Skip to ArticleSkip to Radioplayer
May 12, 2018

Reveal presents: The View from Room 205

Co-produced with PRX Logo

In 2014, WBEZ Chicago reporter Linda Lutton followed a class of fourth-graders at William Penn Elementary School on Chicago’s West Side. It’s a community where two-thirds of schools have closed, been turned into charter schools or had their entire staffs replaced, from the principal to the lunch ladies.

Lutton wanted to explore a big idea that’s at the heart of the American dream: Can public schools be the great equalizer in society, giving everyone a chance to succeed, no matter where they come from or how much money their families have?

But what if that idea is wrong? What if schools can’t overcome poverty?

That question took Lutton into the lives of fourth-graders, teachers and administrators at William Penn to expose the pressures they face and the chances they are given.

Reveal presents a condensed version of the Peabody Award-nominated documentary, “The View from Room 205.”

Dig Deeper

  • Listen: The full-length version of “The View from Room 205” and see photos and illustrations from William Penn.  

Credits

WBEZ Chicago; reporter Linda Lutton; editors Marianne McCune and Cate Cahan; sound engineer Joe DeCeault; WBEZ executive producer Ben Calhoun.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
  Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:18:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. It's May, and in schools across the country, students are getting restless. Classes are coming to an end, and the promise of summer seems just within reach. But I want to take you back to a beginning of another school.
Intercom: Good morning. Good morning, Penn students.
Al Letson: It's September 2014. Barack Obama is president, and it's just a few weeks after a white police officer killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. On the West Side of Chicago, fourth graders at William Penn Elementary have the first day of school on their minds. They're filing into an auditorium to hear from their mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who's touting rising test scores
Rahm Emanuel: Yes, give the teachers a hand for what they've accomplished.
Al Letson: The head of the public schools at the time, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, is here too to tell kids a version of something that poor children all over the country hear constantly.
Barbara Byrd-Be: 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.
Al Letson: It's a big idea that is at the core of our nation's identity. It doesn't matter who you are or where you're born; you can make it. And school is where that happens. These fourth graders are all sitting near the front. They live in the North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country. It's filled with vacant lots and boarded up buildings, not many jobs.
Barbara Byrd-Be: All of Chicago believes in you. There's no subject too hard for you to learn. There's no dream you can't achieve, if you stay focused and persistent.
Al Letson: "If you stay focused and persistent." And with that, she makes it clear it's up to the fourth graders and every kid in the auditorium to work hard and succeed. It's up to them, and William Penn Elementary. The school bell rings. Then the principal hits play on the sound system.
Intercom: Thank you so much. Class is in.
Al Letson: The mayor and the TV cameras pack up and the school year begins, with everyone hoping that William Penn can be the antidote to poverty. That's what schools are supposed to be, the great equalizer, except too often they're not. And lately when schools don't make it, drastic things happen ... In Lawndale, two thirds of the schools have either been closed or turned into charter schools, or seen their entire staff replaced from the principal to the lunch ladies. To find out what life is like under that kind of pressure, education reporter Linda Lutton of WBEZ Chicago spent the 2014 school year reporting on a fourth-grade classroom at Penn. Today, we're playing a condensed version of her Peabody Award-nominated documentary, "The View From Room 205".
Boy: I know it's going to be fun, and it might be a little challenging.
Linda Lutton: If anybody is going to take the mayor and the school's chief at their word and dream and be persistent, it's the fourth graders in room 205.
Ms. Hawthorne: Do you think you can meet that challenge?
Students: Yes.

 

Ms. Hawthorne: Okay.

 

Linda Lutton: If you haven't been around fourth graders recently, let me remind you how great they are. They're still curious and fun, happy to please their teachers. They get excited about simple things, like chocolate pudding for lunch.

 

Ms. Hawthorne: The first thing we're going to do this morning is, what do you know about fourth grade?

 

Linda Lutton: The room starts to buzz. Their teacher, Ms. Carolyn Hawthorne moves from group to group. If you saw Ms. Hawthorne in the supermarket, you might actually guess she's a schoolteacher. She wears turtlenecks, and teacher sweaters, and sturdy shoes.

 

Boy: I know that fourth grade is not going to be easy. I know that we are going to have to take a test. I know that I might not pass. Whoops. Wrote that wrong.

 

Linda Lutton: They present their work to the class and Ms. Hawthorne oohs and aahs them.

 

Ms. Hawthorne: I love it.

 

Linda Lutton: It makes them feel proud.

 

Ms. Hawthorne: I'm just, I'm delighted. I think I'm a like this year. I really do think I'm a like this year.

 

Linda Lutton: Next, Ms. Hawthorne turns to the test. Not the one they took last year.

 

Ms. Hawthorne: That's gone away for good.

 

Boy: Lord, thank you.

 

Linda Lutton: "Lord, thank you," says one of the fourth graders, as if God himself had struck down the old standardized test.

 

Ms. Hawthorne: Please listen, if that one went away there's a new test. And I heard someone say-

 

Boy: PARCC?

 

Linda Lutton: She writes "PARCC" on the board, but she doesn't have to. The kids all know about it, even though it's brand new, and they all know the other big standardized too, which they'll take three times this year. Think about this for a minute. The kids in room 205 are only about an hour into fourth grade. Instead of imagining science experiments, art projects, field trips, what they're looking ahead to are the standardized exams. And that's not unusual. This is the norm at high-poverty schools like Penn, because the tests, they're how we measure a school's success. It's how we decide if all the reforms we're trying are working. In middle-class schools where kids score well, the tests feel like an afterthought, but in high-poverty schools like Penn, they are center stage.

