The View From Room 205

Can schools make the American Dream real for poor kids?


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Monday, February 20, 2017 Permalink

The View From Room 205


This is a story about some little kids and a big idea.

The little kids are fourth graders. They go to William Penn Elementary School on Chicago’s West Side in the North Lawndale neighborhood.

It’s the first day of school, September 2014, and they’re filing into the auditorium because Mayor Rahm Emanuel is here to tout rising test scores. The head of Chicago Public Schools at the time, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, is here too.

She’s laying out the big idea that I want to wrestle with:

“No matter where you’re from, what neighborhood you call home, and no matter what your dreams are in life, it is right here at Penn that our children are going to get their start — so that they can have that dream, chase that dream, capture that dream and live it,” Byrd-Bennett tells the kids and their teachers.

The fourth graders look up at her. They’re sitting all together, pretty near the front.

They’re hearing the big idea even before they get to class: It doesn’t matter who you are or what situation you’re born into. You can make it. And school is where that happens. School is what makes the American Dream possible.

The fourth graders live in a neighborhood that really needs the American Dream. On every side of Penn are vacant lots and boarded up buildings.

“All of Chicago believes in you,” Byrd-Bennett tells the auditorium of kids. “There is no subject too hard for you to learn. There’s no dream you can’t achieve, if you stay focused and persistent.”

And with that, Byrd-Bennett makes very clear that it’s up to the fourth graders — and every kid in the room — to work hard and succeed.

It’s up to them and William Penn Elementary.

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