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The trials of a neighborhood high school

Wells Community Academy in West Town has disadvantaged students, many unhelpful parents, a bad reputation, charters nibbling at its enrollment—and some rare successes. Can it survive?

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This is the fifth installment in our occasional series on poverty and segregation in Chicago's schools.

Some Chicago high school students like to diss the teens who attend Wells Community Academy. They tell them their school's name stands for We Educate Low-Life Students. "You don't attend our school, so you don't know," Conchita Castro typically responds. "Wells used to be rowdy, but it changed."

Castro, 16, is a junior at Wells. She takes the Orange Line and the Ashland bus to get to the school, at Ashland and Augusta, from Brighton Park. She's Mexican-American, and grew up on the south side with her six sisters and two brothers. She could have attended Kelly High School, less than a mile from where she lives. Another high school, Juarez, was also more convenient than Wells, and she had sisters there.

But virtually all the students at her elementary school, Chavez, were Hispanic, and both Kelly and Juarez also were predominantly Hispanic. Wells's enrollment is evenly split between Hispanics and African-Americans. Castro's counselor at Chavez told her Wells was a good school and "that it would be a good thing for me to get out of my comfort zone," Castro says. She liked the idea. "In my neighborhood, all I know is Hispanics, and not everywhere in the world it's gonna be just Hispanic people. You have to get used to meeting different races, different kinds of people."

Castro's happy about the choice she made. Some prejudices she bore against African-Americans have been dispelled by having them as classmates, she says. Her boyfriend, also a Wells junior, is African-American. She likes her teachers. "A lot of them stay after school to help their students. They make sure you understand a topic before they move on." She's getting mostly As and Bs.

We're talking in an office at Wells on a morning in late April. She'll be taking her ACTs the two following days. Castro badly wants to go to college. She knows she needs a good score on the test to be accepted by schools, let alone get the financial aid she'll require. "I'm worried, but I'm trying not to stress about it. I'll just go in there and do my best."

Castro's hair is dyed blond, and her nails are red. She's friendly with peers but allows that she has an edge. She's been suspended twice for fighting, but emphasizes that that was during her first two years at Wells. "I know getting suspended now would really set me back. I left the childish stuff in the past."

Her mother, a factory worker, was the breadwinner long before Castro's father died in 2010. "I push myself, because I want to have a future," she says. She plans to have children one day and would like to show them "that I did something with my life. Because my dad, I don't want to put him down, but he was a deadbeat. When he would get drunk, he'd say, 'Don't end up like me.'"

Conchita Castro
  • Ryan Lowry
  • Wells junior Conchita Castro: “I push myself, because I want to have a future.”

Wells is in the fast-gentrifying East Village neighborhood in West Town. Working-class Hispanics used to predominate here, but middle-class and affluent whites have displaced most of them in recent years. The white residents either don't have school-age children or send them to private or selective enrollment schools. They certainly don't send them to Wells. Ninety-four percent of the students are from low-income families. The number of white students doubled this year, to four.

The large percentages of poor minorities are typical of neighborhood Chicago public schools. The district's enrollment is 45 percent Hispanic, 40 percent African-American, and 85 percent low-income; about the only schools that aren't predominantly poor and minority are some of the selective enrollment and magnet schools.

Because poverty and school achievement are tightly linked, students at most neighborhood schools score far below state and national averages on standardized tests. Last year juniors at Wells averaged 14.8 on the ACT—just under the 17th percentile nationally. (CPS juniors averaged 17.6, which is at about the 32nd percentile.)

Wells's staff hopes to change the motto the school is known by to We Educate Life-Long Scholars, but that's easier said than done. Principal Rituparna Raichoudhuri says: "Here it's basically, 'Are these kids going to go out and get killed tomorrow? Or are we going to reengage them so they stay in school during the day, and play sports afterwards, and go home and do homework, and repeat it all the next day?'"

Raichoudhuri, 33, is energetic, self-confident, and new—she's in her first year as principal. "A school like Wells is a salmon swimming against the current," she says, but she maintains that Wells is making progress. Attendance and the on-track rate for graduation are better than they've been in years, and course failures have fallen.

