Months After Killing, Chicago School Looks Ahead The beating death of Fenger High School student Derrion Albert sparked a nationwide conversation on youth violence. Now, the school operates under Chicago's "turnaround strategy" for troubled schools. There's increased security, new teachers and a new principal.
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Months After Killing, Chicago School Looks Ahead

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Months After Killing, Chicago School Looks Ahead

Months After Killing, Chicago School Looks Ahead

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Let's follow up now on the beating death of a Chicago teenager. It happened at the start of the school year and it called attention to youth violence across the country. Now that the school year is nearly over, NPR's Cheryl Corley has this update from Fenger Academy.

CHERYL CORLEY: Derrion Albert did not die on the grounds of his high school, but the fight that broke out last fall included feuding factions from Fenger. So once video of that fatal brawl was posted online and broadcast nationally, Fenger became a symbol for youth violence. Ask students now whether they feel safe at the school and it's a mixed bag.

Ms. BRIANNA SMITH (Student, Fenger Academy): Nuh-uh. Even though it's like new teachers here, it's not no peace.

CORLEY: Seventeen-year-old Brianna Smith says she does believe that peace will come though, because of changes made at the school. Smith didn't know Derrion Albert, but she was friends with other students at Fenger who died violently.

Ms. SMITH: I knew Shaun Brown. I graduated out of eighth grade with him. He was a real nice boy. Keenan Reno, he was a real outgoing person. A friend accidently shot him.

CORLEY: The city has been grappling with ways to curtail the violence. 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 and from school. Brianna Smith says the day Derrion Albert died, she had taken a different route to school.

Ms. SMITH: And something just told me, like, Brianna, just walk down the side streets today, because somebody could have beat me up. I was just scared.

CORLEY: Fenger now operates under Chicago's so-called turnaround strategy for troubled schools. There's beefed up security, new teachers and a new principal, Elizabeth Dozier.

Ms. ELIZABETH DOZIER (Principal, Fenger Academy): To be quite honest, we had huge multiple gang fights almost on a daily basis towards the beginning of the year. Now that does not exist. I mean, you can come and walk the halls. There's a sense of like calm and order here.

CORLEY: And Fenger looks great - with gleaming floors, newly painted walls, big motivational signs all around. Troublemakers were expelled, other kids transferred, and the school is among several receiving federal funds to fight violence.

Ms. DOZIER: So we are getting ready to have an experience that some of you have had already and...

CORLEY: Fenger has been holding so-called peace circles. Parents, alumni and others meet with students to mentor them and discuss issues like school violence. Principal Dozier says it's an effort to show students a different way to resolve conflict.

Ms. DOZIER: You can't just always suspend kids, kick them out, expel them. You really have to work with them, right, to build their skills.

Unidentified Man: I want you to stand on your feet and I want you to clap like you've never clapped before.

CORLEY: Cheering students, teachers, alumni, juvenile court officials and others packed the lunchroom recently to celebrate the completion of a huge mural, entitled "Choose Your Own Legacy." Artist Carolyn Elaine, who graduated from Fenger in 1980, designed the mosaic, working for weeks with the students.

Ms. CAROLYN ELAINE (Artist): They don't even realize the paradigm of violence they exist in. You know, it's like a fish doesn't realize it's swimming in water. It just swims. So it's up to us to come back. We can't keep looking for something on the outside to come in and change, you know, what's going on with our children. We have to be that change.

CORLEY: Elaine says creating the 700-square-foot mosaic was an excuse to bring students and others together in a positive experience.

Where's your contribution?

Mr. WILLIAM ELLIS (Student, Fenger Academy) My contribution is right here.

CORLEY: Sophomore William Ellis smiles briefly. 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've died, of current students, and pictures of families.

Ellis shows off his section, which includes...

Mr. ELLIS: My grades, which I got straight As for the first time ever, and my grandma, which - my great-great grandma.

CORLEY: At the end of the mosaic, there's also a picture of Derrion Albert along with his grades, a poem he wrote, and some of his accomplishments. Artist Carolyn Elaine says the way he died should not be Albert's legacy.

Ms. ELAINE: If something like this can come out of that, that should be his legacy.

CORLEY: Fenger High School's principal says she's not certain if projects like the peace circles or the mural, the rallies and other measures will prevent any of her students from dying a violent death in the future, but she's hopeful.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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