Behind the Tribune’s Schools Series

The Tribune first intended its series on Chicago schools to run a month to six weeks. The series would go on and on, past the point of civic exhaustion, of course, but what an imposing public document it would be!

Then editors thought twice. This was public education, after all, an issue claiming a large and passionate audience. If the Tribune instead laid out a few huge, appalling articles, a lot of people would care enough to read every word.

So the Tribune opened a hole on page one and on two full facing pages inside, and they poured everything they had into it for two weeks. “Hit the reader in the face with a sledgehammer ten times,” said one editor.

We felt the sledgehammer. There is a good deal we could say we admired about the Tribune series–the immense specificity at the grade-school level; the casual disregard of the command ranks–but admiration is really not what we felt. We were sickened. We read the first two articles on Goudy Elementary and drove the family up to see it. We brought our kids to gape at other kids’ catastrophe.

Bonita Brodt visited several schools before choosing Goudy, and then she settled in for four months of five-day weeks and eight-hour days. “Sometimes longer than eight hours,” she told us. “Sometimes I would come early and talk to people before school and most of the time I would stay after school talking to people privately. And I would spend time out in the community to follow some of the kids into their home environment.

“I believe the best way to tell readers what goes on in an institution is to give them as much reality detail as you can. As much context as you can. A lot of reality. The decision was made: we’re writing about real people–we’ll use real names.”

For example:

“The kids,” Brodt wrote, “call Room 306 the ‘Psycho Ward.’

“Meet some of the boys assigned to this room:

“There’s Cinque Kind, the boy who punched the gym teacher.

“And Antonio Robertson, a pencil-thin character who got in a fight with 3d-grade teacher Mary Leahu one day and knocked the glasses off her face . . .

“Arnaray Bibbs has been caught with a real weapon twice.”

Editor Jim Squires said, “It’s always dangerous and difficult when you write about children. Particularly children who are victims . . . and in most cases innocent victims. But we went through that process in our ‘Millstone’ series [in 1985]. The very first episode of ‘Millstone’ was about a family and it was the damnedest story, and we had this incredible picture of them and we decided to identify them. We decided to identify kids as gang members. We said if we started using anonymous names the first thing in a person’s mind will be ‘This might not be true.’

“So we decided we’re going to see it with our own eyes and then we’re going to report it. No credibility problems and no complicated defenses. So when we got to the schools we said we’ve got to do the same kind of work. We made sure everything we put in the series was seen with our own eyes, and we double-checked identification.”

(Not quite everything. Bonita Brodt didn’t actually see nor did we learn the name of the kid who sauntered out of Susan Belter’s classroom, stole a lady’s purse, and peeled back in with the lady in hot pursuit. But Brodt made sure it actually happened. “He was boasting,” Squires told us.)

At a far remove from the important stuff was Superintendent Manford Byrd. The Tribune, in a decision as arty as it was journalistic, rendered Byrd as a figure of little consequence to be brushed onto the picture in a few quick strokes.

“At one time we did talk about doing a big story that would have him as the main focus,” said Patrick Reardon, who conducted a half dozen long interviews with Byrd, “and we backed away from that because we didn’t want to give the impression that by changing him we’d solve the problems of the system.”

By the time the Tribune devoted any particular space to Manford Byrd, their estimation of him was clear. They’d trot him out every now and then to contribute a fatuity to the discussion, and back into the wings he’d go.

He made a typically brief appearance in the article that began: “All 22 students in Grace Currin’s 4th-grade class must attend summer school this year because, their principal says, Currin did not teach the children enough to pass to the next grade.” The Tribune interrupted this infuriating report on incompetent teachers and unqualified substitutes to mention:

“Chicago School Supt. Manford Byrd Jr. was surprised that such a situation existed.

“‘I’m not aware of that kind of imbalance,’ he said. ‘Our aim is to get regular, certified teachers in all the openings. But I don’t know if we’ve ever been in a better shape than we are now.'”