 

Ms. Hawthorne: We're going to have to read a lot. We're going to have to write a lot. And math is very challenging, but I do believe you can do it.

 

Linda Lutton: "I do believe you can do it." But as Ms. Hawthorne looks out at her brand new fourth graders, 30 kids look back at her and, try to imagine this please, 23 of them are boys. She has the son of a former gang leader in class. Wonders what that will be like. There's the boy who's depressed, on medication, age nine. Several children have parents in jail or recently released.

 

Ms. Hawthorne: I don't know. I don't know if I'm doing something right or something very bad and God is trying to tell me.

 

Linda Lutton: Still so much about room 205 feels optimistic. Take Jamarie. He's like the classroom IT guy. Ms. Hawthorne calls him her little computer man.

 

Ms. Hawthorne: He gets over there on the computer just like a little man working.

 

Linda Lutton: When she can't get a projector to work, or the fourth graders have trouble logging on in the computer lab, Jamarie gets the call.

 

Jamarie: So you ever put the password in on the tablets?

 

Ms. Hawthorne: No. You know what the problem is? Just finding the time to do-

 

Linda Lutton: Jamarie's a little chunky. He has a head full of dreadlocks. He looks like he could somehow be your uncle, even though he's only nine. He loves anything electronic. His current obsession is an obscure video game called New Gen.

 

Jamarie: What I'm working on right is New Gen, I'm trying to make the character. I made my own stages and my own title screen, and I made my own music for it too.

 

Linda Lutton: Jamarie's mom is positive he'll be a game designer when he grows up, a software engineer, something. I liked thinking of what all the fourth graders might be. Chelsea for instance, a little girl with an out sized laugh. She's always organizing something in room 205.

 

Chelsea: Give her a little snout.

 

Linda Lutton: She's fun, bold, opinionated, maybe a future activist.

 

Chelsea: It's time for real work.

 

Linda Lutton: At recess I let the fourth graders play with my radio equipment.

 

Chelsea: Hey I'm Chelsea and-

 

Linda Lutton: They pretend to be reporters, celebrities all live on air from room 205.

 

Boy: Kelsey what did you see about the Hurricane last night?

 

Kelsey: I see the hurricane was, shout out to my mama, I love you and I miss you, and I hope you bring my bigger remote control car.

 

Linda Lutton: Kelsey's got an ear to ear smile, and a backpack bigger than he is. Just about every time Kelsey got near my tape recorder, he'd give a shout out to his mom. I thought his shout outs were like any other kid's shout outs, until I found out he only sees her on Fridays. He's a foster kid, and my microphone, Kelsey saw it as a way to connect with her. Penn is Kelsey's third school in three years. His first was shut down. He changed again after he got put in a foster home, but he's relentlessly positive. Here's what I mean. Kelsey, how was your day?

 

Kelsey: It was a great day.

 

Linda Lutton: Really? What made it so great?

 

Kelsey: 'Cause we are doing math, and reading.

 

Linda Lutton: Nothing special even. Great is just Kelsey's bass line. When you talk to kids like Kelsey, or so many of the kids in room 205, you feel like, "Yeah it is so possible to overcome poverty by sheer positivity, by smarts, by curiosity." I started going to class as often as I could ...

 

Ms. Hawthorne: Write your name, we're working on three new prefixes. Un plus happy equals unhappy, and it means-

 

Students: Not happy.

 

Linda Lutton: Kelsey's working with a partner, and he's doing a little dance right by his desk, which he does unconsciously almost all the time.

 

Boy: Kelsey, think.

 

Kelsey: I'm thinking, I'm thinking.

 

Boy: I don't feel this feel. It so big it don't make sense.

 

Linda Lutton: Many of the words they're supposed to modify with their new prefixes, are words they don't know. Words that neither school nor life along 16th street has taught them. The word "ripe".

 

Ms. Hawthorne: The only example I can come up with is Bananas.

 

Linda Lutton: Ms. Hawthorne comes over. This is the second group she's helping with the definition of ripe.

 

Ms. Hawthorne: Ripe bananas are yellow.

 

Linda Lutton: I can't think of a store along 16th street that sells through.

 

Ms. Hawthorne: The bananas that are green.

 

Boy: Are ripe.

 

Ms. Hawthorne: What would you say about them, if they're not yellow?

 

Boy: I would say they're rotten-

 

Boy: They're not all the way-

 

Boy: They are rotten-

 

Boy: All the way grown.

 

Linda Lutton: Kelsey and his friend lean over a dictionary.

 

Boy: Yeah right there.

 

Kelsey: Adjective. Fully grown and developed. Fully grown.

 

Boy: Unripe!

 

Linda Lutton: I wanna paint you a picture of the neighborhood where the kids in room 205 live. If you wanna short hand way to think about it, I'd say imagine TV footage you've seen of Detroit or Baltimore, or the worst parts of New Orleans a few years after Hurricane Katrina. North Lawndale's Katrina has been a decades long storm of disinvestment. Slow and thorough. One day I ran into Kelsey outside right by Penn. He was with his brother, and we were talking for a while before I realized the conversation kept coming back to the same place.

 

Kelsey: You got candy?

 

Linda Lutton: No sorry-

 

Kelsey: I had a lot of chips today, I don't want no more chips. I had hot chips. You four, no there ain't four.

