In 2008, there were more murders in Chicago than U.S. soldier casualties in Afghanistan. Englewood is one of five Chicago neighborhoods that has seen more than 100 murders since 2007. Last year, Jennifer received a request for a visit from a school located inside the three mile area.

Miss Vikki Stokes, principal of Guggenheim Elementary school wrote to Bess the Book Bus explaining the challenges seen in her community. She made an honest ask on behalf of her kids, when others in similar situations would be hesitant. We visited last July while most students were in summer school. For some, the classes were voluntary and students could stop by for a free lunch and breakfast. It was a safe place to be.

The 2012 Transitions/VSP Success is in Sight Tour returned to Chicago for four days of outreach split between the inner city and the suburbs. We partnered with Transitions, VSP and Hoya Vision to bring Eyenstein, the mobile eye care clinic, to provide free comprehensive eye exams and glasses to the students. For the city schools, we chose Guggenheim and Morgan elementary schools. Miss Stokes transferred this year from the former to the latter. Morgan Elementary is located 12 blocks south of Guggenheim, a distance of about two miles, but the two schools seem worlds apart.

Students at Morgan Elementary School are excited to read.

At Morgan Elementary, the students knew what books they liked, and talked about the things they wish they could read. We were asked for Cam Jansen mysteries, Big Nate and anything involving dinosaurs. Sabria Jackson was amazed by the bus. She spent twenty minutes picking through the shelves, pulling out books, carefully reading the back covers and leafing through the pages. Sabria knew she could only choose one book to take home, and she was going to make sure it was a good one. Seeing that is a sure sign that she has developed a love of reading.

The teaching staff at Morgan Elementary are responsible for that. They incorporate books into the class every day. Yolanda Sattler is a resource specialist working with seventh and eighth grade students, and she still reads aloud to her class. The Bluford series from Townsend Press is the only thing her students are excited to see. “I think the students can relate to the situations in the story lines,” she says. The books cover the issues faced by students including bullying, body image and school violence. She picked out a classroom set, including the newest books Breaking Point, Pretty Ugly and The Test. There was a constant crowd outside the bus all day. Even after the final bell rang, students asked to come back aboard and pick out an extra book for their little brothers and sisters.

At Guggenheim, we saw an entirely different school. Third and forth graders cleared our selection of activity books and seventh graders walked away with Mickey’s Scary Night. The kids’ book choices reflected the fact that they did not seem to know what they wanted and that they seemed unwilling or uninterested in challenging themselves. A retired teacher that was passing by came aboard to check us out. She commented that the books were just too hard for these kids. Even at 5th grade she insisted they needed sight words. They had not learned to read for the most part. Their parents were not readers. There were no books in the homes and few in the school library.

At the end of the school year, Guggenheim Elementary will shut down and the students will be cycled through another set teachers and administrators. These are kids that have been given up on. And the children are giving up too, based on the low expectations set for them. The odds are against them as they are shuffled off to another school where more bright faces and forced smiles will assure them that “This time it will be better.”

Comparing the two schools, you have to ask which student stands a better chance. Chicago can be a tough place to grow up. The pressure to do well doesn’t meet the present opportunities. We have to ask ourselves if we are doing the best we can for our children – ALL of our children. We have to stop being so short sighted. It is time we put politics aside and assess our vision for their future and realize that ours depends on it. If we do not afford these children the same basic resources as we afford our most privileged children, how do we expect them to succeed? How do we expect this country to succeed?