Inside ‘The View From Room 205’: A Q&A with Reporter Linda Lutton

WBEZ reporter discusses the year she spent inside a fourth-grade classroom in North Lawndale

WBEZ reporter Linda Lutton met with fourth graders from William Penn Elementary more than 60 times while putting together "The View From Room 205." (Andrew Gill / WBEZ)

North Lawndale is not an easy place for any kid to grow up.

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The West Side neighborhood has a per capita income of just over $12,000. Census data puts its population at a notch below 36,000, barely a third of where it stood in 1970.

Last month alone, the 3-square-mile strip located just south of Garfield Park had more than 100 reports of violent crime, including 44 robberies, 16 assaults and four homicides, according to data analysis from the Chicago Tribune. On Wednesday afternoon, a 24-year-old man was shot in the hip in broad daylight on South Komensky, just a short walk away from William Penn Elementary.

That’s where WBEZ reporter Linda Lutton spent the 2014-15 school year, looking at the impacts of poverty on a fourth-grade class of students for a story published this week called “The View From Room 205 – Can schools make the American Dream real for poor kids?”

The hourlong radio story focuses on “some little kids and a big idea,” namely that schools can help students achieve the American dream regardless of their backgrounds. That students living in poverty can overcome the litany of obstacles – violence, hunger, a lack of school resources – they face each day as long as they work hard in class.

To examine that idea, Penn was a natural fit. More than 97 percent of its students live below the poverty line.

“This isn’t a story that’s focused around the savior teacher or the savior principal. ... The story I’ve built is more true to life, but it’s actually a much harder story to build.”

–WBEZ reporter Linda Lutton

Lutton began working at WBEZ in 2008. She has reported primarily on education issues – including the Chicago Teachers Union strike in 2012 and Chicago Public Schools’ closure of nearly 50 schools in 2013 – but in the past her byline has also appeared on stories related to politics and economic development.

In 2014 she was one of three education reporters nationwide to earn the prestigious Spencer Fellowship through Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in New York. This allowed Lutton to spend a full school year researching what she called the “intersection of poverty and education” for a long-form journalism piece.

That time was spent visiting Penn and meeting with its fourth-grade students, she estimates, on 60 or more occasions. Lutton also visited some of the kids at their home and purchased recorders they could take with them to record their lives outside the classroom.

“The View From Room 205” is the fruit of that labor.

Lutton spoke with Chicago Tonight this week about that process and what she found in North Lawndale and inside room 205.

Chicago Tonight: How did you first come across the fourth grade students at Penn?

Linda Lutton: William Penn was one of a number of schools I was considering. It was a high-poverty school. It wasn’t doing horribly nor outstandingly.

In the news media a lot of the stories we hear about are stories of schools beating the odds. There really aren’t that many of those schools, but we keep hearing those stories over and over. I wanted to find what I felt was a totally typical school. A school that was performing exactly as you would expect given the number of poor students. And Penn fit that bill.

And then when I met (fourth grade teacher) Ms. Hathorne in the fourth grade, I just felt she was a very sympathetic teacher and I really liked the rapport even from the very first day in the fourth grade.

What really solidified things for me was understanding and discovering that Martin Luther King Jr. had lived right across the street and that he was essentially in that exact same spot looking at the exact same issue I was there to look at 50 years prior. I felt that was another reason to stay at Penn.

CT: Was the school open to having you there?

LL: Yes, they very generously honored the commitment they made initially to let me come in. And they stuck to that commitment, and I think (Penn Principal Dr. Sherryl Moore-Ollie) was extremely courageous to do that.

CT: What was your timeline like for putting this story together?

LL: For much of the fall semester of 2014, I was actually in New York taking classes at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and Teachers College. So on Thursdays and Fridays I would try to drop in (at Penn). Beginning second semester of that year I spent much more time at Penn because I wasn’t in New York anymore on a regular basis.

Then in September 2015 I came back to work at WBEZ and I worked on this, but I was also working on other daily work for a period of time. It took me a long time to get through this. I had turned on my tape recorded and turned it off a year later (laughing). I don’t recommend that approach. But I’m also not someone who sees, necessarily, a narrative right away. I’m just a slower writer than other people would be, that’s part of why it took me so long.

This is a story without a single clear narrative. I sort of had to build the narrative, and also it’s very tricky in radio to build a story that’s not focused around a single person. This isn’t a story that’s focused around the savior teacher or the savior principal. And honestly, I think the story I’ve built is more true to life, but it’s actually a much harder story to build.

Listen to the full story: The View From Room 205 – Can schools make the American Dream real for poor kids?

