Chicago Tribune: Girls See School in a New Light and They Shine

by Mary Schmich 

Published in the Chicago Tribune on July 11, 2001.

They're girls like Joslyn Ewing-Brown, a sturdy 12-year-old who quietly but proudly notes that in 6th grade, having promised herself and her mother that she'd improve her grades, she pulled her 5th- grade F in math up to a C.

Full Text: (Copyright 2001 by the Chicago Tribune)

When Sharon Hefferan, who runs a program called Metro Achievement Center, called recently and said, "Come see what we do," I hesitated. There are 10,000 good programs for the needy in the naked city, and even a good do-good program isn't necessarily a good story.

So I compromised. I'd come see but wouldn't write anything. Then I saw the girls.

Actually, you don't so much see the girls as feel them here in this bright former ceiling tile warehouse in the West Loop, where five full days a week in the summer, 300 girls burst in from such turbulent Chicago neighborhoods as Pilsen, Lawndale, Little Village and Cabrini-Green.

Waves of girl energy ripple through the cozy halls, in and out of airy classrooms, energy that manifests almost as visibly as neon. This isn't school, it's a sorority of girls studying their way up in the world.

They're Hispanic and African-American girls mostly, not the best students, not the worst, simply girls from low-income families who without an extra ear or nudge might drop out of school, get pregnant, fail to dream a life that includes college and a good job.

"The forgotten middle," Hefferan says.

They're girls like Joslyn Ewing-Brown, a sturdy 12-year-old who quietly but proudly notes that in 6th grade, having promised herself and her mother that she'd improve her grades, she pulled her 5th- grade F in math up to a C.

"At school you have to worry about the popular groups; are the boys going to accept you?" said Joslyn, who was carrying a book on the Salem witch trials. "Here, teachers explain more. I can easily go to the teachers here and say I don't understand, and you don't get snapped on. At my school, I hear, `You should know this already.' Here, they help you with your confidence."

The teachers are, in fact, Chicago public school teachers, all female, but, like the students, they are briefly liberated from the long school year and the big school bureaucracy, and the ones I see, at least, teach with a missionary zeal not as reliably encountered in the schools.

"Is there someone brave enough to read with passion?" a reading teacher asks as I slip into the room.

Hands waggle eagerly while the teacher explains they're about to analyze a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. for verbal technique, foreshadowing and vocabulary. The designated reader then begins.

"I have a dream ..."

"Oh, that's not powerful!" the teacher cries. "Stand up! We need to know you have a dream!"

The girl stands, draws a breath, exhales with force: "I HAVE a DREAM!"

If these girls weren't spending the summer here, they might well be home with the TV. Instead they study reading, writing, arithmetic, art. And good behavior.

Metro has a Catholic inclination but gets no church money--money comes from corporations, foundations and an annual benefit--and the girls come from a variety of denominations. But they attend character education class, each week exploring a different virtue, say responsibility or generosity.

"To link the heart and brain and soul," says Hefferan.

Most of these girls come from families in which no one has ever gone to college. Metro's goal is to make sure all its students do. A bulletin board beams with pictures of girls heading this fall to places like Loyola and Barat.

During lunch--boxed turkey sandwiches supplied by the city--I ask some of the girls why this program seems to inspire them in a way school or other tutor programs haven't.

"It's organized and secure," said Michelle Zavala, 12.

Patient teachers, they add. No boys, so no flirtation, less fashion, less intimidation. And each girl gets an adviser, a college woman who embodies a vision of the future.

There are other reasons. The girls must apply and a small tuition is charged, creating a sense that being here isn't just duty, it's privilege, choice, investment. A parent or guardian must promise to participate. An air of trust grows from such small touches as open storage boxes instead of lockers.

It helps, of course, that the summer is short and classes are small, unavailable luxuries in a public school year. And if it seems a little crazy that enterprises outside the schools wind up doing so much of the education, it's good to know the forgotten middle
is being remembered.

Sub Title: 
[North Sports Final Edition]
Start Page: 
Subject Terms: 
Quality of education
Private schools
Geographic Names: 
Chicago Illinois


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