America's Crumbling Infrastructure: Fifth Grade Students at a Crumbling Chicago Elementary School Challenge Political Indifference

Byrd Community Academy is a crumbling elementary school in Chicago next to one of the largest and most perilous public housing projects -- Cabrini-Green. It also is the location of one of the more spectacular fifth grade classes in the country.

In Room 405, since December, the entire course curriculum is devoted to one project and one goal -- document the terrible disrepair and lack of facilities of the school and build community, state and national support for a new school!

I asked their teacher, Brian Schultz, how this came to be? He said he asked the 19 students in this class, all African-Americans from low-income families, what they wanted to work on. They replied "our school." Reading, writing and arithmetic -- they learn those and much more through this one single, expanding mission.

The youngsters appear transformed. Their attendance rate is 98 percent and coming from a part of Chicago rife with drugs, street violence, gang activity, physical deterioration and unemployment, this is testimony to their interest. They design each part of their research and action strategy. They learn how to do surveys, write different letters of support from politicians, community leaders and from their own peers. Nine hundred students from other schools have expressed their support.

I asked their teacher, Mr. Schultz, about his support for such a unique program by his superiors. "My principal and the other teachers are very approving," he said.

Looking over the students' work product so far, I noticed a methodical sequence for their rationale. First they listed 89 "problems that affect ourcommunity and us." They fit their school needs with their community at large in a kind of free association. Project Citizen, as they call their initiative, then zeroed in on their school -- no stage or auditorium, rest rooms dirty and broken, no lunch room -- eat in hallway, heat does not work, need to wear coats, no air conditioning, bullet holes/cracks in windows, few books in the library, broken fences outside, no attached gym. They learned how to take photos of what they verbally describe. They each wrote a description of their school.

Together they put together the comprehensive Action Plan. I looked at it in terms of what the students have to learn to implement it and what it takes out of the students. It sure does not demand memorization, regurgitation and vegetation as so much school subjects demand. It taps into almost every course taught except laboratory sciences.

Interviews, video documentary, expository writing, letters/emails, direct action, surveys, petitions, news releases, photography fundraising and research. They're into the costs for the new school, where the money has to come from, the position of the Board of Education (distant), the response from the elected officials (mostly cool up to now) and how to get media for their cause (they have been interviewed by the Chicago Tribune and NPR, among several news outlets).

Their self-confidence and maturity are growing. They sense that they have started a process of change. They know about polite recognition for what they are doing that is just window-dressing. Vice President Cheney responded to their letter, wishing them luck, for instance.

As a student letter "to whom it may concern" said: "It teaches us about how the government works and how we can affect public policy change even as fifth graders (age ranges from 10 to 12 years). The letter concludes: "We would like to invite you to see our school for yourself. We do not think that you would let your kids come to a school that is falling apart. ...The problems are not fixable and would cost too much to fix. Byrd Academy needs a new school building."

The Byrd Academy students, their teacher and principal, Joseph Gartner ( may have started something. Schools need basic repairs or replacement all over our country -- hundreds of billions of dollars of work projects that cannot be shipped to China.

Maybe George W. Bush will divert his attention as Mayor of Baghdad and start paying attention to these schools and their needs with some of that money he is wasting in the massive military budget that now takes half of the federal government's operating expenditures.

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