CT: How long did it take you to gain students’ trust and build a rapport with them?

LL: Well fourth graders are really, really open (laughing) so I felt lots of love from the fourth graders from the first day. They were incredibly welcoming and interested in my radio equipment.

CT: What anecdotes/stories from the students’ lives stuck out most to you?

LL: All the ones that I included and even more. There were whole kids I had to leave out over the course of production. I guess that’s what hurt the most.

There’s a little boy in the class, he is crazy talented. He’s a preacher, he preaches for churches on Sundays and we had to cut him out, but I hope to be able to play some outtakes of him. He’s great.

And also there was a story about a family – I guess this was the story that hurt the most to cut – it was a story about a little boy named Donta whose family lived on the same block as Chelsee’s family, that’s the little girl whose cousin was killed. The first time I met the mom, I told her what I was doing and she said basically "Hi, how are you doing? We’re trying to move from here."

And it was really clear the violence had gotten way too close and she feared, really, for her children. They moved at the end of the school year and I captured some tape of Donta that I think really encapsulates really the pain that’s felt from having to separate from a community that you’ve grown up in and you love, but also has become just untenable to live in because of the violence.

Another storyline I hoped to include that I wasn’t able to was just the way North Lawndale came to be the neighborhood it is today. This was the Promised Land. This is a neighborhood full of people who came from the south during the tail end of the Great Migration and settled in North Lawndale. And now what we’re seeing is an absolute exodus from the neighborhood. It’s a reverse migration, an out migration, and honestly an abandonment of the hope that brought people north initially. I think that’s an underlying tragedy that if I had more time I wish I could have included in the piece. It’s an even broader context.

CT: Days before students were set to take the PARCC standardized test, you walked in on Penn staff looking over the actual exam, despite order to keep it under lock and key until distribution. What were your feelings on including that part of the story in your reporting?

LL: I actually had not anticipated writing about standardized testing at all in this story about poverty and education. But very quickly – honestly the first day of school – this was so center stage, it was so clearly the thing that was dominating everything, that it became clear I had to write about it in some way.

And I walked in on the teacher meeting and saw the teachers looking at the PARCC test ahead of time; it became even more of a reason to write about the standardized testing. I felt it was something that, as a reporter, I couldn’t ignore. But I also wanted to stay true to the original intent of my story and look at what I told Penn I was there to look at, which is the intersection of poverty and education.

I wrote honestly about how I felt. I did not want to be seeing that. To me it was a completely demoralizing day, that’s how I felt when I went home.

It also made me wonder, as a reporter, how often this happens. I wonder if this happens in lots of schools and we never find out about it because no one is there to walk in with a microphone and a camera.

CT: Were there any other issues that you didn’t originally plan on writing about, but became so large they had to be included?

LL: I would say the extent of hunger, the severity of hunger and what it feels like to be in a community with no cash. That struck me in a way that moved me and that made me realize the issues are much more severe than I had understood.

WBEZ education reporters Linda Lutton (left) and Becky Vevea. (WBEZ / Bill Healy)

CT: Have you kept in contact with any of the students you worked with at Penn?

LL: Yes all of them with one exception – Kelsey, the little boy who gives the shout outs to his mom on the microphone. I’ve lost touch with him. His foster family was switched and I don’t know actually if he’s back with his real mom yet or if he’s with another foster family. I tried to reach him through the connections that I had through the foster family at Penn and his prior school, but I didn’t find Kelsey. I lost track of him.

But all of the others you hear about and more kids, I am definitely still in touch with. They are sixth graders (now). All the ones I talked about in that story, they all passed to the sixth grade now.

CT: What has the response been to this story thus far?

LL: It’s been an overwhelmingly positive response to the story and I think a heartfelt outpouring of concern for the kids and the school and policy.

Increasingly Americans are segregated by class, residentially, and rich kids and poor kids really don’t go to school together at all. In very, very few circumstances in the U.S. does that happen anymore. And I think what the story does is try to connect, try to build a bridge to a community that’s socially and economically isolated. And I think a lot of people in this country want more connection, they’re not necessarily looking to isolate themselves from communities like North Lawndale, but that is in fact what happened and I hope this story can be a bridge.

CT: What do you want readers/listeners to take away from this story?

LL: Primarily I want people to understand how fundamental poverty is to achievement in schools and how decades of school reforms have not shaken that.

I’d like people to question what King questioned and what I feel the school evidence, the test score evidence forces us to question, which is whether the country must address poverty more head on? Whether we rely too much on schools to address poverty?

Follow Matt Masterson on Twitter: @ByMattMasterson

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