Students at Elihu Yale Elementary School, a public school in a tough Chicago neighborhood, lack the opportunities provided to students at Yale University. The name of the Chicago public school was little more than a coincidence until a determined band of Yale University alumni started volunteering at the school. Can these volunteers and school faculty help students to overcome the systemic and social obstacles they face?
On a windy Chicago day, Peter Dickinson ’60 pauses outside the Elihu Yale Elementary School in the city’s crime-ridden Englewood neighborhood. He’s come to volunteer in Mrs. Abell’s notoriously unruly fifth-grade classroom, so he takes a moment of quiet before heading in. The school itself, a three-story brick building, does not give away the poverty of its surroundings. But the new playground is vacant because students in this unsafe district have no recess. And Dickinson knows from the students which of the nearby buildings are drug houses. Suddenly, a large lady in a bubble-gum-pink velour outfit shoots past Dickinson.
“Hi, Mr. Dickinson,” Mrs. Abell says in transit. “I’m running a little late this morning.” Dickinson’s eyes widen slightly. It’s almost 9:30 a.m. School began at 9:00.
Since 1997, Chicago-based Yale University alumni volunteer weekly at Yale Elementary. Dickinson, the informal coordinator of the tutors, inherited the program from Richard Pinto ’48, the former Yale Club of Chicago president who linked his chapter to its namesake public school. The elementary school and nearby neighborhood streets share their names with Ivy League universities, signs of prestige and refinement. Englewood’s Ivy street names reflect the aspirations of the middle-class South-Siders who moved out decades ago. Now Englewood, a low-income black neighborhood, has some of the highest homicide and criminal sexual assault rates in the city. The neighborhood houses with their broken windows and sagging porches complement the fields of broken glass and plastic bags, the abandoned storefronts, the basketball courts with cracked pavement, the rusted-out cars. Englewood looks the part of a dangerous South Side community inhospitable to conspicuous outsiders.
While both Yale University and the Elihu Yale Elementary School, which teaches students from kindergarten through eighth grade, serve young and curious minds, the two schools have little else in common. When students finish Yale Elementary, they often attend high school at the nearby Paul Robeson Achievement Academy. According to Robeson’s 2003-4 Illinois State School Report Card, 50.2 percent of students, compared to the state’s 86.5 percent level, graduate from high school. That year, Robeson students averaged scores of 8.5 out of 100 on all state tests compared to the state average of 62.4. Per pupil, Yale Elementary and Robeson spend at least the state average, so the schools’ low performance cannot just be a matter of money. At Robeson, the average ACT score is 14.1 out of 36. At the University, the average ACT score is 32. Still, a bulldog sign stands resolute outside Yale Elementary and on special occasions, a big “Y” flag, a gift from the Yale Club, flutters in the wind. Inside the school, choice Yale University paraphernalia decorates the hallways.
Otherwise, Elihu Yale Elementary almost resembles any other school with posters on the walls that list “Keys To Success.” These keys encourage students to “Read to Succeed” and remind everybody, “I Can.” Uniformed kindergarteners line up next to their tiny lockers. But the front office has a security television, and hallway monitors wear police-like uniforms. The bathroom doors are missing.
On his way to Room 202, Dickinson receives warm greetings from administrators, students and teachers. A retired businessman, Dickinson speaks with passion about Yale Elementary. If he likes a kid or a teacher, he says she’s “absolutely terrific” or he’s “fantastic.” He doesn’t talk about what he doesn’t like, but when he describes Englewood as “interesting,” he hints at the challenges of the neighborhood. And when he says that tutoring at Yale Elementary is “by far the most rewarding experience of his life,” he means it.
When Dickinson enters Room 202, he is ready to assist Mrs. Abell with her lesson plans. She sits in the back of the room while the students look out the window, jump around, sit still, or tell stories. The kids are excited to see Dickinson, but they don’t know what they should be doing. The chalkboard shows two different dates. Two different clocks on the wall tick off two different times. In violation of school policy, daily assignments have not been posted.
