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Mayoral debate: Kids’ questions more revealing than pols’ answers

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



Chicago high school students on Monday painted a bleak picture of the obstacles they face to learning every day as they questioned Chicago’s top four mayoral candidates :

Fights in school that security guards watch but don’t break up; bullying inside and outside school, especially of lesbian and gay students; students getting jumped by gang members on the way to school or “harassed” by police; arts and sports programs cut; long commutes.

When the candidates, speaking to “Mikva Challenge” students at a WTTW forum, were asked if they had been bullied as students, three of the four — Miguel del Valle, Carol Moseley Braun and Rahm Emanuel — raised their hands.

Del Valle would sneak out of school through the boiler room to avoid getting beaten up because he was one of the first Hispanics at his school he said.

Emanuel said thugs at his north suburban school “beat me up and took my bike” when he returned from a summer trip to Israel with a very dark tan. His younger brother, Ari, who was bigger, had to rescue him as the kids “said some things on a racial basis” to Emanuel because of his dark color.

Braun said there was a girl in her grade school “who would beat me up, until I got her. I was smaller than most of the kids in my class and she would just pick on me and pick on me and pick on me, and one day I just kind of went berserk, and she left me alone after that.”

Chico said after he “knocked out” a boy beating up his brother, he earned the reputation of someone not to be messed with.

All four candidates said they were struck by the number of students afraid for their safety in the classroom or on the way to and from school.

“You cannot learn if you’re sitting in a high school classroom if you’re scared,” del Valle said, mentioning his efforts to put blue-light police cameras around schools.

Braun was so moved by the students’ security concerns she issued a blanket apology on behalf of adults.

“Our generation, our parents gave us a much safer world to live in, and you guys have to face things we never did,” Braun said. “The lure of the gangs and the drugs and the violence is something that’s new to your generation. I feel guilty about that. I feel bad that we’ve done that or failed to what we’re supposed to do.”

Emanuel answered questions about the lure of drugs by stressing parental responsibility and noting he had talked to his own children as early as 6th grade about drugs. Braun said that was good, but there is only so much parents can do.

Despite the best efforts of her parents, Braun’s own brother died of drug use even as she and her other siblings achieved professional success, she said.

Candidates offered fewer specifics in their answers than the students did in their questions. Students interviewed afterward said they felt the candidates stuck to talking points rather than responding to their questions.

“I feel as though it’s the same shady, simple answers, nothing detailed, sorry,” said Taylor Brown, a Curie High School senior. “I actually don’t think we got any information about the plans, just giving the same basic information. I feel we asked questions that required more detail.”

UNO Garcia Charter School student Karina De La Rosa, 16, complained that her sister still could not speak English well after six years in bilingual education in Chicago Public Schools.

“There are lousy bilingual transitional programs — we need to change those programs,” del Valle said.

Braun said some African-Americans need drastic help to speak English well enough to get into college or even high school: “Because of the economic isolation in many of our communities, you have young people who speak almost a different language. We have an isolated underclass in some parts of this city in which the language is entirely different.”

Chico infuriated Mayor Daley when he dared to suggest that school reform in Chicago had “lost momentum” in recent years. But Chico said after Monday’s forum, “You heard it from our students themselves that we have indeed lost our momentum on public education.”

Also at the forum:

■ Chico and Emanuel both agreed with a student that Chicago’s highest-in-the-nation sales tax is too high, and both said they could reduce it by broadening the number of items and services covered by the sales tax.

■ When a student complained about his two-bus hour-long commute from his Rogers Park home to his West Side school, Braun complained that the one-third cut in public transportation would have “a chilling effect on economic growth and your ability to go to school and on people’s ability to get to their jobs on the ability of communities to thrive, because its like the arteries of the system.”

■ Student Joshua Escobar said he appreciated Chico’s answer to his question about how to fund recycling efforts in Chicago. Chico said he would separate garbage collection from the ward map and go to a “grid system” he said would be more efficient, freeing up money to take recycling city-wide.

■ All four candidates agreed that more arts and sports offerings would make students want to stay in school.

“You’re looking at a former ballet dancer,” Emanuel said. “I had a scholarship for the Joffrey Ballet, and I didn’t take it. My kids take piano.”

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