NORTH LAWNDALE – Quinton Green steps off the #52 bus at 15th Street and Kedzie Avenue. He briskly walks three blocks, head down, shunning eye contact with people on the corner. He’s just north of where he was recently jumped but remains focused on his destination: North Lawndale College Prep.
Today he arrives safely. One day last month, he and three friends were walking down Kedzie and Polk in North Lawndale after school when they passed a group of 10 men heading the opposite direction. Green thought nothing of it.
Ten minutes later, the group returned, approaching them from behind.
“Did ya’ll say something?”
Green said no. But the smallest in the group started swinging. Green’s glasses fell to the ground. His friend was bashed in the back of the head, another was cut on the arm and hands. The girl in his group yelled to stop.
“I couldn’t really do nothing because … I didn’t know if they had a gun or not.”
That’s not an irrational thought in this West Side neighborhood. Students from other schools, often gang-affiliated, battle over turf and bicker over which group demands more respect.
North Lawndale is a community plagued with violence and lack of resources. The area has averaged nearly 1,000 violent crimes per year since 2012, according to Chicago Police Department statistics.
“There’s a lot of gangs around here; they don’t really like each other and they don’t clique together,” Green says.
Fights are commonplace in high schools across the country. But in North Lawndale, according to Green, weapons complicate the issues.
“Nowadays, people are carrying guns and weapons, so if they try to fight, it could lead to worse things. It’s people in the community trying to get a reputation.”
Reputations bleed into the school day. NLCP is one of seven high schools in the Lawndale area, with students constantly crossing paths and gang lines during their commutes to school.
In the middle of it all is NLCP, a 16-year-old charter school with students who appear to be beating tough odds. An emphasis on culture and meeting basic needs has lifted the school above performance averages for Chicago Public Schools.
NLCP out-achieves neighboring schools, whose students cross the same violent lines on their daily commutes, according to Illinois State Board of Education figures.
According to John Horan, the school’s president, it has more to do with culture than a secret academic formula.
“You can’t get to academic growth until a peaceful culture is in place,” Horan says.
This culture does not involve metal detectors or security guards, which are standard at most Chicago public schools. What other schools see as a safety precaution, Horan says makes kids feel like they’re entering prison.
He added, “You’re either preparing these kids to succeed in college or to head to prison. We want to do the former.”
A culture of trust
The culture of trust at NLCP extends beyond an absence of metal detectors and a zero-tolerance gun policy. It is modeled after Martin Luther King Jr.’s six principles of nonviolence.
Hallways are covered with signs that remind students to resort to nonviolent solutions. A pink poster, hanging over the door of a chemistry classroom at the school’s Christiana campus, reads “‘The beloved community is the framework for the future,’ King-ian nonviolence principle no. 2.” The word “love” in “beloved” is set in boldface.
These principles are carried out by Peace Warriors, a nationwide program that trains students in nonviolent conflict resolution.
The program prepares students to intervene in anything from gossip, to grieving students, to “jump-ons” and gangs. Through training and workshops, the Peace Warriors know how to identify when a problem starts, how to assess the situation, and when to defuse it or seek help, said Gerald Smith, pastor and NLCP student advocate.
“Being a Peace Warrior would help me get my point across that violence is not the way to go,” Green says. “It’s usually shootings and some ‘jump-ons,’ and it causes families to get hurt. I don’t like to see that.”
Student leaders handed out exit surveys to classmates asking the question, “How do you rate peace at NLCP this year?” On a scale of 1-10, all rated 7 or above, signaling progress, according to Smith, who also noted that feeling safe translates to positive attendance rates.
“Our attendance has borne out that our school is safe, starting to become fun, obviously academically rigorous, but there’s a sense of family when students say, you know, I can enjoy being at school,” said Smith, who reported that for the last full day of classes, 93 percent of students were in attendance. “I think that communicates to the fact that there’s something’s going on here, sort of an undercurrent, that says ‘I enjoy being in school again.’ That makes a difference.” he said.
He often sits down with quarreling students to find nonviolent solutions.
“If they got in a fight, I would spend eight hours with those students before they can get back in the mainstream of school,” he said. The method has a 99 percent success rate, according to Smith.
Last Friday, students, teachers, and parents, led by Smith and his grey megaphone, brought the principles of peace into the community. They marched west on Douglas Boulevard chanting, “Peace is poss-i-ble! Peace is possible!” The slogan was written on the back of their T-shirts in hopes of preventing potential violence in coming months.
“They go into the summer with this peaceful celebration, and a very hopeful attitude,” Smith said.
The hope is that this summer will be nothing like the last. There were 348 violent crimes between May and August 2013 in North Lawndale, according to Chicago Police crime figures.
Terryon Bradley is back for the summer from Ellsworth Community College, in Iowa Falls, Iowa. It’s been a year since Bradley left North Lawndale to wrestle, play football, and major in sports management.
“It feels good to be home, you know, but at the same time I don’t like how it changed,” Bradley said, as three Chicago police squad cars speed down 16th Street, sirens blaring. “You see more police officers, crime, violence, shootings, drugs, stuff like that.”
Bradley said he’s proud of his transformation as a college athlete, but worries about others who don’t value education and don’t have access to programs in the community.
“A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” he said, quoting Rev. King. “What he means by that is without a mind, you can’t do anything. You won’t learn anything.”
“If our youth right now knew about business and the money they would make in the future and how they would be, I feel like they would listen instead of being out on the streets,” Bradley said.
Horan concedes that their efforts don’t solve the bigger issues. Nonetheless, they will continue to support students.
“We don’t really have a Plan B,” Horan said.
In the same week he finishes finals, Green finds out that he has been nominated for the Posse Foundation Scholarship. If selected, he hopes to attend the University of Wisconsin Madison to become a storyboard designer for video games.
He’ll spend the summer working two jobs, preparing for three rounds of scholarship interviews, driving with friends, and most important spending less time walking through North Lawndale.
Green has a few keys to success.
“It’s my determination,” Green said. “I know what I have to do in order to succeed, so I get my act together and do everything I need to do to get where I need to be.”