Without greetings or instructions, Mrs. Abell explains, “Thanksgiving is not just about food even though we eat a lot.” She has Dickinson read aloud an article about nutrition, and she periodically interrupts. “You’re not even on the right page,” she says. “People, you need to be listening.” Mrs. Abell holds out her hand in front of Willy’s mouth, and Willy spits out his gum.
“Oh man, you nasty,” he tells her.
“So are you,” she rebuts.
The students itch with Monday-morning distraction. The class moves on to a discussion about snakes, a recap of a lesson Dickinson had led at his previous visit. Nicola, a chubby girl in the front corner, impresses Dickinson with her memory of last week’s material. She knows that herpetology means the study of snakes and she lists several snake species.
“How do you know all these answers?” Dickinson asks.
Mrs. Abell, preoccupied with the turkey stickers she’s handing out, explains, “Some people who kept their notes now refer back to them.”
But Nicola wasn’t referring to her notes when she got the questions right. Nicola wants to be a lawyer when she grows up, she says.
Dickinson, still in front of the class, asks, “How do snakes smell?” He’s hoping that a student will cite the olfactory powers of the snake’s forked tongue.
“Stanky!” Willie mutters out of turn.
Dickinson helps the students compile a list of snake types — constrictors, pythons, corals, copperheads — and then it’s drawing time. There’s a lot of ambient noise as students try to locate their supplies. Mrs. Abell passes out some construction paper.
“Those people beating and tapping, that’s not what we’re doing now,” a firm Mrs. Abell reminds the class.
“That’s a crack-head snake,” a student says. The kids, disorganized and casual, trade pens and pencils generously. Willy draws snake outlines for neighbors. “Do you want a rattlesnake?” he asks, penciling in an extra squiggle.
The kids proffer their drawings to Dickinson, and he approves. Dionte has written, “Most snakes get a bad rap.” He’s not sure why this is. Dickinson looks over students’ shoulders, pats kids on backs, and offers suggestions.
By 10:15, it’s time for journal entries about snakes. Dickinson tells one girl that her drawing is “absolutely glorious!” Mrs. Abell still sits at her desk filling out attendance. One student has written, “Sometimes I feel like a snake when I got to sleep.” Another has written, “1. I love snakes 2. They kill people 3. I love snakes a lot 4. People are scared of snakes.” With coaxing, he adds, “5. I’m scared of snakes, myself.”
The journal activity wears thin, and the kids can’t hold still. Willy and a girl get in a pushing fight.”See that? She pushed me first!” he says, explaining his ethics. “See how we get treated around here?” another boy says, backing up Willy.
By 11:00 a.m., the class has discussed obesity, food groups and snake types. Most students have written four sentences about snakes. Dickinson, encouraging and fatherly, has shaken hands and touched shoulders and given feedback. Nobody has seriously clobbered anybody else. But will test scores at Yale Elementary, a school on academic probation, get any help from this morning’s lesson?
Yale Club tutors at Yale Elementary work within a troubled system that includes burnt-out teachers, weak administrators and indifferent parents. As part-time classroom helpers, tutors know they can’t magically produce average test scores for Yale’s approximately 450 students. Tutor Dr. Willard Fry ’55 often requests feedback and hopes for test score improvement, but Dickinson admits tutors probably have “no net effect” on test scores. Instead, tutors bring students school supplies, individual attention, connection with the world beyond Englewood, and fleeting moments of enlightenment.
“There’s not a day that I go down there that some kid doesn’t say, ‘Oh, I can do that,’?” Dickinson says. Yale Club tutors, “by showing that they value the educational process, send a strong message. That is something they can do.”
Dickinson has proof that he’s getting through to his students. Last winter, he arranged a class trip to hear a children’s concert by the Chicago Chamber Musicians. Months later, Dickinson heard whistling in the halls of Yale Elementary. The student couldn’t name the tune, but it had stuck in his head. It was an excerpt from Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” performed at the chamber-music concert. Dickinson was thrilled.