 

Linda Lutton: Since there was no school this day, there was also no school breakfast or lunch. A guy from a social service agency happened to pass by coming out of Penn. He tossed each of the boys a little bag of chips. Kelsey's brother finished his own, then started eyeing Kelsey's.

 

Kelton: I can get some?

 

Kelsey: I just gave you some.

 

Kelton: I can't get two? Thank you.

 

Linda Lutton: Are you hungry Kelton?

 

Kelton: Yeah.

 

Linda Lutton: You are? What did you eat today?

 

Kelton: We ain't had nothing. We ate chips, and that's all.

 

Linda Lutton: Well plus your breakfast, right?

 

Kelton: Yeah breakfast, we ain't eat breakfast 'cause we went outside.

 

Linda Lutton: It's almost 5:00 PM.

 

Kelton: And we didn't ask for breakfast anyways. We gotta ask before we get.

 

Linda Lutton: Kelsey looks at me.

 

Kelton: Do y'all kids gotta ask before they get? I'm hungry. My stomach growling.

 

Linda Lutton: Let's see if I can hear it with this. Turn it way up ... I put my microphone right up next to Kelton's tummy, and I give him my headphones so he can hear. And just as I do, a car drives by, which sounds like a big growl in the headphones.

 

Kelton: It is. There's my stomach, you hear it.

 

Linda Lutton: Sometimes it felt like there just wasn't enough food in Lawndale. There's been an increase in people living on two dollars a day or less in this country. Lawndale is one of the places they live. Homes that stay dark after the sun goes down, not enough for the light bill. People go to friend's houses to bathe when the gas is cut off. There are more shuttered businesses than open ones along 16th street. Most everything behind bars, or bullet proof glass.

 

Jamarie: This my cousin's house. That's the dog.

 

Female: Jamarie?

 

Jamarie: Yeah?

 

Linda Lutton: I really wanted to see these games Jamarie was always talking about. All the characters he was building. At his apartment I wasn't sure if we'd be looking at a laptop or a desktop. But I had not considered this, his mom's cell phone.

 

Jamarie: If I can get it to turn on.

 

Linda Lutton: So we're looking at a LG cracked screen?

 

Jamarie: Yes, I dropped it.

 

Linda Lutton: Turns out room 205's IT guy, little computer man, has no computer at home. Later in the school year I notice an article in the newspaper about Mine Craft summer camps. Of course, I thought of Jamarie. The story was about how frantic parents were pleading to pay extra tuition, thousands of dollars sometimes, to secure spots for their kids in the camps. In Lawndale the per capita income is $12,000 a year. That's close to the amount affluent parents spend on each of their children just for enrichment. Musical instruments, tutoring for standardized tests, Mine Craft camp.

 

Jamarie: It's a really nice game.

 

Linda Lutton: Ms. Hawthorne maybe headed towards 70, and retirement, but she still has a way with the 4th graders?

 

Ms. Hawthorne: What do you always tell me?

 

Boy: Hey, favorite teacher.

 

Ms. Hawthorne: They do me in.

 

Linda Lutton: Ms. Hawthorne is considered a pro at Penn. She trained the principal, but she's also an old school teacher. Her own training took place in the late 1960s. Back then Chicago assigned black students to infamous temporary classrooms. Specifically to avoid integration. So Ms. Hawthorne's very first classroom wasn't even technically in a school. It was on the first floor of a housing project. She was assigned a mentor to help her become the best teacher possible.

 

Ms. Hawthorne: The firs time she came you could tell she was nervous, 'cause she had to go by the gang boys to get back there. So while she was in there, there was a fire.

 

Linda Lutton: It was on an upper floor of the projects, and at one point a mattress full of flames came crashing to the ground, fell right by the classroom door. That was enough for her mentor teacher.

 

Ms. Hawthorne: That lady she says, "Carolyn would you walk me out to the car?"

 

Linda Lutton: She never came back.

 

Ms. Hawthorne: I had to do a journal so she could track what I was doing.

 

Linda Lutton: And that was Ms. Hawthorne's preparation as a teacher. The segregation and racism of the city baked right into her training. Few of the conditions she teaches in have changed. It's Ms. Hawthorne's normal. Concentrated poverty, segregated schools, a bombed out neighborhood. In Lawndale a lot of things are normal that shouldn't be. As soon as I found out about the killing, I went to see Chelsea, the fourth grader with the out sized laugh. Her cousin Caprice was 16. On the funeral program he has a baby face. He's floating in a blue cloud filled sky. Light from the heavens all around. He was shot on the same block as Penn. I found Chelsea outside, she was just back from the funeral.

 

Chelsea: He got shot two times in the head, three times in the chest.

 

Linda Lutton: This has become the way Chelsea explains what happened. The refrain of her cousin's killing. The funeral was open casket.

 

Chelsea: He had a whole bunch of makeup on, 'cause the bullet holes they couldn't cover it up, so they have to put a whole bunch of makeup on him, and then he was over dark like this.

 

Linda Lutton: Chelsea taps on my black.

 

Chelsea: When you rub your finger like that, the makeup came off, and it show a little piece of the bullet hole, 'cause everybody kissed him on his forehead.

 

Linda Lutton: Chelsea's big voice and her confidence make it easy to forget that she's just 10 years old, and she's one of the older kids out here. I feel like I've stumbled into a mini impromptu memorial, one just attended by children.

