A Chicagoan Reviews Chicagoland – Episode 5

 /  April 7, 2014, 12:01 a.m.


Chicagoland is a non-scripted, eight-part series covering our hometown Chicago. The series is produced by Robert Redford and Laura Michalchyshyn of Sundance Productions, and filmed by the award-winning Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin of BCTV. It explores the politics and policy of an evolving city trying to address complex issues in the spheres of education, crime, and inequality. In this Gate series, University of Chicago graduate student, Allen Linton II, will provide a review of each episode and a personal perspective on a controversial portrayal of Chicago. The original posts can be found on Allen’s blog. These posts have been adapted and edited for our readers. 

What if the world ran more like the fire department? Fire captain Joel Burns suggests we would be better off if we adopted a fire department mentality because “we [fire fighters] don’t mess around. We identify the problem. We take care of the problem. And that’s that.”

This sounds awfully similar to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s approach to running Chicago: Identify a problem, take care of the problem, and try to minimize the damage. Unfortunately, the fire department model is built to handle crises and emergencies. Running a city with that model suggests leadership over a series of catastrophes. Some fires are old, some are new, and some need just the right spark to rip through a city: pensions, public education, crime, employment opportunities, inequality gap, economic growth and collapse. Perhaps this metaphor accurately portrays Chicago and the leadership it needs, but Chicago’s citizens still seem unhappy. The metaphor also shows the limits of the fire fighter model when problem solving involves working with people’s lives disparately impacted by the mini-emergencies of a major city.

Past the half-way point in Chicagoland¸ Episode 5 brought us back to the beginning: schools. The primary argument against mass closings used in the docuseries focused on crime. Mayor Emanuel references crime as a reason why he didn’t close underutilized high schools. And injecting eight million dollars and hiring 600 people for the Safe Passage program also speaks to the severity of the safety situation. Hopefully this exaggerated emphasis on crime creates a brief sense of pause for educational reformers to understand fixing education requires looking beyond classroom solutions and into the communities where the schools are located. Additionally, it is a very disturbing to think about the risks associated with elementary school students (usually between five and twelve years old) crossing gang territories, especially since these youth have extremely well understood artificial barriers defining safety and danger. If the roots of physical unrest begin in elementary school, how can we (Chicagoans) begin to encourage an environment for kids to be kids: to learn, play, challenge convention, and have room to struggle/fail without life changing consequences?

To my knowledge, there haven’t been too many crimes (violent or non-violent) on safe passage routes during safe passage hours. I hope someone is keeping up with this and can provide some credible data to this. I know things have happened in these areas off safe passage hours – a conversation for a separate time – but without the figures, it’s hard to know if the crime concerns expressed have been adequately addressed.

The other educational point brought to the forefront in this episode was attendance. Fenger struggled mightily with first day and week attendance leaving money and jobs fresh on the chopping block. With ten days to reach attendance thresholds that dictate school funding (each pupil worth a bit more than $5000 to the school) the scramble to get kids in school shocked some viewers. We witnessed school administrators brainstorming ways to incentivize students to come to school the same way I think about ways to incentivize respondents to answer my surveys. Let that sink in. Money, retail gift cards, fast food gift cards, door-to-door campaigns, all to get kids to school. It’s a problem. It’s a nasty problem framed by money.

Conversely, we saw elementary schools affected by school closings and population shifts with over forty kids in a room. Barbara Byrd-Bennett called the result inhumane and unacceptable. And we agree. While not framed in economic terms, seeing elementary schools shuffle and deal with overcrowding in some cases creates a counterweight for in school education challenges. Money on one end, humanity on the other. The reality is both elementary schools and high schools deal with decisions driven by money with implications that redefine or fall short of humane conditions. Chicago’s young people, again primarily youth of color, deal with so much more beyond what is taught and how it’s taught in the school day.

Too many kids in a classroom, too few kids in a high school, getting kids around safely, and bureaucracy just in the first ten days of school. With all that chaos it’s hard to distinguish the sound of school bells from the firehouse bell signally another fire that needs to be extinguished. While school administrators rushed to fill classrooms, old fires remained burning and other fires began anew. It all hints at the complexities of education reform.

Here are my other quick notes from Episode 5:

1. One of my major gripes with the show is how it briefly includes wildly interesting things that could use more attention from the “documentary” side of the docuseries. While knocking on doors to get students to come to school, at least two houses featured people that moved and specifically moved to the suburbs. Not discussed was Chicago’s massive population decline, a 7 percent decline from 2000-2010. Notably, the black population decreased almost 17 percent, most of any racial group in Chicago. Sun-Times reporter Art Golab wrote a nice piece on it in February 2011 and it would’ve been nice to hear more about this phenomenon in a major city.

2. The last two episodes revealed what I am uncreatively calling the “Rahm Doctrine” of leadership. Last week while referencing young people getting a second chance, Rahm said that no one is owed anything. He said individuals need to show some effort and that effort should be rewarded/supported by those with power. This week, J.B. Pritzker reminded us “Rahm gets results…doesn’t always care about how it feels” along with Rahm reminding us that he is accountable for his actions. All this, plus an anecdote about not getting along with Hilary Clinton, explains how Rahm leads. He has an acute understanding of accountability structures that does not deter him from acting. He gives and expects it to be matched and is not dissuaded from action due to failure or pain along the way. His repeated acceptance of accountability is somewhat unique in an era of passing the buck. It also invites people to hold him accountable – something to remember around election time.

3. Something is very unsatisfying about the only consistent criticism of Mayor Emanuel in regards to the issue of education in Chicago and from those organizing around the issue. It doesn’t really reflect reality. I’m not suggesting that we need to see every group criticize him, but it’s not really hard to find non-education organizers critical of the city and its leadership.

4. With almost a third of Chicago being Latino/Hispanic, we’ve gotten surprisingly little of their perspective on issues or face time in general. Why?

Table of Contents: A Chicagoan Reviews Chicagoland

1: Episode 1

2: Episode 2

3: Episode 3

4: Episode 4

5: Episode 5

6: Episode 6

Allen Linton II


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