Chicagoans are fond of saying that there are more Poles here than anywhere outside of Poland. But did you know there are more people of Palestinian descent living in Chicago’s southwest suburbs than in any other city in America? I didn’t either, until I went to Orland Park last week.
Orland Park, Ill. is a town of about 56,000 sandwiched between routes 55 and 57. It has a big mall, and a lot of smaller strip malls, many new housing developments and a ton of beautiful, wooded forest preserve land. And, along with neighboring suburbs like Bridgeview and Oak Lawn, it has a sizable Arab American population.
For the past few weeks, my boss has been sending a different web producer and reporter from the broadcast side of things out to the suburbs to explore, discover, report etc. We’re supposed to go in not knowing much, but then we’re supposed to find a quick-turnaround story and report it in one day. Last week it was my turn; I went out with Michael Puente, who normally covers Northwest Indiana for us — and is super awesome.
Michael actually worked at the Orland Square Mall — in a formalwear store! — when he was in his early 20s. But I knew nothing about Orland Park. I had heard that the southwest side of Chicago around Marquette Park used to be a landing pad for Arab immigrants (I learned this from the Arab American Action Network after I did a story with them in 2010 for my series Dear Chicago), but I had no real concept of what that community was like. I certainly had never heard that Chicago was home to the country’s largest population of Palestinian immigrants.
But when Michael and I went to Grape Vine, a small middle eastern bakery and grocery, we met the owner, Laila Maali, as well as her landlord and her friend/handyman. Her landlord, Edward Hassan, told us that all three of them came from the same village near Ramallah and that there were more people from their village living in Chicago now than there were left living in the village!
That claim obviously caught my ear; I knew when he said that there was probably a story there, one that I had not heard before and one that surprised me very much.
Hassan’s claim turned out to be exaggerated, but true in its nature; his home village, Beitunia, has traditionally been the largest feeder village of Palestinian immigrants to Chicago.
Hooked yet? I hope so. You can read the full story here. And check out my appearance with Michael Puente on the Afternoon Shift here:
Coincidentally, the story I was working on last week tied into another project I’ve been working on — the Curious City podcast. I took over podcasting for WBEZ recently, and I’ve started working more closely with Jenn Brandel by helping edit the podcast every week.
Last week’s episode featured a story reported by Odette Yousef, our North Side bureau reporter. It deals with the resettlement of refugees on Chicago’s North Side, and answers the question: What is the most diverse neighborhood in the city?
The part that really caught my ear was when Curious City/Bureaus editor (and my pal) Shawn Allee connected the dots between U.S. immigration policy and the physical makeup of the city. When our immigration policy allowed more people from one country to come and settle together, you got neighborhoods like Argyle Street, home to Chicago’s Vietnamese community. But when we let only fewer numbers of people come to the U.S. it was harder for them to make the kind of neighborhood impact that’s easy to see from other ethnic communities. (I’m probably bastardizing Shawn’s words a little bit, but luckily you can listen to the audio above.) I had never made that connection before, and I found it really interesting.
Palestinians immigrants living here are not refugees in that the U.S. government does not recognize them as such. But they and Chicago’s other Arab immigrants have clearly left their mark on the region, whether it’s in the form of the new mosque in Orland Park or the businesses along Lawrence and Kedzie on the Northwest Side of Chicago. Next though, I want to go to Bridgeview, Ill. It has the oldest and most established Arab American community in the Chicago area, and the oldest mosque. I think it is also more densely populated and urban, as it has its center between 79th and 87th along Harlem. (How that is not a part of Chicago I don’t know.) The expert I interviewed for my story, Louise Cainkar of Marquette University, said she once counted over 100 Arab-owned businesses in that one mile stretch of street!
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The aerial photo on the left was taken in 1925, facing south over Chicago’s lakefront. The curvy stone breakwater being built into Lake Michigan foreshadows the photo below it, taken just a few years later in 1928. By then, the breakwater had been filled with earth and Chicago had a new lakefront park.
