May 27, 1998

Ten years ago, nervous neighbors crossed the street to avoid Chicago's Du Sable High School, where, in 1987, a student was shot to death inside the building.

Now, people cross the street to enjoy the school's gardens, blooming with flowers and vegetables, and to marvel at the peacocks, pheasants and macaws in the courtyard atrium.

Down the hall, in teacher Emil Hamberlin's biology class, you'll find more animals -- boa constrictors, pythons, a pot-bellied pig, an alligator, ferrets and even a badger. When Dr. Hamberlin, who's taught at Du Sable for 35 years, notices that students are having trouble getting to school, he assigns them an animal.

"We see a dramatic improvement in attendance when we give the students responsibility," he explains. One ninth-grader, Charles Armstrong, loves feeding the animals -- the peacocks are his favorite. He's going to work with Dr. Hamberlin this summer and plans to major in biology in college.

Now, the school wants to renovate the atrium as a memorial to friends slain in the neighborhood. Last November, Du Sable's Gospel Choir members joined their suburban counterparts at the top-ranked New Trier High School for a fund-raising concert at Chicago's Orchestra Hall. Du Sable was once one of the jewels of the Chicago school system -- not unlike New Trier -- boasting famous alumni including former Mayor Harold Washington and Nat "King" Cole. But when Principal Charles Mingo arrived in 1988, the outlook was bleak.

It wasn't unusual to find more students hanging out in the hallways than in class, and on any given day, only about 65 percent showed up at all. Mingo himself bought alarm clocks for some students, went to their homes and knocked on doors to roust them out of bed. Nonetheless, he says, attendance is still his biggest problem.

Mingo also rid the halls of graffiti and declared Du Sable "neutral turf" in the gang wars that rage outside the door. He banned hats, coats, radios and sunglasses inside the building. He has to be strict, he explains, because he's dealing with "kids who've grown up without a whole lot of order." Eighty percent of Du Sable students live in the Robert Taylor Homes, one of the nation's three poorest communities.

It wasn't just the kids, though, who were underachieving. Some teachers, disheartened and uninspired, didn't issue books, claiming students would lose them. And many locked up classroom computers so that students couldn't use them. One teacher explained, "I don't want kids to steal them." Now, Du Sable prides itself on being the first public school in Chicago to be wired for Internet access.

Despite the restoration of order, Du Sable's reading test scores still lagged far behind national norms, so Mingo and his staff set out to create a "Culture of Reading."

Teachers volunteer in after-school and summer reading programs. Everyone learns a new vocabulary word each day -- it's not unusual to be quizzed by a security guard on the "word of the day." And the daily curriculum now includes a 30-minute reading class -- almost unheard of in high school.

Meanwhile, in 1995, the entire Chicago system undertook a major reform initiative. Mayor Richard M. Daley took control of the schools, imposing strict new standards and accountability. Schools that didn't perform on national tests were placed on probation, and the worst schools were "reconstituted" -- teachers and principals had to resign and reapply for their jobs.

Two years ago, in a devastating blow for a community that was trying so hard, Du Sable was reconstituted. Mingo held onto his job, but many teachers did not. He looks back now and calls the move a "blessing."

The school board assigned a new associate principal, Katherine Owens-Smith, to deal solely with academics. She marvels at the way the school -- "everyone from the engineering staff to the cafeteria workers" -- pulled together. And, now, their hard work is beginning to pay off.

Last year, only 4.9 percent of Du Sable students met national standards in reading. On the latest test, the number climbed to 12.4 percent -- not enough to take the school off probation but demonstrating they're moving in the right direction, although they still have a long way to go.

The Chicago school system's CEO, Paul Vallas, can't talk about Du Sable's success without taking a moment to boast about the city's other schools. He notes that every school in the violent State Street Corridor, which includes Du Sable, and in the area of the infamous Cabrini-Green projects improved their scores. The four Cabrini-Green elementary schools are even eligible to come off probation now.

He's right. When we celebrate the success of Du Sable, let's also congratulate the students, teachers, staff, parents and neighbors who are working every day in schools all over Chicago to create safe havens of learning for our children. And let's spread the word that even in our country's toughest neighborhoods, we know how to make our schools work.