 

Boy: I feel bad, 'cause he died.

 

Linda Lutton: The thing about kids, they don't really follow adult rules for talking about death, and even while they're grieving, they're still little kids debating what makes a good block party. Answer, a bouncy house, and how to best eat pickles.

 

Chelsea: Put the pickle juice with your hot chips. Sour pickle juice, oh they make your chips hot and sour.

 

Boy: Kool-Aid pickles when they cold and icy.

 

Linda Lutton: Chelsea is clutching the funeral program. Occasionally a kid tries to snatch it, they wanna see it.

 

Boy: I'm trying to see.

 

Boy: Get it.

 

Linda Lutton: Is that the first person you've known who was ever shot?

 

  Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:18:04]
  Section 2 of 3          [00:18:00 - 00:36:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Linda Lutton: ... person you've known who was ever shot?

 

Chelsea: Hm, no.

 

Linda Lutton: Chelsea looks at me puzzled almost, like, "Of course Caprice is not the first person I've known to be shot."

 

Chelsea: I remember everything. I remember my Uncle Ken got shot. My Uncle Ken got shot when I was five. I had another cousin named Will. I grew up with him. He helped my momma take care of me when my daddy was in jail. So, he got shot when I was seven. He had got shot in the head three times, and Caprice got shot two times.

 

Al Letson: That's the kind of trauma these kids are carrying with them every day, whether they're on the playground, at home, or in Room 205. We'll hear more in a minute on Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Hey, this is Al Letson. Time for me to tell you another podcast that I'm binging on, Offshore from Honolulu's Civil Beat. Offshore is an investigative podcast that's produced out of Hawaii. I love this podcast. They just launched the The Blood Calls, an eight episode season about some crazy stuff that went down on the Marshall Islands. In the 40s and 50s, the US detonated nearly 70 nuclear weapons there. Well, more recently, it's a boom, not a bomb, that has ripped the islands apart, an adoption boom. More than 80% of birth mothers say they didn't understand that their children would not be returned to them.

 

The podcast follows one adoptee as he searches for his birth family and his culture while rising seas threaten to wipe the islands off the map. Listen to Offshore on iTunes, RadioPublic, and at OffshorePodcast.org.

 

From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Today, we're getting a rare look inside the life of a classroom of fourth graders at William Penn Elementary on Chicago's West Side. The story comes to us from WBEZ Chicago. We're playing a shortened version of their documentary, The View from Room 205. Students and teachers at Penn feel tremendous pressure to do well on standardized tests or face the fate of more than 100 other high poverty schools in Chicago and be shut down. Reporter Linda Lutton picks up the story in January with testing day just around the corner.

 

Linda Lutton: Right around this time, Miss Hathorn begins using a code word in class.

 

Miss Hathorn: I bring back to mind 18. Does everybody know what I'm talking about?

 

Students: Yeah.

 

Girl: Yes.

 

Linda Lutton: It turns out, and Miss Hathorn didn't get this information until just recently, 18 of her students, more than half the class, barely passed third grade.

 

Miss Hathorn: Ladies and gentlemen, we're going to have to do something about that 18 behavior. If you don't make it, it's because of choices you are making.

 

Linda Lutton: But Miss Hathorn only half believes that.

 

Miss Hathorn: Really, this class should be two classes for them to get the individual attention that they need, but that's not going to happen. So, I need to make this work the best way possible.

 

Linda Lutton: One of her biggest challenges, one of the 18 is a little boy names Kareem.

 

Girl: That's my desk.

 

Kareem: Right, I sit right here. I'm trying to get my stuff down. [crosstalk 00:21:27]

 

Miss Hathorn: Kareem, cut it out. Kareem, cut it out.

 

Linda Lutton: Kareem fights with classmates. He falls out of his chair during lessons.

 

Kareem: Miss Hathorn-

 

Linda Lutton: Kareem is a constant threat to everything Miss Hathorn's trying to accomplish this year. Miss Hathorn has tried so many times to get Kareem's mom on the phone, she practically knows the number by heart. She also knows Kareem is basically raising himself with some help from brothers and sisters not that much older than he is.

 

Kareem: Miss Hathorn-

 

Miss Hathorn: You're trying to act like a big boy.

 

Kareem: Miss Hathorn, you my [inaudible 00:22:01].

 

Linda Lutton: One day, an answered prayer, a neighbor comes up to Room 205 for Kareem.

 

Speaker 2: Yes, I'm his god mom checking in on him.

 

Linda Lutton: [crosstalk 00:22:09] Miss Hathorn calls Kareem up to the front of the room. His god mother stands right beside him, and Miss Hathorn asks the fourth graders to tell Kareem how they feel about his disruptions.

 

Miss Hathorn: This is coming from them.

 

Linda Lutton: Chelsea raises her hand to speak.

 

Chelsea: I feel bad because all she do is scream at him. She's losing her voice. She's spent all her time on him.

 

Linda Lutton: Over the course of the year, there are lots of moments like this, moments where things feel like they're getting a tiny bit desperate in Room 205.

 

Chelsea: She don't got enough time to teach us.

 

Linda Lutton: Half a dozen kids get up to testify. Then, Kareem's god mother has him apologize for robbing his classmates of their chance to learn.

 

Speaker 2: Now, you want to tell your teacher and you class how sorry you is for wasting they time while she trying to teach them and you taking they learning away.

 

Linda Lutton: Kareem has his hands in his pockets. He looks sometimes at the floor, sometimes at his classmates.

