A FEW weeks after I visited Fenger Academy, on Chicago’s far south side, television cameras swarmed the school. The incident at Fenger was so alarming that the White House dispatched two cabinet secretaries to quell anxiety. I came for happier reasons. The Fenger was still in the heady first days of school, exciting not only because every new year brings new opportunities, but because this year seemed particularly ripe with them.
Fenger is closer to Indiana’s belching mills than to downtown Chicago. It has struggled for decades. From 2006 to 2008 less than 3% of students met Illinois’s pathetic standards of achievement. But this meagre record had one good outcome: Fenger’s district chose it as a “turnaround” school.
When I arrive in the main office, students are still milling about, a few parents with them, looking for registration or wondering where to pick up their new uniforms–black polo shirts with the school insignia on the breast. Don Fraynd, the turnaround officer, is waiting for me. He is a youngish man whose e-mail signature is punctuated by a proud “PhD”. After a quick tour we sit in the principal’s anteroom. He tells me that reformers have showered Fenger with programmes, to no avail.