When South Shore’s grades went south

Ann Grimes and Laura S. Washington were no strangers to taking on a challenging project, but when TV producer Scott Craig asked The Chicago Reporter to collaborate with him on a full-scale investigation into Chicago Public Schools, the duo found that it was trying from the get-go.

The task: Find an “average” Chicago high school. Not the best, nor the worst, to paint a fair depiction of the city’s public schools. Grimes and Washington found South Shore High School, a place with both inadequacies and progress–in test scores, vocational training and other programs.

When they rolled into South Shore, cameras and a production crew in tow, then-Principal William Marshall was cooperative but defensive. Though the reporters’ decision to investigate the high school was motivated by a desire to be fair and balanced, many were suspicious.

“I think that some people in the community felt that we had unfairly singled them out,” Grimes said.

The September 1984 story, which became the basis for a segment in the CBS documentary, reported that, while South Shore was an “average” school, it fell far short of the minimal expectations.

Though there was some resentment, the story “spelled out” the systemic problems of Chicago’s public education, Washington said.

“We showed that the inadequacies of the public school system were endemic and not just about the worst neighborhoods,” she said.

After the story, Grimes and Washington moved on: Grimes to other Reporter stories and Washington to serve as then-Mayor Harold Washington’s deputy press secretary.

The documentary, was the Reporter’s first collaboration with a national outlet, and its broadcast had an impact.

At the time, Illinois legislators were championing education reform, Grimes said.

Prompted by the Reporter’s investigation, then-CPS Superintendent Ruth Love appointed a 26-member task force to investigate conditions at South Shore.

The task force, made up of administrators, teachers, politicians and parents, found in its report a high rate of student failure, poor teacher morale, and drastic shortages of books and equipment. It also noted “insufficient science laboratories, lack of computers in mathematics and science classrooms, lack of physical science and earth-science laboratory equipment, lack of class sets of dictionaries and lack of texts appropriate for all learning levels.”

The task force called for spending more than a half-million dollars to restore the institution and also recommended that teachers be given a key role in shaping instruction.

But two years later, when Grimes and the same production team returned to South Shore, not much had changed. The January 1987 article, “Return to South Shore: High school struggles to make the grade,” found that, though time and money had brought some changes, many of the acute problems remained.

There were physical changes at South Shore. A building was repainted, graffiti was removed, and old carpeting, tile and lighting fixtures were replaced.

Yet, South Shore was still a school seeking a clear mission.

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