 

Kareem: I'm sorry for taking you all learning away from you.

 

Linda Lutton: Around this time in the school year, Miss Hathorn starts teaching six days a week. There's Saturday school at Penn in preparation for standardized tests. When the first round of scores come back, the news is Room 205 is not good.

 

Miss Hathorn: I'm not pleased, Miss Lutton, I'm not pleased. I had somebody go down minus 18, minus 17. I'm not pleased with that at all.

 

Linda Lutton: The teachers received the results [crosstalk 00:23:42] at a staff meeting, and Miss Hathorn was in the uncomfortable position of having the least progress in the school making her look bad in front of colleagues.

 

Miss Hathorn: I'm not backing up. You better move up and get with me. Do we understand each other?

 

Students: Yes.

 

Miss Hathorn: I'm not sitting in another meeting looking down at the floor again because I'm embarrassed. That's not happening, and you going to do something about it. You hear?

 

Students: Yes.

 

Boy: Yes, Miss Hathorn.

 

Miss Hathorn: I'm passing out to you your papers from yesterday.

 

Linda Lutton: Downstairs, the principal has posted every student's score on some giant charts in her office. They take up an entire wall, and there are kids on that wall who are making it, who will defy Lawndale's circumstances and beat the odds. America loves those stories. We tell them again and again, but there's a bigger pattern here too, one that's harder to look at, one that's true across the entire country. It looks like this, the more poor kids in a school, the lower the scores.

 

Nothing better predicts how kids will do on standardized tests than where they sit along the spectrum of poverty and privilege. Let's say all the fourth graders in the entire country lined up on a huge stairway based on their test scores, so the highest scoring kids would be up on the third floor and the lowest scoring kids would be in the basement. Nearly all poor kids are in the basement.

 

Penn, despite its scores inching up for nearly a decade, is in the basement. That patterns, it's true in every state, true for public schools, for charter schools. The gap between how rich kids and poor kids do, it's actually growing. Decades of fixing schools has not shaken poverty's hold. If we want to make the American dream real for poor kids, this is what we have to wrestle with.

 

I'm not the first person to be looking at poverty from this very spot.

 

Speaker 3: Need I say more? Doctor Martin Luther King.

 

Martin Luther K: Thank you very kindly, Mrs-

 

Linda Lutton: In 1966, Martin Luther King Junior moved into a dilapidated apartment right across the street from William Penn, kitty-corner from the playground.

 

Martin Luther K: I can feel the need for the people, and live with them, and live like them in the sense that I want to experience poverty-

 

Linda Lutton: In North Lawndale, King's stairwell smelled like urine. The door to the street wouldn't lock. This was after he'd won the Nobel Peace Prize, after Birmingham and Selma. Now, his target was poverty. He wanted an end to what he called slum jobs, slum wages, slum schools.

 

Martin Luther K: When a man does not have a good job and good wages, he is the slave. When a man cannot live in good substantial housing conditions, he is the slave. When a man-

 

Linda Lutton: King wanted the government to battle poverty head on. He called for a huge increase to the minimum wage and massive investment in neighborhoods like this one, billions of dollars. He wanted guarantees that no one would live below a certain income and, "That income should be high," he said, "not low. King said this would be the hardest part of the Civil Rights Movement, because it was going to cost society something.

 

Martin Luther K: It's much easier to integrate a bus than it is to get a program that will force the government to put billions of dollars into slums.

 

Linda Lutton: Almost nothing of what King called for in Lawndale has been implemented even partially. The poverty rate is higher in Lawndale today than it was in 1966. The unemployment rate is at Great Depression levels. 75% of Lawndale residents older than age 16 don't have a job.

 

Boy: Everybody knows-

 

Linda Lutton: For Black History Month, the fourth graders in Room 205 learned a poem about King.

 

Students: Today is the day we all sing and honor Martin Luther King-

 

Linda Lutton: But the fourth graders won't hear that King lived across the street. They won't hear anything about poverty. They won't hear that King said people are poor because wages are low, because discrimination limits opportunities, because schools are underfunded. "You're not poor because of you," he told people.

 

Students: Free at last.

 

Al Letson: The students have been studying all year long for their big standardized test. When we come back, we'll see how all the pressure around tests led the teachers and the staff at William Penn to do something that feels desperate. This is Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Today, Linda Lutton of WBEZ Chicago is bringing us her documentary, The View From Room 205. It's an intimate and unflinching look at poverty and the American Education System. As Linda found out, students at William Penn Elementary are under incredible pressure to succeed as are the school's leaders.

 

Sherryl Moore-O: I need one line, one single file line.

 

Linda Lutton: If anyone can help North Lawndale kids get out of poverty, it should be Sherryl Moore-Ollie, Penn's Principal.

 

Sherryl Moore-O: Because I'm from this community. I'm from North Lawndale, and those kids are me. I was them.

 

Linda Lutton: As a kid, she lived through domestic violence, saw gangs lure her brother, but she became valedictorian of her high school and eventually earned her doctorate.

 

Sherryl Moore-O: So, I know that success happens in communities like this. I don't know care if your shoes are flipping at the bottom because that's the only pair that you have, you can do this no matter what.

 

Linda Lutton: Doctor Ollie's own triumph is the sort of trajectory we believe is possible. We want her story to be everybody's story, but when you hang out at Penn long enough, you see the complicated dance Doctor Ollie and the teachers do to try to make Penn live up to its promise. She hired an extra third grade teacher to keep class sizes down, but that now means art is taught by two parents, and music is taught by a contractor.

