Linda Lutton, an award-winning education reporter for Chicago Public Media station WBEZ, was one of three reporters who produced two recent episodes for This American Life (see parts one and two) about Chicago's Harper High School. The two hours of interviews with students, teachers and administrators are as engrossing as they are rattling. Lutton and her colleagues -- which include Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here -- spent the fall semester at Harper, attempting to capture stories about a school that lost eight students to gun violence last year with another 21 students shot.
The idea for the series grew out of Lutton's reporting in July for a tragic story titled "The weight of the city's violence, on one school principal."
Twenty years ago, Lutton interned at Isthmus while earning degrees in Urban Studies and English at UW-Madison, where she also wrote for The Daily Cardinal.
She spoke with me by phone from the WBEZ newsroom a week ago.
Isthmus: Congratulations on the stories. Have you gotten any feedback?
Lutton: We've gotten tons of feedback. If you check the This American Life Twitter feed, it's amazing. Some big names in there, too. It's the first time LeBron James has ever said one of my stories is worth listening to.
I'm a local schools reporter in Chicago, so we have a big audience, but not that big of an audience. So there is a big difference when your story is aired all over the country on what is basically public radio's most popular program.
The public education beat in Chicago seems to be really vital. Chicago Public Schools is a national news maker these days, right?
Chicago was ahead of the nation in terms of its reliance on standardized tests to grade schools, for instance, which later became part of No Child Left Behind. We were closing schools for low performance and under enrollment for over a decade. That was started by [U.S. Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan. The idea of starting up new schools and charter schools as a reform strategy has been in play here for many years, whereas now those ideas are being exported to the rest of the country through the Department of Education.
You had a big movement in the late '80s to decentralize the schools and that's something that ironically now, how many years later, is being talked about as an important strategy. Principals have control here over who they hire, they have a good amount of control over their budgets. So this idea of local school autonomy has really been a practice here since the late '80s. So there are a couple of examples why Chicago is ahead of national trends.
On this story, the premise is obviously to spend a semester at Harper. How did that work? Were you at the school every day?
I wouldn't say I was there every day. There were three reporters. Alex Kotlowitz and I live in Chicago, so we spent quite a bit of time. But some of what you're doing, at least initially, is figuring out what your stories are going to be. There's a lot of throwing darts for a while and then you see what sticks on the board. So actually I spent a lot of time with the school's football team. I was at practices, I went to lots of games, I talked to lots of football players, one on one in terms of interviews. And in the end, those interviews didn't pan out as narratives, except for the homecoming game. A lot of that tape was interviews I had recorded, but it was told by Ben Calhoun, my colleague. But it was a really collaborative process, so some of the tape you heard in my story may have been collected by Ben, but there was a big exchange of ideas between reporters. I would say there was hardly a week when one of us wasn't there.
How did the process of getting to know the kids and earn their trust go? You were talking to kids constantly, it seems.
I talked to lots and lots of kids. It wasn't hard, really. I hope this came across, in the first part in particular, but Harper is a really happy school overall. I think, astoundingly, the kids have a lot of trust in the adults. I think they tend to see the adults looking out for them and looking out for their best interest. And so we just became part of the scenery there. They saw us walking around with our funny radio equipment and maybe they didn't know our names, but kids would just stop you all the time and say "Shout out to so-and-so! I want to give a shout-out to my cousin, he's in La Grange Park." If I counted the number of shout-outs on my tape recorder...
But I think we just blended in after a while and certainly the football team got so used to me they called me their reporter. So they'd say our reporter says this, our reporter says that about the other team. So I think some of the staff saw value in that. Certainly the coach understood we were there to report on gun violence, but he also saw value to having a reporter stand around and ask kids, what do you think about the game and what do you think about the competition and are you worried about the offense or the defense? And it was like they were famous for a second, right? NFL dreams.
You must have more footage than you know what to do with. Do you have any plans to use any of it for other projects?
Actually, locally I'm going to produce some stories from the football team so people here will hear little segments that will air on our Morning Edition, maybe across a week or something.
I still think there are some tremendous stories to milk out of there. Football is the quintessential American high school experience and in this case, we thought football might be the place where kids were doing pretty well and were maybe less affected by the violence, but actually what we found was that gun violence was touching those kids as much as anyone else in the school. So I still think that there's a lot to learn from hearing kids experiences. So you'll hear more from the coach.
The segment that really stuck out was when the kids were talking about how people actually get guns in the neighborhood. You're from Minnesota, went to school at Wisconsin, so your background is starkly different from these kids. Did it take you a while to get to the point where you could connect with the kids on a subject like that?
Actually, no. And I think that says more about the environment the kids live in than anything else. I also think it says something about Harper because the school helped us find kids that would know the answers to the questions I wanted to pose and before we talked, one of the security guards told the kids this isn't about snitching, this isn't about trying to tell on anybody, she's not a police officer, it's okay to talk to her about this.
So, like I said, there was a huge amount of trust built up between the kids and the adults at the school. It's notable. I'm in schools all the time and I think Harper does a tremendous job of that. So I think to have an introduction like that is extremely helpful. And I don't think you get an introduction like that as a reporter unless the school also has some trust in you. I don't think every reporter would have gotten that introduction, so I kind of think it works both ways.
I did a story called "The weight of the city's violence on one school principal." It was a pretty short story, six or seven minutes. Probably some of the most painful reporting I've ever done. Some very disturbing pain in there, the wails of the mother at the funeral. And I think after that story, the school felt like I'd covered their situation and no one else actually had in the entire city. Nobody else knew that this was a school that had experienced this. So I think being in the school for a long time, that's what that gets you. The other thing the kids' willingness to talk reveals is their familiarity with the access to guns. This is absolutely part of their life. You heard about a kid who found a gun. I was just struck by how awash in guns the neighborhood is, to the point where it's not hard at all to get a gun. Not hard at all.
The staff at Harper talks about how hard it is sometimes just to work there themselves. How did you deal with the stress of dealing with the story as it was developing around you?
I think what I struggled with more was forming attachments to kids I knew were in danger all the time. Like when the football season ended and I had spent a bunch of time with them, their whole season basically, and the coach had expressed to me that football keeps them safe. They're somewhere every day, they're on that football field. They're not just going home.
I interviewed him on the very last day. They lost a night game in the semi-finals and they had to put all their football stuff away and clean out their lockers. It was like 11:30 p.m. and football was ending. Kids were crying. The next day I showed up when the bell rang and they were just sort of milling around saying, "Oh wow, we don't even really know where to go."
I interviewed the coach that day and he said, "I worry now. I worry about every single one of them, that something will happen because they're not with me anymore and now they're just going to go home, which is probably the most dangerous thing that can happen."
So I felt things that way. But to me, I'm very committed to having the world understand the situation that these kids grow up in, and that keeps me going.
You have kids in Chicago Public Schools and this has been a beat of yours for quite a while. How do you maintain perspective? It seems that to have kids in Chicago Public Schools is to care deeply about Chicago Public Schools, but you're also reporting on it objectively.
I guess it's a system where there's a lot of news and a lot of important topics to cover. They're not more important than my kids, but there are kids in the system who are dealing with things that are much heavier than what my own kids have to deal with.
We have a very two-tiered system in Chicago. You have schools that aren't impacted almost at all by violence. They're integrated schools, they're schools with a decent percentage of middle class kids. And then you have starkly segregated schools in neighborhoods that are deeply impoverished, isolated economically and socially from the rest of the city. Those are the schools that I end up writing about often.