This is just one of the surprising ways Chicago’s lakefront has changed over time. Did you know that Grant Park was once a disgusting lagoon filled with dead livestock and other debris? Or that the Gold Coast was once a sandbar filled with brothels and saloons? Or that we once sold the lakefront to a railroad company? Or that Richard J. Daley wanted to build an island in the lake 20-miles long? Chicago history is full of politics, surprises — and a lot of dirt.
I’ve been reporting this subject for WBEZ’s Curious City, and my story is finally out today. Check out the story here, the rest of the incredible photos here and an amazing collection of historic maps provided by The Newberry here. Other than coming away with a much better grasp of Chicago history, and a renewed appreciation for how complicated planning and development always is, one of the best part for me was talking to the Chicago Tribune‘s architecture critic Blair Kamin, and to Lois Wille, who wrote the book Forever Open, Clear and Free. Both Kamin and Wille are Pulitzer Prize winners — and great interviewees.
I’ll also be on the Afternoon Shift with Rick Kogan today at 3:45 p.m. I’ll post the audio later, but tune in if you’re around! Miriam Reuter, the woman whose question spawned the story, will join us as well.
Update 12/13/12: If you missed it, here’s the audio from my appearance on The Afternoon Shift. Editor Shawn Allee described me afterwards as sounding “geeked.” I think he’s right!
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Tags: Chicago, Curious City, history, maps, WBEZ
Kitchen Close-ups is a new new multimedia series I’m editing for WBEZ.org. That’s right, editing! It’s one of my first times, professionally in the editor’s seat. In this context, editing means working with freelance producers Meaghan Glennan and Jason Rizzo, helping them shape the overall vision for the series as well as the narrative arc and execution of each individual story. I also helped them come up with the name.
The series provides intimate portraits of characters in Chicago’s restaurant scene. So far we’ve visited fancy places, like RL Cafe, and more accessible eateries, like Valois in Hyde Park. Today I have my second edit with the pair on a profile of a barrista at Wormhole Coffee in Wicker Park.
You can watch the whole series here.
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Reporter Paul Tough has a new book out about education. How Children Succeed builds on the work he’s done for the New York Times Magazine and an earlier book about Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone. He was a guest on the Afternoon Shift with Steve Edwards in September, and I was invited on to discuss my reporting at Chicago Jesuit Academy. Take a listen to my conversation with Steve, and hear Paul’s portion of the conversation here.
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Tonight the Chicago Headline Club assembles to give out awards for the best work in local journalism. Shannon Heffernan and I are finalists in the category of Best Multimedia Presentation, for the video we produced on the Plant for WBEZ’s regional reporting initiative, Front & Center:
I’m pretty excited. I was a finalist in 2007, for the story I did about the Palace Theater in Gary, Ind. I lost that time around, rightly so, to a fabulous documentary my colleagues from WBEZ produced about Mexican migrant workers living in the U.S.
Our competition this time around is…interesting. There are two other finalists in our category. One is a well-produced and touching piece from the Times of NWI about a restaurant in Hammond, Ind. closing after nearly 6 decades. It’s pretty good, and I wish them well in the competition.
The other, though, puzzles me. It’s an expose by a London-based reporter for Bloomberg News, looking into allegations that Victoria’s Secrets unknowingly sourced some of the cotton it uses in its clothing from people using African child labor.
There’s no doubt it’s a compelling piece of journalism. What, though, is the Chicago connection here? I thought the Lisagors were supposed to be for reporting done in the Chicago-area; the only Chicago connection I can see here is that the reporter cites the cost of a pair of Victoria’s Secrets underwear for sale at Water Tower Place. I’ll be a little peeved if we lose to this piece.
Neither Shannon nor I can go to the awards ceremony tonight, unfortunately, but we’ll have colleagues looking out for us. Keep your fingers crossed for us!
Update: No, we did not win the Lisagor. Yes, the guy from Bloomberg won. Oh well! We’ll try again next year.
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When it comes to education, how do you teach all the things tests can’t measure?
One Chicago middle school thinks it has the answer. There, life skills and character matter as much as geometry and algebra.
The school is Chicago Jesuit Academy, and I spent a week there reporting in November. The story was edited by WBEZ’s City Desk Editor, Cate Cahan. It originally aired on WBEZ 91.5 FM in February of 2012.
The audio is above. Here’s the print version.