 

Speaker 4: Listen to that sound.

 

Linda Lutton: The instrument they're studying today is the orange Home Depot five-gallon bucket. Jamaria doesn't like coming to class.

 

Jamaria: They so loud.

 

Linda Lutton: Doctor Ollie resents having to cut corners, and her students need so much more. There are 367 kids at Penn, one of the neediest schools in the city, and just 18 get time with a social worker. Not a single one of the fourth graders in Room 205 qualifies. Penn's budget is like a lot of public school budgets, never feels like enough. Even if Penn had all the resources of a wealthy school, if there were small class sizes, and art, and music, maybe even a little orchestra the way Doctor Ollie has imagined, the world outside would be just as mean. There would still be no fruit on 16th Street, no jobs, still no parent to call about Kareem, the boy who's mostly raising himself.

 

Lots of kids this age are so easy to love, their big hearts show through right away. Kareem hides under his hoodie, gives one-word answers.

 

Kareem: This is Kareem.

 

Linda Lutton: He loved the idea of taking my tape recorder home, but he was guarded even when he was all by himself.

 

Kareem: My favorite sports is basketball ... That's all I have to say.

 

Linda Lutton: Little bits of Kareem's history have appeared from time to time in the newspaper, one headline, "Mother of Six Charged With Murder of Boyfriend." It's a story about Kareem's mom allegedly killing her boyfriend with a steak knife, all six kids at home. The youngest of those was Kareem.

 

Kareem: I love you, mom.

 

Linda Lutton: Every time I come by Room 205, Kareem is getting in trouble. Today, he's been put out of class.

 

Miss Hathorn: I'm just going to walk him down the hall. Come on Kareem. Come here young man.

 

Linda Lutton: "I'm not coming," Kareem says. He slowly starts to cry. He's standing against the wall in the hallway under his hood. Miss Hathorn calls the security card to get him to class.

 

Miss Hathorn: Why are you crying? Huh?

 

Kareem: [inaudible 00:33:28]

 

Security Guard: Because you not listening, man. When you grown and you don't listen, you get sent to jail.

 

Linda Lutton: Kareem is really sobbing now.

 

Kareem: [inaudible 00:33:38]

 

Linda Lutton: To me, it seems so obvious that something else is going, something beyond being put out of class. I think Miss Hathorn probably sees that too, but she has a broader mission, 30 kids. By now, I know a lot of things that could be making Kareem cry. Maybe it's the unanswered Christmas letter he sent to his dad in prison. Miss Hathorn helped him write that. Maybe it's his mom's addiction to leaf, a drug that's all over Lawndale. On the day she's supposed to check into rehab, she can't make it. "Only God Can Judge Me," her t-shirt says that day.

 

Security Guard: You need some water? You need some [inaudible 00:34:23]?

 

Miss Hathorn: It's too much, and you're still expected to achieve in the midst of the chaos that goes on on a daily basis.

 

Linda Lutton: One day some months later, police came to Penn with a foster care worker. They were there to take Kareem, his brother and sister to an emergency shelter. There was one police officer per child in case they ran. Penn's assistant principal called the kids out of class.

 

Ast. Principal: Kareem just cried. "Now see, look, we're not going to be together," that was what he said, "We're not going to be together."

 

Linda Lutton: In the spring, when Principal Ollie goes to a Performance Management Session with district officials, they pick apart everything that can possibly be measured at Penn, test scores, attendance rates all down to the tenth of a percentage point. When she gets back, Doctor Ollie shares a torrent of frustration with her assistant principal.

 

Sherryl Moore-O: You know, they don't understand what we deal with. I mean, 100% attendance would be perfect if we had perfect families, but we don't.

 

Ast. Principal: They just want us, you know, "You've got to get this. Make it happen." So, we keep spinning our wheels trying to figure out how to make it happen. How do we do it? What can we do?

 

Linda Lutton: The week before the big PARCC test, I stopped at a staff meeting. It was in the principal's office, the ...

 

  Section 2 of 3          [00:18:00 - 00:36:04]
  Section 3 of 3          [00:36:00 - 00:53:01]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Linda: I stopped at a staff meeting. It was in the principal's office. The third, fourth, and fifth grade teachers were gathered, including Ms. Hawthorne. The topic was the upcoming park test-

 

Female: This is the first part-

 

Female: Is this the actual test?

 

Female: Yeah.

 

Female: Oh okay.

 

Linda: Each teacher was looking at a test booklet, or photo copied test booklet. The Park Tests arrive in the mail. School officials are told to keep the box under lock and key until they give the exam, that's how serious security is around these tests. But now, here I was, looking at the actual test and so were the teachers. They were pouring over reading passages, and questions.

 

Female: Okay this is very positive.

 

Female: We already read this.

 

Female: We read it. Oh good yep.

 

Female: It's like the practice.

 

Female: Cool.

 

Female: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Female: Let me see these questions, I already know this story.

 

Linda: I acted like this was the most normal thing in the world, to see teachers paging through the state's standardized exam. But inside all I could think of was, "Why? Why are they doing this?" I did not want to be seeing this ... Was that the real Park Test you guys were looking through?

 

Principal Ali: Yeah we have the test.

 

Linda: It's Principal Ali ... You have the actual test huh?

 

Principal Ali: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah.