Like many neighborhood Chicago public schools, however, Wells is fighting for its life. The four-story redbrick building can accommodate 1,400 students, and as recently as 2006 the enrollment was 1,100. Wells has lost students every year since, and now is down to under 600. Gentrification and nearby charter schools are the main causes of the shrinkage.

Wells offers specialized programs in law, teaching, and logistics. It's a "neighborhood" school because it takes all within its boundaries who apply; but neighborhood schools with space can also enroll students, like Castro, who are from outside its boundaries.

The building is old—it opened in 1935—but it's been renovated. The hallways are neat, their floors shiny. The first-floor corridor is trimmed with photos of students and staff and buoyant posters ("We think your possibilities are exciting and endless").

Last year when CPS closed 50 elementary schools that it judged to be underused, it left high schools alone. If the district eventually decides to close some high schools as well and "underutilization" is the criterion, "Wells is very much in danger," Raichoudhuri says. But "If they're going to look at the full picture, maybe they'll be like, 'This school is turning itself around, so let's give it another chance—and let's actually give it more resources.'"

Rituparna Raichoudhuri
  • Ryan Lowry
  • Principal Rituparna Raichoudhuri: "I often ask, ‘Why did I get a better hand in life, and what can I do to lessen that gap?’”

Raichoudhuri grew up in California. Her parents were from India. Her dad was an engineer, and the family was rich. When they visited relatives in India, they were chauffeured in luxury cars past people begging in the street. Raichoudhuri thinks she ended up being an educator in a disadvantaged school largely out of guilt. "I come from a very stable home, my parents are still married, they were very much involved in my education. They'd sit down with me and help me do homework, ask me questions about school, they kept in regular touch with teachers. I'm here today at 33, leading a high school where some of the students don't live past 16 or 17 because they're in gangs and getting in trouble and getting shot. I often ask, 'Why did I get a better hand in life, and what can I do to lessen that gap?'"

Her first regular teaching position was in a California high school whose students were predominantly Hispanic and low-income, and whose parents supported their education far less than did hers. "You realize how dependent the students are on you, because they don't necessarily have that stable adult figure at home," she says. "I knew immediately that I wanted to stay in urban education." She moved to Chicago and worked an administrative job for CPS for three years. "I was itching to get back down to ground level, and Wells was the kind of school I wanted to be in."

She was taking on a daunting challenge. The school has been a low achiever since at least the 1970s; in 1973 its dropout rate, 17.3 percent, was almost double the citywide rate.

Gang fights have long been common at Wells, and when they occurred in front of the school, on bustling Ashland Avenue, everyone could see them. That may partly account for the school's bad rep.

Whites began leaving Wells in the late 1960s. By 1982 the school was 71 percent Hispanic and 20 percent black. The Hispanics were largely low-income, and the black students were even poorer; most were from the Cabrini-Green housing project.

"School success depends on socioeconomics, period," says Irving Zucker, who taught at Wells for 25 years before he retired in 2006. Zucker concedes that Wells had "plenty of mediocre teachers" during his years at the school. "Some were so bad it was embarrassing," he says. "But there was also a core group of really strong teachers who each kind of adopted one or two kids and developed a relationship with them. So many of these kids had had such lousy parenting, and we knew they needed nurturant adults around them."

Vashti Taylor, a current Wells teacher, says the school was on the upswing when she started there 14 years ago. But then its dynamic principal, Carmen Martinez, retired, and the principal's office became a revolving door. Things worsened in 2005 when Austin High, a west-side school with a poor, African-American enrollment, was phased out and Wells was designated a receiving school for many of its students. Gang battles became epidemic again. "We had fights every single day, back to back to back," Taylor says. Some good teachers transferred to schools where they didn't have to spend so much time on discipline, she says.

She considered leaving as well, but in 2008 Wells got another exemplary principal—Ernesto Matias—and the hallways and classrooms grew more orderly.

Raichoudhuri spent last year at Wells as a principal in training, mentored by Matias, who was moving up to a deputy chief post at year's end.

She knew that student behavior would continue to be a key issue. Gang violence within the school has greatly diminished, she says. A gang crimes sergeant agrees. "There's still a gang presence, but it's nothing like it used to be," he tells me. He attributes the change to the neighborhood's gentrification.