* * *
In education, sometimes it’s the oldest questions that matter most: What makes a good teacher? How does a school get test scores up? But, these days, educators are also asking this question: How important are all the things tests can’t measure?
A middle school on Chicago’s West Side thinks it has an answer. We take you to Chicago Jesuit Academy, a school that teaches—and grades– life skills right up there with book learning.
Eighth grader Brandyn Snow and his mom have this morning routine: As he makes his way to school, he has to call and let her know he’s safe– four different times.
I’m headed towards Lake now,” he tells her, as the 85 bus passes underneath the Green Line. “I’ll call you at Jackson, then when I get on bus, then when I get to school.”
“At first I thought she didn’t trust me,” he says. “But she’s just trying to protect me.”
“What is she protecting you from?” I ask him.
“Well, danger,” he replies. “People trying to hurt other people.”
Like that group of older boys who beat him up in elementary school.
Or those guys who shot and killed those two teenagers waiting for the bus back in October.
People like that.
Brandyn calls his mom a fourth time as the bus lets him off at the corner of Laramie and Jackson, at Chicago Jesuit Academy. Ninety-six 5th through 8th graders go to school here– all boys, mostly from rough West Side neighborhoods like Brandyn’s.
Teaching character in a morning handshake
When Brandyn walks into CJA’s spare but sunny atrium every morning, he sees Dave Diehl, the Dean of Students, standing by the door, holding a clip board.
Brandyn knows the rules: First, take off your jacket. Then, look Mr. Diehl in the eye and shake his hand.
“Good morning Mr. Diehl.”
“Good morning Mr. Snow,” Diehl answers, checking off Brandyn’s name. “Do you have your belt on?”
“You may head up.”
These rules are an explicit part of the school’s culture. But they’re also triage – a check for any problems the kids might be having.
“Do the students often forget their belts?” I ask Diehl. “I noticed you asking each of them if they have it on.”
“They forget it occasionally,” he tells me. “It’s more of a check for them– it’s an indicator. If they’ve forgotten that they’re forgetting other things.”
Discipline and dress codes aren’t new in education. But here, there’s an additional question: Can you teach middle school kids practical life skills and character– along with math?
CJA is expensive: $17,500 per student per year. But kids go here basically for free—most of the tuition is paid by private donors, and the school only takes kids whose families don’t make a lot of money.
Most of the students went to poorly performing elementary schools before they applied to this 7-year-old school, which is part of a loose national network of faith-based schools called NativityMiguel.
CJA administrators insist they don’t “cream the crop” during admissions by taking only boys with good test scores– they say they’ve admitted students who perform as low as the 10th percentile nationally.
But they do look at other things: Parental involvement, for instance, and behaviors that suggest how a boy might cope in a demanding environment. That’s because students are expected to leave here testing above grade level. Last year’s 8th graders tested, on average, at the 11th grade level.
The goal is for them to get into top high schools, with scholarships. Then, for them to compete at those schools, to thrive– alongside more privileged classmates.
Tom Beckley is the principal at CJA. He’s a former Navy man, who sometimes greets his students like new recruits—with a handshake and a hearty “welcome aboard.”
In his cluttered office, tucked in a corner of the main atrium, Beckley says the school didn’t always emphasize character and behavior the way it does now.
At first, they mainly pushed students academically, trying to make up for time lost in failing elementary schools. That approach seemed to work: Many of their first graduates had strong test scores and got into good high schools – Loyola, St. Ignatius, even East Coast boarding schools.
But then, Beckley says, they did not do well in 9th grade.
“They went to high school and struggled right out of the gate,” he says. “We scratched our heads and said, but look at their test scores! We realized, boy, that’s only a small part of the equation.”
At CJA, students are called by their last names—‘Mr. Snow,’ instead of ‘Brandyn.’ The school tries to treat these kids—as young as 9—like adults. (WBEZ/Robin Amer)CJA stays in touch with all of their graduates, and these days those first grads have settled into their college prep high schools and are doing pretty well. But as freshly minted 9th graders they had bad study habits and made bad choices: Their homework folders were a mess; they always chose gym over study hall. And, they had attitude problems: Beckley says these kids couldn’t control their impulses, and no one could tell them what to do. He says pushing them academically hadn’t been enough.