 

Linda: So can the teachers look through that like that?

 

Principal Ali: They can see the test. We can give them the test before the test happens. I wanna familiarize them with the format of the test, but it doesn't say that they can't have the test before the assessment. So hopefully they can.

 

Linda: Actually no, they can't and that's really clear in all the rules schools are given about this test. I didn't come here to report on standardized tests, or to do some expose. My thing was to see up close what poverty throws at nine and 10 year olds, and how their schools respond. It wasn't until later that I realized what I saw at that staff meeting was part of my story. It's part of what we get by telling schools there's no excuse for low scores. By turning the screws.

 

I'm not saying we get cheating every time, and I'm not even sure I should call what happened at Penn cheating. Sometimes I would leave Penn, turn on the news in my car, and her about big, blatant cheating like Atlanta, where teachers were told to get scores up by any means necessary. They changed kid's answer sheets. That's not what I saw at Penn, but the pressure feels the same ... With just three weeks left of school, everybody in room 205 lines up. Kelsey at the front of the line, Jamarie at the end, and they march downstairs to a basement computer lab to take the highest stakes test of the year in this pale, yellow cinder block room.

 

The kid's scores will help determine Ms. Hawthorne's rating as a teacher, and Penn's rating as a school. I noticed nearly all the kids are carrying their class planners, which have a whole reference section inside. Ms. Hawthorne had instructed the kids to bring them, which is weird, since no reference materials are allowed in testing ... How come you guys brought those to testing?

 

Kelsey: So they can help us when we have to do it. Time tables, we got our time table charts, and we have to name the shapes. This is an agenda book.

 

Linda: They have the shapes in there too? Where is that? I wanna see.

 

Kelsey: Shapes as in models is all right here. If you don't know, your money's right here. If you don't know your decimals.

 

Linda: The fourth graders were in a computer lab for an hour or so. When I wandered back testing was wrapping up ... Did you finish testing? Yeah?

 

Female: Would you let us come out please?

 

Linda: Sure ... When they were lining up to go, little Kelsey came up to me quietly, and he whispered this right into my microphone, nothing more.

 

Kelsey: They don't like you.

 

Linda: What'd you say?

 

Kelsey: They don't like you.

 

Linda: "They don't like you." ... These things I saw, the teachers looking at the test ahead of time, kids using reference materials. They are not allowed, and they're wrong. They're also the first things I've told you about in this whole story that would ever make a news headline. And you can probably imagine that story, too. The principal on the hot seat, the teacher, all of the fingers pointed. But now, imagine all of the things I've told you about that would never get a headline, that would never get our attention. All you would not know about Penn.

 

You wouldn't know that the fourth graders learned the word right from a dictionary. You wouldn't know about the killing of Chelsea's cousin, or about Kelsey missing breakfast and lunch. That's not news. You wouldn't learn that not one of the fourth graders gets time with a social worker. It can be hard to look at schools like Penn. Hard to look at places like Lawndale, and I think that's why we mostly look away. The whole idea that kids and schools can overcome poverty, that idea allows us to look away, 'cause we tell ourselves the problem of poverty, and unemployment will be taken care of by the schools. By the fourth graders and their teachers working hard. A week after room 205's big test, I ran into Ms. Hawthorne in the hallway. She brought up what I had seen-

 

Ms. Hawthorne: With the agenda books, I've debated about that. I'm sorry I did. It didn't help the scores. My kids have always achieved. This is the first time I've ever put myself in a situation like this. So I may expect people to wonder, "Has she been credible for the last 20 years?" I know Penn is so close to being closed, and I think I let my emotions get in my way. In this space and time, so much is dependent on achievement in terms of whether your school doors stay open, whether people maintain jobs. There's so many things in a school like this, that should be in place in terms of helping children to be successful.

 

Linda: I tell Ms. Hawthorne that's the whole point of me being here, to see what Penn is up against. What schools are up against.

 

Ms. Hawthorne: Don't nobody care, that's the bottom line Ms. [inaudible 00:42:58]. Nobody cares.

 

Linda: I wanna tell you about the end of the school year at Penn. All the fourth graders in room 205 passed to the fifth grade. There were cupcakes for Kareem's birthday.

 

Boy Student: Okay Kareem, happy birthday from the whole classroom, and I wish you many, many more.

 

Linda: Penn did not meet its testing goals the year I was there, despite all efforts. Legitimate and not so legitimate. Since then scores have been up and down. They're about the same as scores at nearby charter schools, and schools where all new teachers have been installed. But of course all those schools are still miles below where middle class kids score. We believe schools can overcome poverty, but what if we're wrong? What if we're putting way too much faith in schools to overcome all the obstacles poverty presents?

 

Not because poor kids are any less bright, or talented. Not because they don't work as hard, simply because money. The kind of money that middle class, or affluent people have. That money buys experiences that help kids understand the world, understand the word ripe. It buys music lessons, and sports practice. Connections to people with jobs and opportunities. Money buys dinner every night. Buys a neighborhood where kids are not shot. Buys a school with more resources. We should want our schools to get better, but what if we're just plain wrong about how much schools can do to make the American dream real for kids? Like the fourth graders in Lawndale.

 

Dr. King: I can feel the needs of the people, and live with them, and live ...