A challenge that persists is the inclination of many students to settle grievances by fighting. "We want to get to the root of why they were acting out," Raichoudhuri says. "If a student all of a sudden was getting into fights—what's happening with this student? Is it something at school or at home? Is it gang-related? Is it related to sexual abuse? Is it because they don't have a home to go back to? Let's figure out what's going on and mitigate it so we're not dealing with it after somebody gets hurt."

She's taken advantage of the arrangement Matias forged with local universities that brought social-work interns to the school. The ten interns direct the anger-management groups that all Wells freshmen participate in, and they oversee peer juries and peace circles the school employs when behavior problems or conflicts arise.

Raichoudhuri thinks out-of-school suspension should be a last resort. "When students are in the streets, they may get harmed, or harm somebody. They may end up pregnant."

Or they may simply enjoy being out of school, she says. "I don't want the kids to be having fun when they're being punished—to go home and goof off and play video games. We're giving them consequences. They have work to do for teachers. They write apology letters, sign contracts that are enforced. We want students to reflect on what they did and why it was wrong."

Raichoudhuri has also emphasized to her faculty the importance of their relationships with students. "We talk through steps for building those relationships. When we go into classrooms to observe, one of the things we're looking for is respect and rapport."

She believes socioemotional factors are especially important in a high-poverty school such as Wells. "Our kids need love," she says. "That's the one thing they will respond to, because they get so little of it outside of school. The students feel loved and cared for by the adults in this building."

Samantha Kyme
  • Ryan Lowry
  • Dean of students Samantha Kyme: “You have victories, but sometimes they don’t seem that large because of all of the underlying systemic issues.”

"You got a date for the prom yet?" Samantha Kyme, the dean of students, asks a senior outside her office one April morning.

"No—you're still going with me?" the young man asks with a smile.

Kyme returns the grin. "Yeah, but you better keep looking, 'cause I've got some other offers."

Unlike some high school deans of students, Kyme is not a stern disciplinarian with a background in administration. "Miss Sam," as the students call her, has a master's in social work, and ran mentoring programs for a youth group before she came to Wells two years ago. She's 31, and has been dean just over a year.

"I never thought I'd land in a position like this, doing discipline in high school," she says. "But I've been able to influence what discipline should look like."

When Conchita Castro had an in-school suspension for fighting last year, Kyme was in the room with her, monitoring her as she did schoolwork but also getting to know her. "She was there for me from day one," Castro says. "I see her as a mentor. She tries to be friends with students as well as an authority figure, and she does it right. She really cares about us and about our futures.

"I do have a short fuse," Castro adds. "But I think it's gotten longer since I've been at Wells."

Kyme says, "If you don't have a connection with students, how are they going to trust you to help them work through a problem? We want kids to feel that we're a family, that we're going to get them through whatever they need to get through."

A former student had stopped in to see her the day before. He told Kyme his girlfriend was pregnant. At Wells "he was a total knucklehead, but he graduated," Kyme says. "Because I developed a relationship with him, I was able to have a conversation with him about not being an absent father."

A girl on the volleyball team she coaches fought often in school last year, resulting in many talks with Kyme. A senior now, "she still has moments where she sparks off, but she hasn't gotten into any physical altercations all year," Kyme says. "Now she's a part of a peer jury, teaching our younger kids, 'Don't do what I did, it's not worth it. Be smart, work through things, talk it out.'

"You have victories, but sometimes they don't seem that large because of all of the underlying systemic issues," Kyme says.

When she learns that a dispute is brewing between two students, "We'll bring the parties down and speak to them individually and then together. It can be challenging, because there's a lot of heat and anger. Sometimes they're like, 'We have to talk about this? We can't just fight it out?' There are lots of awkward silences. But once they get talking, they don't want to stop."

Castro says the school has grown more peaceful since her freshman year. "It's nice that we can walk through the hallways now without pulling each other's hair and punching each other."

Edwin Caraballo
  • Ryan Lowry
  • Social worker Edwin Caraballo says that when some students are angry, "It's like, 'You looked at me wrong--let's fight.'"