Beckley says he realized that when you look at grades, it doesn’t say attitude, organization and math. It just says math. So about a year and a half ago the school put in place a new grading policy, one that took attitude and organization more seriously.
Now at CJA, it’s not enough to master Y=X. Now, 70 percent of every grade a student gets here– on every spelling worksheet, every book report – is based on behavior and habits that CJA calls executive function.
Beckley rattles off some of the expectations involved: “You are doing every single problem of a mathematics assignment regardless of whether or not you have gotten each one wrong. You know how to put down objectives in your notebook and you always have a heading on your paper. You’re always contacting your teacher outside of class at least once in a week.”
“Those are the most important skills they need,” he says. “What we see over and over, is that students with average academic aptitude can really be successful if they have an excellent set of executive function skills.”
So if student is failing at CJA, that doesn’t mean they don’t get the math. They just might not have their act together.
“It’s possible here – theoretically,” Beckley says, “for a student to never get a single math problem or spelling word or vocabulary word correct and still pass with a 70 percent if they have tried their hardest and done every single piece on their rubrics for executive function.”
“But what we know as educators,” he says, “is that while that’s theoretically possible, the student who’s doing all those things – who’s engaged, paying attention, who’s asking for help, who’s talking to their teachers outside the classroom, who’s turning things in on time – that guy learns.”
Not everyone was convinced, at first. Beckley says that when they adopted this new grading policy, even the school’s own teachers were skeptical– “really worried,” he says, about what would happen. Some parents were skeptical, too. Like Brandyn’s mom, Tina Jackson.
“I was like, oh, this is not going be good, because this is too much for a young child,” she says. “Why go through all this? You gotta make sure you have your belt on, your shoes are tied, they have to be a certain color.”
And it was too much for some kids. In the past year and a half, 12 students have been asked to leave the school because of academic or behavior problems. And 8 were withdrawn by their parents, who thought the school was too demanding or who disagreed with their approach.
Experts weigh in
In the classroom that doubles as a lunch room 7th grade math and social studies teacher Matte Durkin rings the lunch bell with three crisp strokes of the gong. The room falls silent as he calls their attention to the white board, where the school has written up the day’s menu.
“Please take three meat balls,” he says. “Make sure you grab some cauliflower and fruit. Get all those on your plates. Please take one piece of bread. And make sure to drink your milk.” At his signal, the students take their seats.
Education researchers don’t argue that behavior and good study habits, like the kind CJA emphasizes, are important. But they say it isn’t clear yet what tactics are best for teaching the kind of behaviors and attitudes that lead to student success.
These points are among the conclusions in a survey the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research will release next month. The study looks at the existing research on non-cognitive assessment –all the stuff tests don’t measure.
They haven’t looked at CJA specifically, because they don’t study private schools. But a lot of schools are trying to teach this stuff. That includes a New York school that gives students separate report cards that measure character. And schools that emphasize what researchers call academic tenacity, or grit: If I fail …do I try again?
But Beckley is convinced CJA’s focusing on the right stuff to help kids transition to high school. He says they have to treat kids – as young as 9 – like grownups, now. It’s why they’re called “Mr. Snow” instead of “Brandyn,” and why they’re held to such high standards.
“One thing I think is very, very unfair,” he says, is “if you’re growing up on the West Side of Chicago, and you want to be able to access a first rate private high school, by end of your 7th grade year that’s a done deal. I know I wasn’t ready for that in 7th grade, and yet, they have to be.”
He says that since they’ve started using their new policies CJA’s teachers have come around. And Brandyn’s mom says the structure has helped her son get his act together.
“I honestly don’t think Brandyn would be in 8th grade,” if it weren’t for the school’s rigor, she says. “I think I’d be dealing with a child that didn’t want to go to school.”
Support: The other side of the equation
One thing researchers say we do know is that especially for middle school kids, two things are critical: clear expectations and a lot of support.
Beckley teaches Formation, a class to help eighth graders deal with the pressure of their young, complicated lives.
“So yesterday I asked for some honesty,” he says, addressing the class from the front of the room.
“I’d argue that all of you have fear or stress about what? Raise your hand if you remember.”