And on the subject of students’ abominable test scores and dropout rates, Byrd opined: “The challenge is to make a connection, to get where the kid is. But, when you’re all done, the learner must learn for himself or herself. In the end, the learner must undergo the immersion, the exercises. I don’t think we can excuse the learner. There’s a certain amount of motivation necessary, a certain amount of want-to.”

Halfway through the series, the Tribune finally devoted a sidebar to Manford Byrd. Under the headline “Manford Byrd’s view from the top” and a cruelly chosen picture of Byrd grinning like a Cheshire cat in front of a wall covered with plaques, this brief article let the superintendent speak his piece.

Byrd told Reardon that he’s “probably the most gifted urban administrator in this country.” He said that “I have been recognized by more community groups than all other superintendents together.”

Yet he conceded there are a lot of “bedeviling” questions about the education of urban children. “Doctors who deal with cancer are not afraid to say ‘I don’t know what the cure is,'” he told Reardon.

Reardon told us, “I have to tell you one of my failings as a reporter is I am not hard enough on public officials. I bend over backwards to try to hear their side of it. And this is the attitude I went into the interviews with. In writing it, I just let him say what he said to me, without my getting into it.”

We asked Reardon if Byrd understood the impression he’d made in the Tribune. He had. The day the series ended, Byrd and School Board president Frank Gardner came in and spent two hours talking to the Tribune editorial board. And Byrd protested: “I think the personal handling of me was about the most vicious thing I’ve ever seen. I was put up there like a smiling, bumbling idiot when everything was falling down around me. I feel personally victimized.”

“What we discovered,” Squires told us, “is that people like Manford Byrd and Frank Gardner didn’t know how bad their district was. They didn’t really know. . . . Then they came in here–and they still didn’t know!”

Some editors and reporters who worked on the series wish that the final editorial demanding wholesale changes had called for Byrd’s resignation.

“If we were going to call for the abolition of the system it didn’t make sense to ask for the resignation of the top guy,” Squires explained. “We said it’s so bad, abolish it. And if you abolish it, he’s not there.”

Ronnie and Mikey: The Lost Tribes

“What an illuminating discussion of your Indian problem!” the general secretary told the president at dinner. That was the day the president had told some Moscow students it might have been a mistake to let American Indians live on reservations. “Maybe we should have said, ‘No, come join us. Be citizens along with the rest of us,'” the president pondered.

“I’ll never forget something Jeff Chandler once told me,” the president now told the general secretary. “He’d just got done making Broken Arrow–you know, he was Cochise, the good redskin–and he said, Ron, playing an Indian wasn’t a darned bit different than playing a white man, except it takes a half hour longer to make up.”

“We have a saying in our country, the sour cream does not care who stirs the borscht,” said the general secretary.

“Well, there you are,” said the president.

“Unfortunately,” the general secretary said solemnly, “we also have our own Indian problem, so to speak. You see, for many years now we have been humoring you people in the West by letting some of our Indians go live on the reservation with their tribe.”

“What tribe is that?” the president wondered.

“The Ashkenazi,” said the general secretary.

“And where’s the reservation?”


“Hmmm,” said the president. This was a different way of looking at it.

“But maybe we are making a mistake,” the general secretary went on. “Maybe we should insist ‘No, come join us. Be Soviets along with the rest of us.'”

“Now hold on,” said the president, who didn’t care for the comparison. “The U.S. Cavalry beat our Indians in a fair fight, while your cossacks just sneaked around and broke stuff at weddings. Here’s something you better know about the American people. Going to war is one thing but religious persecution is where we put our foot down. Take Gary Cooper, for example. He won the medal of honor in Sergeant York but in Friendly Persuasion he’s a Quaker.”

“Oh yes!” said the general secretary. “As soon as we have an evening free, Raisa and I will put on our pajamas and watch this wonderful movie you have brought us. But what is this Sergeant York? I do not think it exists in the Kremlin collection.”

“Then I’ll send it right over,” said the president grandly. “How do you want it, black-and-white or colorized?”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.