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Harper High School, and finding solutions to complex problems

Every few years, This American Life puts forward a piece of radio reporting that raises the bar for journalism as a whole. A few years back, “The Giant Pool of Money” not only explained the mortgage crisis better than anyone else had, it sparked a helpful discussion in the journalism scholarship community about “explainers” and the important journalistic work done in making a story sufficiently comprehensible that it broadens the audience for future stories on the topic.

I think the two part episode This American Life recently released on Harper High School in the south side of Chicago is some of the best work they’ve ever done. Trying to understand the epidemic of gun violence in Chicago and its implications for children growing up in this violent environment, TAL placed three reporters in Harper for five months.

In the previous academic year, 29 current and recent students were shot. Eight were killed. And Harper’s student body is just over 500 students.

The violence and danger defines life at Harper in ways that are not immediately obvious to outsiders. A neighborhood shooting threatens the homecoming football game because half the football team is affiliated with the gang believed to have committed the crime, which leads the school staff to consider whether anyone will take a shot at the players on the field. While many schools would have cancelled the game and the homecoming dance, the staff at Harper are determined to provide as normal a high school experience as possible as they can for the students they are teaching and caring for.

But a normal experience is impossible. What becomes clear over the course of two hours is that everyone at Harper – students, teachers, administrators – are suffering from post-traumatic stress, over and over again. Everyone at Harper is gang affiliated, not because they’re kids gone bad who’ve turned to crime, but because living on a particular block means other people in the neighborhood assume you’re affiliated with the gang that controls your territory. And everyone at Harper has been touched by death. One of the most striking moments is an interview with the (phenomenally successful) football team. Asked how many members of the team have been shot at, a student explains that any upperclassman has been shot at, simply because it’s hard to live 16 years in the Englewood neighborhood without being targeted.

At the end of “The Giant Pool of Money“, I felt like I understood the complicated and stupid ways in which we’d failed to regulate our financial systems. I could imagine some possible solutions: requiring greater transparency on complex financial instruments like collateralized debt obligations, reforming ratings agencies, making it harder for banks to sell and transfer loans. There’s no similar sense of clarity that comes from hearing the two hours of reporting from Harper High School, other than a sense of what probably won’t and can’t work.

When we discuss public schools in the US, there’s a familiar narrative of powerful teachers’ unions and inflexible administrations, unwilling to make the creative changes necessary to educate our children, uncompensated to the point where the most talented can’t be recruited into the profession. The TAL story works to shatter that myth – there are several staffers and administrators featured in the Harper High story who apparently deserve canonization. The most agonizing parts of the story are the moments where adults, who are working so hard to protect these children, start facing the exhaustion and burnout that comes from working incredibly hard in impossible conditions.

For once, those impossible conditions aren’t due to fiscal constraints. Harper has money, allocated by the Chicago school system to help the school turn around and cope with the incredible challenges it faces. (This money is drying up, which is a focus of much of the second hour of the story.) Many of the people we get to know in the Harper story are the social workers made possible by the extra funding Harper receives. It’s easy to see how things can get worse at Harper when that funding ends, but it’s hard to see how more money cures the core condition.

The core problem Harper faces is that their students are going to school in a war zone. That war zone is the product of social forces far beyond the control of the hardworking and brave people at Harper: the flood of handguns in the neighborhood, gang rivalries that began with the drug trade and now center on multi-year patterns of vengeance and revenge. Epidemiologist Gary Slutkin suggests we consider the violence in Englewood as a disease, infecting those impacted by it and making them more likely to engage in violent behavior. Some of Slutkin’s critics argue his analysis ignores the larger socioeconomic problems – the drug trade and the violence it has helped engender are reflections on the lack of real economic opportunity for people of color who live on the South Side of Chicago.

And whether violence is understood as an epidemic or a product of socioeconomic conditions, it’s enabled by a gun culture in the US that makes handguns inexpensive and easy for Harper students to obtain. Asked about purchasing guns, students knew how to purchase handguns for as little as $25, and talked about circumstances where someone in their clique would point them to a hidden, communal gun located in an abandoned building or in someone’s garage. Chicago has some of the strictest gun laws in the US, but the city is not an island, and many guns come into the city from neighboring towns in Illinois and Indiana, sometimes bought by “straw purchasers“, who buy weapons for those whose felony convictions would prevent them from obtaining guns. Fixing Harper High School might require more than fixing a culture of violence and a lack of economic opportunity in the South Side of Chicago – it might require solving the proliferation of firearms in the US.

TAL’s story on Harper is a brilliant piece of reporting that puts human faces on a crisis that seems distant to many in America, and even many in other neighborhoods of Chicago. As Clay Shirky notes, analyzing two journalistic projects that cover homicide in Washington DC, focusing on the faces and individual stories of people affected by murders turns murder from an abstract tragedy to a personal one. This American Life goes beyond the tragedy of the killings in Chicago and towards the ongoing tragedy of those affected by those murders directly and indirectly.