 

Linda: After his time in Lawndale, Martin Luther King became even more convinced that poverty should be attacked head on. He said, "Trying to fix housing or education is just too indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else." He wrote. The biggest supporters of the idea that schools can overcome poverty, they often call education the civil rights issue of our time. They challenge the quality of schools, and they're right to do that. But they don't challenge what King was challenging, the conditions kids live in. The conditions in which school takes place.

 

Al: Joining us now is Linda Lutton, and Linda can you tell us why you wanted to do this story? Looking at the connection between poverty and school?

 

Linda: I guess because education reporters like me are confronted all the time with numbers, test scores, graduation rates, and a lot of times when a school's numbers look good, that just means they have fewer poor kids. I wanted to look a lot harder at that idea that no matter where you're from, you can make it. And we're really looking to schools as the place for that to happen. Except what we know from research is that more than every before, your family's background determines how well you'll do in school, and how well you do in school determines also more than ever before, your future earnings. I think that's something Americans should feel really uncomfortable with.

 

Al: A while back I went to work with kids that were in a neighborhood that was severely economically challenged. And I thought I understood poverty before, and what I found was that, poverty kind of changes everything. It shifts the narrative that we normally think about how families work, and how communities work. What did you learn about poverty that you didn't already know? What perceptions were shifted after this experience?

 

Linda: Well I think certain things that you hear about on an academic level just seeing those, and being confronted with those every day from a nine year old. That touches you in a way. That changes you. Little kids who are persistently hungry, was something I wasn't actually really prepared for, didn't understand would play a factor in what I was seeing.

 

Al: So by investigating the nation's education policy, you're really zooming out and looking at the big picture of what's happening with economic inequality in America?

 

Linda: Yeah, and I'm taking a look at the fact that in the US, we essentially build our school policy around the notion that schools will overcome poverty. That poverty is no excuse for low achievement, and we do that by imposing pretty harsh sanctions on poor schools when they fail to meet our standards. And if we believe that it's schools that are failing, then the answer is to fix schools, and that's been our approach. We have not tried to fix poverty.

 

Al: So when you started looking into this, you were doing it during the Obama administration. But now President Trump is in power, and a whole new administration. How is that affecting students, like the ones you spent that school year with?

 

Linda: We're seeing for the first time ever, possible work requirement for Medicaid recipients. In housing we're seeing proposals to increase the percentage of poor people's income that goes toward their housing. I should say too, when it comes to education policy, there's not a lot of fundamental difference between the Obama administration, and Betsy DeVos for instance. Both embrace really radical consequences for America's lowest performing schools, which are schools full of poor kids.

 

Al: So I have to ask you about some of the things you stumbled upon. The teachers and the principal reading through the standardized test, and then Ms. Hawthorne allowing the kids to bring notes into the test. What happened as a result of that?

 

Linda: Well Chicago public schools said it did investigate those incidents. There have never been any findings made public. I can say Dr. Ali is still principal at William Penn Elementary. Just before we broadcast the documentary, Dr. Ali essentially changed her story, and said those were not the actual tests that teachers had been looking at. She said they were practice tests. Though our reporting, we had confirmed with the state, that they were the real tests. A leading researcher in the country who spends a lot of time with test score analysis says, he does not think Chicago schools have a wide spread cheating problem.

 

Al: What can you tell us about the kids in the classroom? I mean, how are they doing now?

 

Linda: Well the fourth graders are all seventh graders now. Jamarie is still really into computers. A listener actually sent him a computer after he heard this documentary. Kareem still not back with his mom. He and his siblings live with an aunt on Chicago's South Side. He doesn't go to Penn. Chelsea still lives right around the corner from where her cousin was killed.

 

Al: Linda Lutton is a reporter at WBEZ in Chicago. Again her documentary is called, "The View From Room 205" you can listen to a complete version of it and see photos from Lawndale, and illustrations from the school year at WBEZ.org/room205. Linda, one of my favorite reporters in the universe, thank you so much for your work and sharing your story with us.

 

Linda: Thank you Al.

 

Al: We wanna give a special thanks to the fourth graders, their families, and everyone at William Penn Elementary School. Especially Ms. Hawthorne and Dr. Ali. Miriam McCune and KK Hann edited the documentary. It was mixed by Joe Desoe. Ben Calhoun was the executive producer. Reporting for today's show was supported by a Spencer Fellowship in education reporting at Columbia University's graduate school of journalism. Support for our [inaudible 00:51:26] provided by the Reeve and David Logan Foundation.

 

The John D and Katherine T MacArthur foundation, the Johnathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Hizing Simon's Foundation, and the Ethics in Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co production of the center for investigative reporting, and PRX. I'm Al Ludson, and remember, there is always more to the story ... Hey, hey, hey this is Al Ludson and tell me, does this sound familiar?

 

Female: 19 seconds.

 

Al: Yeah a few episodes back we gathered a choir to explain how lopsided the numbers are for diversity in tech. Numbers like 1.4%, that's the percentage of executives and senior managers at nearly 200 large tech companies in the Bay Area who are black. Yeah, just 1.4%. Silicon Valley treats diversity like it's a problem to be solved with. Conferences and consultants, that really don't do much. But our friends at Startup, a podcast from Gimwitt are spending six episodes with a venture capitalist who thinks that investing in diversity is a way to make a ton of money.

 

Arlon Hamilton: You could say I am hacking venture capital. I've had to hack everything else, why not hack venture capital?

 

Al: Arlon Hamilton is breaking open the biggest, widest boys club in tech. Get her story on Startup in Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen.

 

  Section 3 of 3          [00:36:00 - 00:53:01]