My primary school in an upwardly mobile neighborhood of a small Western town in the early 1950s was new and clean. The floor was vinyl, the walls a pale pastel. Dim round ceiling lights produced what was said to be the correct amount of light without glare. Desks in rows, we were arranged in alphabetical order. Paragraph by paragraph we read aloud from basic text books cleaned of excitement and controversy. Work completed, were were allowed to read the faded orange biographies on a shelf at the back of the room — Louisa Alcott, Clara Barton, Daniel Boone, George Washington Carver, Henry Clay.

School was one of the places I learned the virtues of compliance and obedience, what most families expected of white, middle class American girls in that era. My classrooms represented the values of my town. Maybe this is the reason I pay a lot of attention to the physical space in the schools I visit. At one time I assumed that school buildings that appealed to the imagination, that sparked curiosity and intellectual rigor were settings for the education of the wealthy, but I now know that is not true.

At Chicago’s Harold Washington Elementary School, hallways display artist collections of prints and lithographs. Along the primary wing hallway, ‘Harold Washington Boulevard,’ the late Chicago mayor’s polished black Cadillac sits parked against a wall mural of a police station, fire station, and the city hall. The old building, not an up-to-date space by any means, is Principal, Dr. Sandra Lewis’s canvas for displaying the school’s values and painting high expectations. One stairwell displays framed photographs of every one of the school’s families. The ‘dead’ spaces as the old staircases turn up three floors are filled with dioramas’ the most memorable a tribute to the black cowboy and filled with a real, though somewhat wrinkled, cactus and a mangy stuffed coyote. A prominent marquee hangs over the entrance of the Margaret Burroughs Performing Arts Theatre, the old-fashioned, two-story auditorium filled with the original 1915 black varnished wood seats screwed to the floor. It is painted pink with life-size panels of Black performers lining the walls’Duke Ellington, Aretha Franklin, Andre Watts. Dr. Lewis announces, ‘Our school’s band, orchestra, vocal group, and dance troupe perform here.’ At monthly assemblies in this same space all students posting perfect attendance enter a lottery for a new bicycle.

Even though control and order are paramount at this school’students walking to the gym or the library in straight rows, students reciting in unison a memorized creed about values, respect, and expectations’Dr. Lewis announces, ‘At our school we have fun.’ The working jukebox in the principal’s office makes me believe she is right.

Sometimes when I’m awake in the night or driving in traffic, my mind wanders to Harold Washington Elementary School. How would I be different if I had been lucky enough to be part of such a place? How will their time at this school shape the lives of the children there? What seems sure to me is that Dr. Lewis knows that to transform the lives of her school’s children, she must fill their days with much more than basic reading and math and the drilled down test-prep that is being driven by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. At Harold Washington Elementary School, education is an act of joy.

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