Still, Yale Club tutors have days when they don’t get much done. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Andy Block ’61 and his wife Shaun arrived at school with careful lesson plans in tow. Andy Block, intending to teach mean, median and mode to a fifth-grade class, had not been alerted to the Pre-Thanksgiving assembly that morning. At the assembly, Block leans against the gym wall for 45 minutes waiting for the audience to settle down and for the assembly to begin. He watches a farce of broken microphones, erratic curtains, angry administrators and charismatic but unprepared students stumbling through a series of incoherent and inaudible skits and readings. For the finale, the program promises “acknowledgements” from Mrs. Jones, the principal. She’s a no-show. Instead, the disorderly audience of students hears empty threats from helpless administrators, reminders to be “people of excellence,” and strong signals that the school is just what the students deserve. Nicola, the girl who knew everything about snakes, says she’d rather be in class because, “I can’t hear nothing.”
When the assembly ends, the Blocks leave Yale Elementary to return next week. The mean, median, mode worksheets will have to wait.
Yale Elementary suffers from afflictions far worse than disorganization. The bathrooms have no doors, Dickinson explains, because bathroom breaks are “a bit of a three-ring circus. There’s a strong inclination to pinch and push.”
At a field trip to the Shedd Aquarium, fourth-grade teacher Mrs. Ellis explains two students’ absence.
“Kenneth bloodied Joseph’s lip in the hallway on the way to the bathroom,” she says.
Dickinson related another extreme behavior incident from last year. While he was working one-on-one with Jerome, a particularly troubled student, another student gave Jerome a friendly poke. Furious, Jerome jumped up, gripping a pencil as if to drive it into the nape of the other student’s neck. Dickinson grabbed hold of Jerome before the other student was hurt. A year later, Dickinson says he and Jerome are pals. Jerome has started taking medication. Dickinson likes to pronounce Jerome’s name the French way, with a uvular R: Gerome.
Last year’s Yale tutor Jim Burris ’61 has a big dream for the tutoring program. Burris, warm and garrulous, resembles a taller, more scholarly George Carlin. He lives in Woodlawn, a mostly black neighborhood just south of the University of Chicago. Gentrifying now, Woodlawn was as dangerous as Englewood when Burris moved in 25 years ago. Burris, part of a liberal-minded faith-based group, made the “intentional and conscious” decision to move into the troubled community. For Burris, who has worked for non-profit agencies in the past, volunteering in the Englewood neighborhood falls in line with previous professional experiences. But Burris approached the tutoring project with some apprehension. He was concerned with “legitimacy” and “authenticity,” words that relate to the race and class differences between tutors and students.
Dickinson also thinks about these questions. Twice, he mentions the time a student came up to him, put out her arm, and said, “You’re not really white,” and he said back, “And you’re not really black.”
Still, the racial difference between the all-white Yale Club tutors, the all-black administration and student body, and the mix of black and white teachers is hard to ignore. Some of the students have heard of what Dickinson calls “the other Yale.” One girl knows that it is in Connecticut. Another says, “That’s where they have slaves.”
That statement hints at the most uncomfortable interpretation of the Yale Club tutoring program: white elitists driving into the ‘hood in their SUVs, educating the unlucky children and driving away. But when Burris went first went to Yale Elementary, he observed something quite different, something that nobody could miss.
“Peter [Dickinson] has it,” says Burris. “Peter is committed, he gets hugs.”
And when Burris saw “the legitimacy or authenticity of Peter,” the wheels of liberal idealism, the machinery of Burris’ mind, started moving. Articulate and thoughtful, Burris thinks about how to help Yale Elementary. He studies models like Baltimore’s New Song Academy, a once-challenged public elementary school with rising test scores and extra church funding. New Song, linked to community health, housing, arts, employment, and spiritual services, serves as a model “of what it would take” at Yale Elementary, says Burris.