Edwin Caraballo, Wells's social worker, oversees the social-work interns. Caraballo, who's 48 and of Puerto Rican descent, grew up in Humboldt Park and attended public schools, graduating from nearby Clemente High. He says he understands why many students are accustomed to settling differences with violence. There were gangs in his neighborhood when he was growing up, and he was jumped occasionally on the way to or from school. "Then you went into survivor mode. When you had to fight, you fought."

Some students with agitated temperaments have been abused physically or emotionally, he says. "When they're angry, it's like, 'You looked at me wrong—let's fight.' That's all they know. I tell them, 'There are tools we can give you to defuse your stress and anger.'"

Before Wells, Caraballo worked as a gang-prevention specialist at Clemente and as a social worker at two other north-side neighborhood schools. There were more troubled students in those schools than he had time to counsel. "I don't feel alone here," he says. "Having an army of social-work interns has really helped."

Latia Lane, 23, is one of the interns. A Detroit native and a student at UIC, she works with groups of Wells students three days a week.

Many conflicts at the school stem from Facebook postings, Lane says. Students "don't know how to talk things out, and it's easier to hide behind a screen. But that leads to more people getting involved. So we talk about not getting other people involved who antagonize and instigate and make a situation more than it really is.

"I tell them, 'You're not going to like everybody, and everybody's not going to like you, but you still have to give them respect,'" Lane says.

Parents sometimes hamper the staff's efforts to resolve student disagreements nonviolently, Raichoudhuri says. "I have parents who are like, 'The other person started it, so my child absolutely had the right to punch him.' They scream and yell and call me names."

She worries sometimes that the school's supportive climate may lull students into thinking "that this is how the world works. What if, because we have held their hands as young adults so much, they are not able to survive on their own in the real world?"

But given a choice between being sympathetic or severe, she says, "I know which one I will pick every time."

Conchita Castro and Darius Calhoun
  • Ryan Lowry
  • Castro and her boyfriend, junior Darius Calhoun. He's on the dean's list, and is a guard on the basketball team.

Racial strife seems to be one problem Wells doesn't have much of. The school's balanced enrollment may be helpful in that regard. Most Chicago public schools are either predominantly African-American or predominantly Hispanic. Wells is one of the few in the district with an equal split, so neither group is subordinate.

"If we had 90 percent African-American and 10 percent Hispanic, then the Hispanics might feel marginalized," Raichoudhuri says. "With an equal split, everybody's on the same footing."

Conchita Castro and her boyfriend, Darius Calhoun, say the occasional gang fights outside the school aren't racial; they're more likely to be African-Americans against African-Americans or Hispanics against Hispanics.

Castro and Calhoun started dating last spring. When I speak with them in Caraballo's office on a February afternoon, Calhoun has on shorts and sneakers; he's a guard on the basketball team, and he has practice later. Castro is wearing red lipstick and a T-shirt that says POW.

Calhoun is on the dean's list, and Castro says she became interested in him partly because he's a good student who plans to go to college. "I like that he wants to further himself," she says. "To me it seems like he has a purpose in life." Calhoun says he was drawn to Castro for similar reasons. "She's smart, and she comes to school to work, not to play."

Calhoun lives on the near south side. At his elementary school, Smyth, almost all of the students were black. "I've spent the majority of my time with the same race, and I wanted to see something different," he says. "I wanted to start meeting new people and getting used to a different environment." A friend who was attending Wells suggested he consider the school. He says his experience here has been positive; he knows now that he can get along with everyone, not just other African-Americans, and he thinks he'll be better prepared for college because of that.

Castro was afraid of blacks when she was small. Her family used to live in Back of the Yards, and for a while everyone else on the block was black. When she was eight, she witnessed a fatal shooting down the block—the priest from the family's church was shot in the head by a black youth. She doesn't think the shooter was caught. She wants to be a lawyer or a police officer so she can fight such injustices, she says. "I don't like people getting killed and the killers getting away with it."

At Wells, she says, she's learned that there are good and bad African-Americans, just like there are good and bad Hispanics—that how a person acts depends on his personality and not his race.

