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GUVERCIN: 'Last Chance High' reflects harsh reality of US public education

Column: The Bigger Picture

Dilara Guvercin is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in psychology and minoring in philosophy. Her column, "The Bigger Picture," runs on alternate Thursdays.
Dilara Guvercin is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in psychology and minoring in philosophy. Her column, "The Bigger Picture," runs on alternate Thursdays.

Recently, I stumbled upon a 2014 eight-episode long documentary on YouTube called “Last Chance High,” which chronicles the lives of students who attend the Moses Montefiore Academy in Chicago’s West Side. 

The school was the only elementary school in Chicago for special needs students, where the majority of the population were at-risk youth who have been in trouble with the law, display psychological and emotional issues and have been removed from general public education systems. 

Although it was filmed more than 6 years ago, the messages and realities conveyed in this series were shocking and disheartening, as the subjects were young children who are victims of an unsupportive, understaffed, underfunded and underqualified school and social system that is unable to give them the resources and guidance they need. 

As soon as the documentary began, it was immediately evident that many of the students were severely emotionally disturbed and were displaying delinquent behavior that made it extremely difficult for staff members to manage them. It was clear from the students’ verbal and body language that many of them required intensive intervention both academically and psychologically, with some students not forming a single sentence without swearing, disrespecting a staff member or getting into a physical altercation. 

The staff seemed extremely overwhelmed and even passive, to some degree, as if they had gotten so used to the conditions that it seemed pointless to intervene. Many of the students were highly affiliated with gangs, had multiple interactions with the law, had failed or repeated their academic terms, frequently committed truancy and sexually active behaviors, robbed, assaulted and some even murdered. 

Many of the teachers and administrators have even solemnly commented that the majority of the students would end up being statistics, locked up or killed due to the inescapable negative influences and poor family life that they are subject to. 

While it is very easy to view these children as hopeless delinquents, it is essential to acknowledge the circumstances that have shaped their behaviors and outlooks on life. Almost all of these students come from poverty and receive little to no financial and academic support from their families, some of whom have a history of substance abuse and incarceration.

Furthermore, these students, who represent a larger population of special needs students in crime and poverty-stricken districts, have experienced extremely traumatic events that cause many of the emotional and social disturbances they display. This can range from losing a family member to gang violence and living in constant fear for their life to being bullied, harassed and tormented by family members, friends and students. 

Many have incarcerated parents, are involved in gangs from a young age and live in impoverished areas that are inescapable and hubs for crime. These are pivotal factors that contribute to the cause of these students’ behavior, which is compounded by the fact that they have special needs. 

Coach Brown, a highly active member of the school who is heavily involved with the students, made an extremely enlightening and accurate statement that strongly reflected the reality that these students’ circumstances had imposed on their ability to succeed and overcome their conditions. 

“You just gotta’ get the meanness out of them ... They’ve been told that they’re nasty so long that they feel it. They’ve been told that they’re dumb so long that they feel it … They feel as though the world is against them,” he said. 

When children are forced to carry these labels by the very people who are responsible for supporting and guiding them, they are not only deprived of the opportunity to take advantage of programs and interventions that can help them deal with their issues, but they are also deprived of a sense of identity and self-worth that is essential to their growth and development. 

Keeping these in mind, it is a duty for public education systems to ensure that every student is closely monitored and tested for any special needs-related issues. Additionally, the public education system should be aware if students come from homes or social lives that carry a potential for negative psychological influences from a young age, and subsequently, perform academic and psychological interventions as soon as possible. 

Furthermore, it is paramount that school districts, particularly those in impoverished areas, are provided funding, resources and qualified staff in order to provide adequate environments for their students, for which school might be an escape from a dangerous and hopeless outside world. 

While watching this documentary, it was disheartening to see that many students were not receiving counseling or psychological and academic assistance, which is not only due to staffing-related issues, but also the dismissiveness and carelessness of many of the parents who seem to have given up on their children. 

Therefore, schools and families must diligently work together to ensure the welfare and development of children who are in danger of succumbing to their circumstances and becoming tragic statistics. 

Dilara Guvercin is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in psychology and minoring in philosophy. Her column, "The Bigger Picture," runs on alternate Thursdays. 


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