“First you get people to love each other. The kids love without thinking, the adults love through their thought until you really get hooked. So we get some Yale University alums to really love those kids. Peter really loves those kids.” The second step, Burris says, gets them thinking together about the needs of the students.
Last year, Burris invented a classroom activity called Academic Improv, a riff off ideas in Cornel West’s book “Democracy Matters.”
“This was not working within the lesson plan,” Burris said. “It was engaged questioning. It’s called thinking.” Burris explains that students, rather than act out by interrupting, would stand in front of class. “When they were responsible to the class, that really froze some of the kids, but we worked through that,” he says. They talked about South Africa and Dr. King. Burris shared a story about the violent death of somebody he knew from Woodlawn, and the students told their own stories.
Twice, Burris says he observed “real fights.” Burris tells about when he plucked a student out of a fight. “I wrapped my arms around him — actually it was a girl,” he says. “But that’s OK. These kids have seen death, these kids know death, violent death.” Burris, who grew up in a middle-class suburb of Minneapolis, says he was spared such experiences until he moved to Woodlawn.
Burris is concerned that if the students only learn testable skills, they will stop coming back to school. He’s got ideas for tutoring when he starts up again. On Saturday mornings, he wants to take a small group of students and neighborhood adults around Englewood. As a group, they will “read the neighborhood.” Burris will ask, “Why is that a vacant lot? Why is that house clean?” and he will learn from them. He wants to go to other neighborhoods, perhaps including the suburb of Winnetka. The students could have after-school discussions or write about what they’ve learned.
Burris also worries that the Yale Club’s current tutoring program is merely “spitting into the ocean.” Although the one-on-one interactions have meaning to the students, “objectively the problems are horrendous. One of the teachers said that 50 percent of these girls will be prostitutes and 70 percent of the boys will be in jail.” Those statistics — surely inaccurate — demonstrate the air of hopelessness in Yale Elementary. Burris wants to do better. Although he is not an active tutor, he says, “There’s only a certain degree to which they’re involved. Two hours a week — that’s not adequate.”
Dickinson spends much more time than a mere two hours working on the problems at Yale Elementary. He recruits new tutors, volunteers in several classrooms, and also draws on resources from outside the school. He has solicited help from Bookworm Angels, an organization that creates in-class libraries of gently used books. He listens and re-listens to NPR’s Ira Glass’ report on the Washington Irving Elementary School on Chicago’s West Side. He gives a CD of the report to the principal, saying “I’m not going to tell you how to run your school, but there are some great ideas on here.” Once, when he found out that the school needed a laminating machine, he stopped at an office supply store and picked one up for under $200. When Dickinson discovered last June that summer school students lacked textbooks, he had supplies sent overnight express.
While he maintains that the biggest needs of Yale Elementary are not financial, he acknowledges some needs. “Yes we should have more teachers,” he admits. In a 42-student seventh grade class, “the kids are getting physically bigger, hormones are raging, and all those things,” Dickinson says with characteristic euphemism. To get more teachers, Yale Elementary needs more money. One afternoon, Dickinson and Shaun Block argued. Despite that complaint and repeated requests made by Yale Elementary’s principal, the classroom still has 42 students.
Grammar-conscious types will notice that the Vision Statement of Yale Elementary, framed and displayed in Room 202, employs passive voice: “As students at Yale, our goal is to be provided with a safe and healthy school environment where we are encouraged to make good decisions, to respect ourselves as well as those of different cultures, to be provided with a quality education that will prepare us for our future as problem-solvers, to become hard workers in society. We look forward to a great 21st century.” The students — energetic, creative, funny and often kind — have no control over their school or their neighborhood. Some kids just wound up in Mrs. Abell’s classroom, one of the least controlled in the school. Dickinson says that one of Mrs. Abell’s students had found Dickinson and pleaded for his help. Apparently, the students hadn’t yet opened a math book that school year.
