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Uptown in the News  

September 21, 2005
The great divide
Teen documentary spotlights Chicago's school funding inequities
By (Angela Caputo)

Meeting in the basement of an Uptown non-profit throughout their high school years there was no mistaking the difference in opportunities between those who went to "good schools" versus neighborhood schools, some North Side teens say.

While students at schools like Roosevelt, Senn and Sullivan had to complete assignments in class because there weren't enough textbooks to go around, their peers at Northside College prep and Walter Payton had their own books and could even check out laptops to get homework done.

It wasn't until the group of students was in the throes of preparing for graduation, though, that they realized how big the differences in their everyday school lives would mean for their futures. Acceptance letters to four-year colleges and universities began flowing in to the college prep school kids. Some even got scholarship awards.

In contrast, their peers at neighborhood schools say they were advised by counselors to explore community colleges.

Seeing the frustration in the faces of the teens in the Multicultural Youth Project, a program started by the Chinese Mutual Aid Association on Argyle Street, organizer Jason Perez encouraged the teens to turn their frustration to action.

Inspired by the film "Bowling for Columbine," a handful of teens decided to create a documentary to get to the bottom of how there could be such a divide- both in resources and academic results-between schools in a single district.

Aiming "to build a conversation around the inequities between college prep and neighborhood schools," Perez said the teens leveraged grants - in all, $4,400 to get the film started.

Two years later, the final voiceovers and a catchy title are the final touches the teens need to put on the 30-minute film before releasing it at the end of September.

Behind a backdrop of school cafeterias, classrooms and the sprawling lawns of North Side high school campuses, the teens asked their peers, teachers and education reform experts to weigh in on the strengths and weaknesses of CPS' secondary education programs.

While neighborhood school students spoke of crumbling brick, leaking roofs, disconnected teachers and sparse materials, the college prep kids boasted that they were encouraged, and assured that they were bound for success.

And focusing "on the tale of two lives" - friends Soketheary Nak, a Roosevelt grad, and Courtney Smith, a Northside College Prep grad - Perez said, the film shows the faces behind a failing education system where only 54 percent of high school students manage to graduate within four years. "It affects them in real ways. Soketheary sees her friends go onto a really good college and she's left here," Perez said.

Nak and Smith, who were at the heart of the project from fundraising and researching to filming, started high school with the same expectation - to go to college.

Both teens took school seriously. They each enrolled in honors courses in their respective high schools. And they both thought they were on the track to college.

The reality was that only one would make it onto university right after graduation, though. Not surprisingly it was Smith, who got a full ride to DePauw University.

In retrospect, "I feel like I was gypped," said Nak, 19, an aspiring high school teacher. "(College prep students) got all of these opportunities that I missed. I think I would already be in college now."

Considering the unequal resources divvied up to the schools, education reform expert Donald Moore of the policy group Designs for Change it's no surprise that students like Nak feel forsaken. The school funding inequities "are not being talked about very much. But the students see it everyday and they're really aware," Moore said.

Post-graduation, Nak joined the public service program City Year. And now she' gearing up to enter Truman to learn some basics before heading off to a four-year college. Perhaps UIC, she says.

Born in a refugee camp in Thailand and immigrating to Chicago at the age of three, Nak said, she was at an immediate disadvantage having a mom that speaks limited English. Not knowing about school choice and testing she didn't even think twice sending her off to Roosevelt.

Confident that she is college bound, Nak said she was set back by failed policies and hopes CPS will not waste any more time in preparing students.

In a chorus the teens are hoping the film will send the message, "If you give one school books, give all the school books... Make them all college prep.'

Just as the film is on deck for release, CPS announced a new reform plan, which entails committing between $50 and $100 million for additional resources over the next decade to create more successes in neighborhood high schools. Score cards to assess how well-rounded students are, enhancing teacher quality and giving successful principals greater autonomy are also tenants of the plan.

By focusing on the basics, Kim Zalant a policy director at the Chicago-based, non-profit Business People and Professionals for the Public Interest, said the new reform initiative has many of the key strategies needed for turning the system around.

The question that remains, she said, is "Will this redress some of the inequities?"

For starters it acknowledges that the district has a long way to go. Just because the system has failed in attempts at the past, Zalant said, "That doesn't mean they shouldn't keep trying. We shouldn't underestimate that hope."

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