They've been to Calhoun's home, but not to Castro's. "My mother is very judgmental," Castro says, "and I feel like if he goes over there, she's going to be judging him and we're going to end up fighting." Her mother knows her boyfriend is African-American. "Every time I try to tell her something about him, she ends up walking away from me," Castro says. Because he's African-American? "I don't see another reason for it," she says.

Calhoun, sounding wounded, interjects: "I see how it is."

Castro quickly offers another explanation. She says her mother didn't want her to have a boyfriend in high school because she thought it would be a distraction, and her reluctance to talk about Calhoun might simply be that.

They haven't taken any grief from classmates for being a mixed-race couple. "Nowadays, it's acceptable," Castro says. "People say we're cute," Calhoun adds, and they both laugh.

I ask them why they think so few white kids attend Chicago's public schools. After a long pause, Calhoun responds: "That's a good question. They were probably taught not to socialize with a certain type of people. Can't blame 'em, if that's the way they were taught."

"They think we're wild," Castro says. "It can be like that, but we're not all the same."

Guillermo Soto, a security guard at the school and a 2009 Wells graduate, says that disputes between students here occasionally do devolve along racial lines. "People say ignorant stuff when they're mad," he tells me.

But it happens less often now than when he was a student here, he says. His freshman year, after the Austin High students enrolled, he was jumped by a few of them in a hallway; they bashed his face into a window and he ended up with a concussion. He says he bore a grudge against African-Americans for a while afterward, but it dissipated because he played on the school football team and his best friend on the team was black. On the field and in the school, "He protected me, and I protected him."

Guillermo Soto
  • Ryan Lowry
  • Guillermo Soto, a Wells security guard, graduated from the school in 2009. Disputes at the school usually aren't along racial lines, he says, but taunts sometimes are.

Wells is "much calmer now, much more peaceful" than a few years ago, Vashti Taylor says. "Now we can actually teach."

Taylor, 40, chairs the electives department and teaches business logistics. She grew up in Liberia and came to Chicago with her family when she was 14. For high school she attended Kenwood Academy. Kenwood's enrollment was mostly African-American, but many of its students were middle-class; unlike at Wells, the student body wasn't overwhelmingly poor.

"In Africa, you came to school prepared to learn," she says. "It was what was expected. We had similar norms at Kenwood. You had teachers who cared, and parents who were highly educated and very involved in their children's education. You had students who wanted to learn."

That hasn't been nearly as true at Wells much of the time she's been there, Taylor says, but things are improving. She says Raichoudhuri has raised the expectations of teachers for their students, and that the students have responded: "I'd say 80 percent of them now are here to work."

Wells still poses a big challenge for its teachers, Taylor says. "In almost every class, you have ESL [English as a Second Language] students, special-ed students, and low-, middle-, and high-functioning students. How do you meet all those needs?" She tries to do so by often breaking her classes into small groups.

Many of her students have family difficulties that interfere with their ability to focus on their schoolwork, Taylor says. "We sit there and talk. I'll say, 'I don't know what happened at home, because you weren't like this yesterday, but whatever it was, don't let that stop you. Don't quit.'

"When you have a student say, 'Thank you for not giving up on me,' how can you not stay in this field?"

Because of the improvement at Wells, "kids who didn't even think they could go to college now are able to go to college," Taylor says. College may not be right for every Wells student, she says, but "every student needs to be given the opportunity."

According to Raichoudhuri, 100 of Wells's 135 seniors are on track to graduate—the best percentage for the school in recent history.

Only 30 percent of the graduates will go to four-year colleges, however. Raichoudhuri says that percentage would be higher if Wells students had more help from their parents in the application process. Parents of Wells students "don't sit down with their kids and help them fill out their applications, or help them write their essays, or look at scholarship options with them." Because most of the parents haven't been to college themselves, "we are the ones who talk to their kids about it," she says. "We have bought them train tickets, bus tickets, or have driven them to college.

"Now, here's the kicker," she continues. "The kids get accepted, and their parents don't want them to go to college. They tell them, 'Stay and work. You need to provide for the family—I can't do it by myself. You need to stay and take care of your younger siblings. Why do you want to go to college? Do you think you're better than us?'" Some Wells students have been accepted to colleges outside Chicago and have been awarded significant financial aid, she says, "and the parent has actually not allowed them to go."