The principal, Janice Jones, rolls her eyes at the mention of Room 202. Mrs. Jones, the principal since Aug. 2, explains across her desk, “Some kids are difficult, but kids aren’t that difficult.” She is a tall, broad-shouldered black woman with seven years of experience as a vice principal in the Chicago Public Schools. She enunciates clearly when she speaks. “I ask instructional leaders, did you make the right career choice?”
The kids, Mrs. Jones emphasizes, are not to blame. “It’s not an issue of intelligence or ability. There are issues at home that take precedence over, ‘Oh gee, am I doing my Language Arts homework?’ Everybody can’t teach in middle-class schools, but there’s no class relative to substance abuse or broken homes. All those things impact negatively on children, and it will manifest itself at school. But we pull together to do the best we can do to get these children to where we know they can be.” Strong and in charge, Mrs. Jones seems poised to re-energize the teachers with Wednesday-morning staff meetings, monthly professional-development meetings, and weekly lesson-plan reviews. Apparently, she had been visiting family during the chaotic Pre-Thanksgiving Assembly.
Meanwhile, the boys from Room 202 were missing from the assembly. The preceding day, the boys got into a fight while Mrs. Abell was absent, a common occurrence. The substitute teacher walked out, and a security guard had to regain control. Vanessa, a student in Room 202, says Mrs. Abell’s teaching has deteriorated since her mother’s recent death.
But that’s not the only picture of teaching at Yale Elementary. One day in Ms. Mahoney’s fourth grade class, Dickinson participates in a lesson that would make Mrs. Jones proud. A young woman with gym-teacher ferocity, Ms. Mahoney doesn’t abide misbehavior. The students improve their reading skills with two poems about E. B. White’s Wilbur and Charlotte. The girls read a line. The boys read a line. Kids hop up out of their seats, performing for Dickinson and for Ms. Mahoney with pride. Dickinson stands on the sidelines, avuncular and approving. “Wilbur, you’re terrific,” the kids shout for the umpteenth time, except they’re disciplined and orderly and smiling and excited about the poem. In the battle of the sexes, the boys win a point for clarity and promptly lose it for shouting. Then it’s time for lunch. Dickinson shakes hands with the students.
On a field trip to Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, Dickinson leads a group of eight boys from Ms. Mahoney’s fourth grade class. Dickinson, pointing to a flashing red light on Lake Michigan, explains to the boys what lighthouses do. Walking past a speaker piping in chirping sounds, Dickinson asks his students, “Do you hear that noise? It’s a loon!” Looking to a fish tank, Dickinson tentatively remarks, “That’s a gar.” When he confirms his guess with the identification sign above the tank, he says, “By golly, it’s a gar!” And inspecting a tank of tropical fish, Dickinson tells the boys, “If you go to the Caribbean — places like St. Vincent — you can put on a mask or goggles and see these fish.” He knows they will probably never go to St. Vincent, but that doesn’t mean they can’t know about it. An escapee from Ms. Mahoney’s group runs up and gives Dickinson a hug. He treats his students with infinite respect, insisting that they deserve to know about anything and everything he can bring to their attention, including loons and gars.
As the boys wind through the aquarium, some of them shove, dance and run around. Three of the boys show off their tumbling skills, flipping through the air like rubber balls. When a security guard makes them stop, Lshaun says, “We sorry.” His friend tells him, “You ain’t sorry.” When they realize they have no idea where Dickinson is, they panic. “Where’s Mr. Dickinson?”
They find him and start play-fighting again. Sometimes Dickinson pulls them apart.
The group approaches the tank of Granddad, a 70-something lungfish who’s been at the Shedd since Chicago’s World Fair of 1933. One of Dickinson’s boys presses his face against the glass and says, “Do you want a piece of me? Do you do you do you?”
Later, in the cafeteria, a boy from another class will ask the group, “Y’all see Granddad?” The “Do you want a piece of me” boy will answer, “Yeah, I bust his nose!”
