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Special arts academy helps Chicago teens transcend tough streets

June 11, 2014 at 6:36 PM EDT
In Chicago, an after-school art center has been transformed into a full-time public school that serves students who come from some of the highest crime areas in the city. Partnering with community schools to identify kids on the wrong track, its founder has put faith in the idea that offering access to the arts would be an invitation to learn every day. Hari Sreenivasan reports.

GWEN IFILL: Now: High school students use art as a way to stay focused on learning in one of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods.

Hari Sreenivasan has our report.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Little Black Pearl Academy, a public school on the South Side of Chicago, is trying to write a new songbook for success. It started last fall, when the school’s founder, Monica Haslip, transformed her after-school art center into a full-time public school focused on the arts.

Her students come from some of the highest-crime areas in the city. The undertaking was born from frustration.

MONICA HASLIP, Founder, Little Black Pearl Academy: My biggest motivation for this school was about looking at the volume and the number of children that we have in Chicago that are dropping out of school.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Haslip partnered with Chicago public schools to identify students on the wrong track.

MONICA HASLIP: A lot of our students that we have had had really poor attendance prior to coming here, so we believe and we have been able to see that by offering them access to the arts, that in itself is the thing that is inviting them to come to school every day.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The hope is that art can offer students, who may be distracted or even traumatized by violence that surrounds them, a way to return to learning.

Why art? Why is this the reason that they should come?

MONICA HASLIP: A lot of young people who dropped out of school, they’re still engaged in hip-hop and rap and drawing and all the things that we see in our communities that are tied to the arts.

SAMANTHA PETERSON, Lead Teacher, Little Black Pearl Academy: What we have been talking about is appearance and how we judge people based on those appearances and based on those stereotypes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Teachers like Samantha Peterson, who teaches freshman English, use art as a way to engage Little Black Pearl’s 200 students in academics.

SAMANTHA PETERSON: So, what we’re going to work on first is a poem called “Just Because,” and on the back of the poem, there is an example of a Hispanic who wrote their own poem.

I would like to have somebody read this. Who would like to volunteer?

STUDENT: “Just because I’m dark-skinned doesn’t mean I’m not like good people.”

SAMANTHA PETERSON: What we’re trying to do is develop a character that breaks stereotypes, so we’re working on some sociology terminology and vocabulary around like the words prejudice, stereotype, self-fulfilling prophecy, and talking about those connections, and all of that is in order to break those stereotypes with our character.

It engages them because they’re interested in it, and it means a lot to them. The students were always creating characters negatively, based on their skin being black, and so we really tried to look at what did that mean and the greater picture of creative writing in general.

MONICA HASLIP: We’re trying to use the arts to really make what they’re learning in the classroom relevant.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For Samantha Peterson, the approach seems to be working. Her students have shown the highest academic gains in the entire Chicago Public School District.

Beyond the awards, degrees, and teaching certificates, Peterson also brings an extraordinary personal story to the classroom.

SAMANTHA PETERSON: I dropped out of high school at 15 years old, and I have a GED. I grew up on the streets in the South Side of Chicago, in and out of group homes, as a ward of the Illinois court, so I had a lot of problems in my life, and I can personally relate to all — a lot of the experiences that they’re going through.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But resources are expensive.

To help foot the bill, the school has relied on private donors to cover the high cost of materials. The glass-blowing studio alone racks up thousands in monthly bills.

WOMAN: Closer.

HARI SREENIVASAN: On the day we visited, students showed us a glass project they created as a commentary on the prevalence of guns in their lives.

Tracy Kirchmann is their teacher.

TRACY KIRCHMANN, Director of Glass, Little Black Pearl Academy: It’s a performance piece. The students wanted to illustrate some of the issues, their feelings about gun violence, through the medium.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Using a fake gun, students created a sand mold, melted the glass, and then formed guns.

TRACY KIRCHMANN: Guns are the most relevant thing in their world. There’s not like a week that goes by in the school that we don’t have students that are personally, intimately, directly influenced and affected by the gun violence that’s happening here on the South Side of Chicago.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Working as a team, the students formed an assembly line of glass gun production, then carefully hooked each gun onto a display, and knowing the glass would explode if not cooled, they named their performance piece “Bang Bang.”

TRACY KIRCHMANN: They’re using the fact that glass will actually explode because of stress and temperature change outside by casting these guns in glass, and then leaving them to cool to the point of breaking. So the idea is that they are creating guns constantly, but they’re also exploding, or cracking apart, and leaving broken pieces.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Sixteen-year-old Tammi Crockett says the piece is a metaphor for how families too can be shattered by gun violence.

TAMMI CROCKETT: Every day basically, like, the life is gun violence. From most killings that we have here that we hear about are from gun violence.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Crockett’s 18-year-old brother, Maurice, was shot and killed in high school only days before he was scheduled to graduate.

TAMMI CROCKETT: It’s kind of (INAUDIBLE) no more shooting, no more gun violence. We make them. We have seen them fall. And that’s basically saying like, X-out the killing. We don’t use guns, we don’t like them, and we wish they were taken off the street.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tracy Kirchmann says her students are learning quite a bit more than art.

TRACY KIRCHMANN: We’re trying to re-enchant them with the — with wanting to learn, and that happens really easily in here, obviously. It’s a very enchanting process.

So, we get them hooked kind of on the process, and then I take them deeper by explaining the physics and the molecular level of glass, and then they might be more interested in science because of something that they see in here.

MONICA HASLIP: Just by providing them with the tools and the equipment and the professional support helps them to see that there is a pathway for a career.

HARI SREENIVASAN: As the end of the academic school year approaches, educators in Little Black Pearl academy are optimistic that those career pathways are already taking shape.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.