Vashti Taylor
  • Ryan Lowry
  • Vashti Taylor, who has taught at Wells for 14 years, says the school is more peaceful than it used to be.

"I need to increase my enrollment," Raichoudhuri says. "The more students I have, the more money I get, the more I can sustain our programs, and the more I can bring in new ones." And the better the chance that Wells stays open.

For that reason, Raichoudhuri has been out recruiting. Recently, she visited Burr Elementary, which is a mile north of Wells. "None of those kids come here. Ever. I'm like, I want to find out why this is.

"So I go into their seventh- and eighth-grade classrooms, and I ask the students, 'Thumbs up or thumbs down, when you hear of Wells High School, what do you think?' Thumbs down—every single one of the kids. We are not going to get anybody from this current eighth-grade class.

"So I said, 'How many of you have been inside Wells?' None of them. 'Then why is it thumbs down?' 'It's a bad school. It's very unsafe. There are fights all the time.' 'Who did you hear that from?' Parents, family members, community members. 'Have they ever been inside the school?' 'No.' It's basically, 'Wells was bad back then, Wells is still bad, we're not going to take the time to find out.'"

Raichoudhuri says that next year she's going to offer bus trips to Wells for the kids and parents at the neighborhood grade schools. She'll host a lunch and raffle off gift cards to attract the parents. "They'll see how quiet our hallways are and how clean our school is," she says. "They think there's graffiti everywhere. There's not graffiti anywhere. I want them inside my school to see what we have to offer."

For Wells to be successful long-term, she knows it will also have to become an option for the neighborhood's middle-class residents, who currently won't consider it. Will that ever happen? "The only way we can do it is by continuously improving," she says.

Many of the area's minority children go to one of the four charter schools in the neighborhood. One opened in 1999, the other three since 2006. A total of almost 2,000 students are attending them.

The number of students enrolled in a school on the tenth day of the school year determines how much money it receives for the year. Parents are attracted by the "pop and glitter" of charters, Raichoudhuri says. "They think their kids are going to have such an amazing experience. They send their kid to a charter, and they get kicked out. Guess who picks them up? Me. I'm not getting any additional funding for them." Twenty students who started at charters this year have ended up at Wells.

CPS data released in February showed the expulsion rate at charter schools last year was 61 per 10,000 students, compared with five per 10,000 in district-run schools. Many other charter school students leave under pressure.

That's not the only thing that bothers Raichoudhuri about charter schools. "They are taking kids who could be making this school better, and parents who would be bringing their resources here," she says. Charter school students come from families with parents who are more active in their children's education, she says, and so they tend to be better students.

"I want those kids. They're automatically going to raise the level of their peers. They're going to model how to be a good student. If a student is goofing off and not doing the work, they're going to call them out on it. Teachers can take advantage of that."

Wells's concrete athletic practice area
  • Ryan Lowry
  • Wells doesn't have its own sports field, and is raising money for one. Its athletes currently practice on concrete areas behind the school.

Wells is raising money for an athletic field that would be built behind the school on the concrete area students now practice on. The "Field of Hope" would have baseball and soccer fields for neighborhood as well as school use.

"CPS won't pay a cent," Raichoudhuri says. "They said their priorities are elementary schools. My kids are my priority. They play on concrete, they hurt themselves, or we're at someone's mercy to let us rent their field.

"My kids need after-school sports to stay out of gangs, to stay motivated," she says. "They have to deal with so many disappointments—they shouldn't have another one: 'Oh, sorry, your game got canceled today because we got put on the waiting list for renting that field.' 'But we practiced so hard, Miss R.' 'Sorry, kids.'"

The unending struggles of the school haven't worn out Raichoudhuri yet. "I know for some people a job is just a job, but I feel lucky every day. I see how dedicated the people in this building are."

And she remains optimistic. "As we get better, we are going to attract new students, and slowly but surely we are going to increase enrollment. But you need to give us time."

Taylor Tolbert and Osita Nwanevu helped research this story.

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