The answer is high school choices. Chicago area high schools send out their acceptance letters starting this week, and the topic is on every 8th grader’s mind.
So this week he’s asked them to think about the very best and very worst things that have ever happened to them– to establish a scale. He wants them to think in this way: If that thing I went through before was worse than this stress now, then I can get through this stress ok.
They’ve started with essays on the worst thing that’s ever happened to them.
“No one has anything to be ashamed of,” Beckley reassures them, and calls the first student to the front of the room.
Some of today’s “worst experience“ stories have happy endings: One boy describes how scared he was the time he accidentally lost track of his 4-year-old brother on the CTA, even though the brother turned up okay.
But other stories belie traumatic experiences: One student describes the day his uncle was killed– stabbed in the neck. Another explains that his mom’s boyfriend is serving a life sentence in prison for murder, after a fight with an upstairs neighbor escalated.
After each essay, Beckley asks the class to evaluate it, according to a three-point scale he’s handed out before class.
“Guys, honesty?” Beckley asks.
The boys cry out in unison: “Three!”
“Is there an exceptionally strong sense of audience and voice?”
Then Beckley calls Brandyn’s cousin Davion up to the front of the room.
He faces the class and begins to read: “When I was four months old my dad got shot and so he’s paralyzed.”
As he continues, his voice begins to waver. “It really pisses me off to know that the man who shot my dad is still walking around somewhere in the world. The man who took that away from me I want to kill him when I get older.”
He begins to cry. “But I don’t want to because I don’t want to go to jail.”
“Davion, you can have a seat,” Beckley tells the boy.
Davion does sit down, but he’s still crying. Brandyn goes over to comfort him.
Then Beckley gets up and stands in front of the class. His head is bent; his lips are pursed– like he’s struggling to figure out what to say.
“I’m proud of you guys…every day,” he says, finally. “Let’s get to work. Go ahead and pack your things.”
Davion is still crying when he walks into the hallway, but adults walk with him to see the school’s social worker. I’m not allowed to follow him into her office, but I see him later that day, and he seems to be okay.
High school persistence
Ten hours after he said good-bye to his mom this morning Brandyn sits behind his drum set for jazz band practice. Today they’re rehearsing the jazz standard “Mood Indigo.”
Brandyn would really like to go to one of Chicago’s arts high schools. He’s auditioned for two. He’s also taken the entrance exams for Loyola and for selective enrollment public schools like Whitney Young. His mom, Tina Jackson, says his motivation makes her proud.
“In the beginning he just wanted to graduate,” she says. “Now he wants to go to college and knows which one and how much it costs.”
But she says she also knows how hard it will be for Brandyn to be on that path – and how hard it will be for him to stay there.
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Here’s another multimedia piece I produced this fall, in collaboration with my friend and colleague, Shannon Heffernan. It’s about The Plant, a small business incubator in Chicago.
We produced the story for Front & Center, WBEZ’s reporting initiative covering issues in the Great Lakes region. Shannon and I shared responsibilities evenly here, each taking part in recording sound, taking still photos and editing the whole piece together.
The old saying “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” may be a tired cliché, but the operators of small business incubator on Chicago’s Southwest Side hope this mantra will help them turn spent grain into money and fish waste into jobs.
Tucked away on a dead-end corner of 46th Street, the Plant is a collection of food-related small businesses working together in a kind of entrepreneurial ecosystem whereby the waste from one company – spent grain from the brewery, for example – becomes literal fuel – charcoal briquettes – for the bakery upstairs.
Plant founder John Edel, who colleagues describe as a “benevolent mad scientist,” says that by “following the waste” and finding the inefficiencies inherent in any manufacturing process, he and his team can create jobs and rebuild the economy of a neighborhood that was once home to the Union Stockyards and countless related jobs. The Plant received a $1.5 million grant from the state to help create 125 jobs in its 93,000 sq. ft. facility, which they hope will put a dent in replacing the estimated 400 jobs lost when Peer Food Products shut down their meat processing operations at the site in 2006.
Front & Center visited the Plant in October to see how Edel and his team are trying to pioneer a new model of business ecology and job creation. You can see what they’re up to in the video above.
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