Justin, another boy in Dickinson’s group, looks carefully at all the fish. Dressed neatly, Justin seems unengaged and remote compared to the elastic, sarcastic Lshaun. But looking at a ray on the bottom of a huge tank, Justin jokes, “See that fish! He’s lazy. And look at that big ol’ sea turtle!” Later in the cafeteria when Dickinson laments that he has no sandwich, Justin breaks off a piece of his ham sandwich — a sandwich he prepared for himself. Dickinson, standing over Justin, turns down the sandwich and puts his hands on Justin’s shoulders. “That’s okay, you need it more than I do,” he saids. “But oh, what a guy!”
Dreams for Yale Elementary come in all sizes, from overhauling the community to jacking up test scores to teaching the students about a world beyond Englewood. The tutors may not know exactly what their presence at Yale Elementary means to the students in the long-term. But they know that they get hugs from the students.
When Dickinson enters a room, the kids light up. The students say, “He gives us erasers and pencils,” or “He helps us.” Lshaun says, “He helps us, he be always taking his finger off and stuff, why are you writing my name down?”
Dickinson knows how good his finger-removal magic trick is. He says, “Yale tutors are accepted as part of the fabric of the school. The little kids know who we are. They always come up to me and say, ‘Do that thing with your thumb.’ Did I show you that trick?”
On Columbus Day, almost a year after this article originally was written, Dickinson performed an act of faith at Yale Elementary: despite squirrels and broken glass, he planted daffodil bulbs. If the bulbs survive the Chicago winter, they will sprout next spring into a ring of hopeful yellow blooms surrounding the school. But for the months to come, Yale Elementary will look the same to this year’s twelve Yale Club tutors, the students, and the teachers.
Still, the school has seen some changes since last year. Principal Jones fired Mrs. Abell because, according to Mrs. Jones, Mrs. Abell “had no control over her class.” Yale Elementary has also lost Ms. Mahoney, the teacher who conducted the Charlotte’s Web lesson and who now works at a school closer to her home. Mrs. Jones is “really sorry to lose her.”
Burris, the former tutor who invented the classroom activity Academic Improv and who compared the Yale Club’s tutoring program to “spitting into the ocean,” has not signed up to tutor again. Involved in a personal business, Burris said, “I think what Yale Elementary needs is a great deal. The efforts of individual tutors are well worth it, and I just couldn’t sustain it myself.”
Meanwhile, dismal test scores at Yale have kept the school on academic probation. Mrs. Jones, now in her second year at Yale, said her long-term goals for the school remain the same. “Improving student achievement,” she recognized, “is a process, and it takes time. Had my school scores gone up to what one considers acceptable levels in one year, I probably would’ve been on the front of the Sun Times with people making allegations. I hope we are moving in a positive direction to being off academic probation.”
Mrs. Jones does not credit Yale Club tutors with any changes she’s seen at Yale. “Personally,” she said, “After one year experiencing them in my building, there wasn’t a lot of impact except developing positive relationships, which I guess is a good thing.” And as for test scores, “Yale Club had no impact,” she said.
Dickinson, who recently became the Yale Club president, remains undaunted by flatline scores. “Test scores aren’t our prime objective, but if that could go up as a result of what we do, that’d be great,” he reasoned. “I know we’re having an effect, but it’s just not showing up in the bottom line.”
In an effort to improve reading scores, Mrs. Jones decided that the Yale Club should focus its efforts on kindergarteners through fifth graders of average reading ability. Jones explained, “I asked that we change what they’re doing. Sometimes it’s just too many things going on in your building, and I really appreciated the hard work of the tutors.”
On Oct. 20, Bill Fry went to Englewood for the first day of his fifth year tutoring at Yale Elementary. Jones predicted that Fry’s five fourth graders will “have to benefit” from their weekly reading circle. The group’s first book this year will be E.B. White’s “The Trumpet of the Swan.”