Social worker helps CPS students shed light on school closings

For years, officials at Chicago Public Schools have shut down schools with poor performance and low enrollment, making room for new ones created through the five-year-old Renaissance 2010 initiative.

Officials say the program helps raise the quality of education in Chicago, but for students at shuttered schools, the closings are personal. It is they who must realign their academic and social lives, often without a full understanding of why.

So in February, when officials chose to merge Medill Elementary with a nearby West Side school, CPS social worker Aura Brickler decided to channel students' confusion — into a documentary. She armed them with audio recorders and questions, and next week, just before the school closes, she plans to unveil the result: Medill Matters.

The Web site, billed as "a Renaissance 2010 story," will be primarily the work of three Medill students who explored what led to their school's closing, and perhaps, what could protect others from the same fate.

"It's all about giving a voice to people who are heard the least," Brickler says. "People were just mad and confused, and wanted to do something."

Brickler is a founding member of Project Focus, which began in 2006 as a trip to Uganda, to photograph the culture there and showcase it in the United States. The project resulted in more than 1,000 images shot by Ugandan youth and exhibited in their nation's capital, Kampala, as well as in Chicago.

This year, as a side project, Brickler and Project Focus teamed with Bret Hoekema, a documentary filmmaker at Chicago's Cultivate Studios, to offer a 14-week course on audio documentary and teach Medill students how to address their school's closing.

The decision to close the school angered some community members, partly because Medill improved in several measures of academic progress in 2008 compared with the previous year.

According to CPS records, it was at the 71st percentile of all CPS schools in meeting or exceeding state standards in math. In science and reading, the school ranked at or above 63 percent of CPS schools in students achieving state standards.

But officials determined that the school was underutilized. This year, 147 students enrolled at Medill. In the fall, it will merge with Smyth Elementary, emptying the Medill campus for the new Air Force Academy High School and Chicago Academy for Advanced Technology, both Renaissance 2010 projects.

Three Medill students — eighth-grader Lavontae Brooks and seventh-graders Larnell Love and Rodney Jackson — asked educators, journalists and activists to explain how their school’s closing would affect their lives and community.

Love has attended Medill since prekindergarten.

"I want to get our voices out and get respect from adults and people in CPS," he says on the Web site. "We may not be able to do anything about our school closing, but maybe our story can do something for other schools."

Brickler says the students were told early on that their project would not save their school. Instead, their mission would be to share the voices of their community and measure the impact of the closing in human terms.

"It's been an eye-opener for them that the school that's closest to you isn't necessarily going to meet your needs," she says. "The point wasn't to try to save Medill. It was to try to shed some light on the situation."

To that end, Brickler is reaching out to community members for help. The team produced the documentary independently, with donated audio recorders and weekend meetings.

The work is almost finished, but Brickler says the students need money to distribute it. Project Focus has opened its PayPal account to donations for the project.

She says she plans to copy a version of the project onto a CD for each family with a child at Medill, as well as policymakers.

"We want to show people that this has a real impact on students," Brickler says, "and that their point of view should be valued."