Fenger students perform at a rally celebrating the completion of their mosaic, titled Choose Your Own Legacy.
Fenger students perform at a rally celebrating the completion of their mosaic, titled Choose Your Own Legacy. Sandy Steinbrecher
More than eight months after the horrific beating death of Chicago teenager Derrion Albert, students and officials at Fenger Academy say the climate at the high school has changed for the better.
Albert did not die on the grounds of his high school, but the fight that broke out last fall included feuding factions from Fenger. The school became a symbol of youth violence once the video of the fatal brawl was posted online and broadcast nationally.
Now, students have mixed reactions when asked whether they feel safe at the school.
"Even though it's like new teachers here, it's not no peace," says Brianna Smith, 17.
But Smith says she does believe that peace will come because of changes made at the school. Smith didn't know Albert, but she was friends with Shaun Brown and Keenan Reno, both students at Fenger who died violently.
The city has been grappling with ways to curtail the violence. During the last school year, 49 students were victims of homicide. So far this year, it's 27. The danger typically comes as children make their way to or from school.
Smith says she took a different route to school the day Albert died.
"Something just told me, 'Brianna, walk down the side streets today,' because somebody could have beat me up," she said. "I was just scared."
A New Approach
Fenger now operates under Chicago's "turnaround strategy" for troubled schools. There's increased security, new teachers and a new principal, Elizabeth Dozier.
"To be quite honest, we had huge multiple gang fights almost on a daily basis toward the beginning of the year," Dozier says. "Now, that does not exist. You can come and walk the halls. There's a sense of calm and order here."
Fenger looks great — with gleaming floors, newly painted walls and motivational signs all around. Troublemakers were expelled, other kids transferred, and the school is among several receiving federal funds to fight violence.
Fenger has been holding peace circles: Parents, alumni and others meet with students to mentor them and discuss issues like school violence.
Dozier says it's an effort to show students a different way to resolve conflict.
"You can't just always suspend kids, kick them out and expel them," she says. "You really have to work with them to build their skills."
Cheering students, teachers, alumni, juvenile court officials and others packed the lunchroom recently to celebrate the completion of a huge mural, titled Choose Your Own Legacy.
Artist Carolyn Elaine, who graduated from Fenger in 1980, designed the mosaic, working for weeks with the students.
"They don't even realize the paradigm of violence they exist in. A fish doesn't realize its swimming in water. It just swims," she says.
Images on the 700-square-foot Fenger mural, which covers one of the lunchroom walls.
Images on the 700-square-foot Fenger mural, which covers one of the lunchroom walls. Cheryl Corley/NPR
"We can't keep looking for something on the outside and change what's happening with our children. We have to be that change."
Elaine says creating the 700-square-foot mosaic was an excuse to bring students and others together in a positive experience.
The mural is a portrait of Fenger's history. Among the colorful mosaic stones, there are photos of school clubs from years ago, of teachers, of students who have died, along with current students and pictures of families.
Sophomore William Ellis shows off his section, which includes "my grades which I got straight As for the first time ever, and my grandma, my great-great grandma."
At one end of the mosaic, there's a picture of Albert along with his grades, a poem he wrote and some of his accomplishments. Elaine says Albert's legacy should not be the way he died.
"If something like this can come out of that, that should be his legacy," she says.