emotional, and academic impact the violence has on Harper's students.
At the start of the school year kids at schools like Neuqua Valley probably trade tips on how to survive super strict teachers, but Lutton learns that the rules for survival at Harper are about, well, survival. Rule Number One for staying alive at Harper is that you have to know your geography because whether you like it or not, says Lutton, your address determines your gang.
"When I ask kids what their parents don't understand about gangs these days, they say it's this: their parents tell them not to join a gang—as if there's some initiation to go through, some way to sign up. Today, whether or not you want to be in a gang, you're in one. If you live on pretty much any block near Harper High School, you have been assigned a gang. Your mother bought a house on 72nd and Hermitage? You're S-Dub. You live across the street from the school? That's D-Ville."
After the January shooting of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, much was made of her being a "good" kid who wasn't gang-affiliated. Fewer than 10 percent of kids at Harper are active gang members, but the reality is that kids don't get to be gang-neutral anymore. Not even nerdy kids get a pass—if they live on a specific block, they're automatically affiliated with the gang that runs it.
Indeed, one student, Deonte—who is "poised to be valedictorian"—reflects on Rule Number Seven: "Never go outside." Students try to get involved in extracurricular activities so they can stay on campus—none of the shootings have happened at school—as late in the afternoon as possible. Once students go home, they don't even go out on the front porch. Deonte says years of staying inside alone have resulted in depression and loneliness. "I'm not really friends with anybody," he says.
The episode concludes right before the homecoming game in October. Harper's football team—which is so small that some students play both offense and defense—is one of the best in the city. Like the nerds, athletes used to get a pass from gangs, but no longer. The players estimate that "probably the whole team has been shot at." On the eve of the game, another Harper student is shot, leaving the school administration with the weighty decision of whether to cancel the game and the homecoming dance due to the possibility of retaliatory violence.
We have a mythology in America that the high school years are the best years of your life, but it's pretty clear that students at Harper aren't exactly racking up a slew of wonderful memories. As Ira Glass notes at the beginning, "in other places" what's happening to kids at Harper "would be national news." And since Harper's only one school serving a community that's been heavily impacted by violence, similar situations are surely taking place every day across America.
Which begs the question, why aren't we as a nation outraged over what's happening to these children? Could it be because these kids are black, brown, and poor? That's the only difference between them and the majority of students out at, for example, Neuqua Valley High. We should all be outraged that in the greatest nation on earth, blood is running through the streets. We need to collectively stand up and demand action. If we don't that means the blood is on our hands, too.
As for what happens with the homecoming situation—as well as more straight talk from the kids about how easy it is to get a gun—that will be revealed in part two, which airs (find your local station here) beginning on February 22nd.