The next step, beyond complicating the story of violence in Chicago and honoring those who are spending their careers helping students overcome the violence in their communities, would be asking listeners for help in solving the problem. Many of This American Life’s listeners asked Ira Glass and other producers whether there was a way to help Harper, and the show points those interested in donating towards a WePay campaign that’s raised $160,000 towards a $2 million goal, which would allow the school to maintain many of the counseling services currently threatened by budgetary changes. But this is a “thin” form of engagement (see my talk on digital civics at this year’s Digital Media and Learning Conference for more on “thin” and “thick” civic engagement), designed to allow as many people as possible to help, but not to go beyond the solution on the table: continue funding the dedicated team at Harper to fight the good fight.

It’s possible that This American Life isn’t offering solutions, because that’s generally not what journalists do. But a story this raw and painful leaves listeners with an open question after hearing it: are we more or less empowered to act after we’ve heard the story of Harper High? It’s hard not to feel motivated to look for solutions to urban violence when faced with the struggles Harper students and faculty are facing. But it’s also all too easy to realize just how difficult these problems are to solve and how little, in the long run, giving money to supplement Harper’s budget will do.

Efforts to help children escape the cycle of violence in communities like the South Side of Chicago have succeeded when they’ve had the right combination of circumstances: a visionary leader, a committed city government, a cooperative school system, and a little luck. Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone has had amazing success, but it’s been difficult to replicate in other cities, where leaders haven’t been able to rely on Canada’s charisma, a deep bench of philanthropic supporters and largess from the Wall Street community. But trying to bring a model like Harlem Children’s Zone to more cities requires solving another apparently intractable problem, getting Americans to see the value of spending more money to educate a student than we do to incarcerate a prisoner. Much as we’d need a debate that balanced the utility of an individual being able to protect herself with a handgun against the danger of a city filled with illegal guns, we need a debate about the value of public goods like education and their long-term utility in making America a safer place.

My hope is that thorough, moving, personal journalism like TAL’s coverage of Harper High can help us start the hard, multi-year conversations we’d need to have to design, implement, test and scale strategies for changing conditions in neighborhoods like Englewood. It’s not TAL’s responsibility to help us hold that debate, but I can’t help thinking that perhaps they and other passionate storytellers are positioned to help us open that debate in a way politicians and policymakers seldom are.

2 thoughts on “Harper High School, and finding solutions to complex problems”

  1. Ethan,
    Thanks for this post. I, too, was moved by this piece and have listened to it twice. I might disagree with you a bit on whether donating money is thin or thick because I think the principal of Harper makes a case that MONEY will help THEM continue pro-active action within the school. So from my perch in Vermont, it is the thickest engagement I can make short of a)sharing the story with friends and youth, b)driving out to Chicago and volunteering.
    As a former journalist of some 33 years, I would paint a grimmer view on whether this time of journalism is or can be prevalent. Sadly, I don’t think it can. In the last 15 years, the number of journalists working in America has declined by half; many more newspapers (and other media outlets) have been absorbed into corporate ownership; corporate owners are proportionally more concerned about profits and stock price and really have booted the opportunity to use social media and the Web in general to leverage their franchise of news and community expertise. So major ‘investigative’ pieces — translation: stories that take months rather than hours to produce — are far more rare.
    At DML2013 had a fascinating discussion with some of the Detroit First folks about a)applying pressure on existing media and b)helping youth figure out what new media will take the place of traditional news sources which, whatever one says, had a room filled with professional journalists passionate about their craft who were paid money to do so. I think it is the youth that must decide the next iteration of the American newspaper. And it will be very different.
    Which I guess speaks to my c) in thick engagement: Can folks like me — decent, experienced journalists — be mobilized to help youth tell their stories with journalistic power and effectiveness?
    I would like to. And perhaps that is one idea that came out of the DML2013 conference for me and some others out in Detroit, Chicago, Nevada and Pittsburgh… If only there were more hours in the day.
    Thanks for your speech, your work and this post.
    Geoffrey Gevalt

  2. I don’t know if it was “Giant Pool of Money”, but I’ve listened to a very good TAL on the financial crisis. However, the conclusion that I came to was very different–I remember a series of “this regulation was enacted, so this loophole was used”, where the biggest and least ethical firms were able to take advantage of the very regulations intended to control them.

    What I’m hearing from this post is in part “Chicago has a violence problem, so to help reduce violence, places without a violence problem need to be more like Chicago”. Prohibition of alcohol was disastrous, a mistake we are still paying for. Prohibition of drugs is similarly bad–I would suggest that drug prohibition is a very major factor in Chicago’s culture of violence, and that legalized drugs would at least limit the majority of the problem to voluntary participants.
    But gun laws affect the law abiding far more than they affect the lawless. There can be logical argument about the weight of defensive vs criminal use of guns, but making legal ownership more difficult will by its nature affect the positive, defensive use far faster than it will affect criminal misuse. I don’t believe it is possible within the limits of the second amendment to reduce legal gun ownership enough to significantly reduce illegal misuse–and ignoring or weakening the constitution is a bigger danger overall than isolated gun violence.

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