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BEHIND THE SCENES with Linda Lutton


You're currently WBEZ's education reporter. What draws you to education in the larger sense?

Every major issue in the U.S. seeps into the schools, whether that's religion or race or violence or hand washing (yes, hand washing).

So it's a wonderful beat to cover for its variety. There's politics and corruption, labor unions and their archenemies. There are debates over how to best teach reading and what makes a good teacher. There's recess and lunch ladies and spelling bees. You have hugely important stories of struggle and survival, but, there's also consistently a place for humor and humanity to come through.

I particularly love covering education through radio. I feel like schools are just a beautiful place to capture what American life sounds like. This beat is tremendously sound rich: you've got announcements over the PA, first graders reading in unison, the acoustics of gymnasiums. In Chicago, my beat encompasses kids from every side of town and dozens of different countries. Another reason education stories work particularly well on radio is because of radio's emphasis on storytelling. Education is a beat where high stakes are built into basically every story you do: you're talking about kids and their future.

Schooling and education is also a shared experience that everybody can relate to, and that listeners tend to have deep emotional connections to. I think we all sense in this country the potential our schools hold, and the ideals our schools should impart. Keeping tabs on how well we're doing at those goals feels really important.

You've reported a lot from Harper High School in the past few years. What are some of the other stories you've investigated?

I have been to Harper for a number of stories. After the school was turned around in 2008, its enrollment declined significantly. I reported on why this happened. That was an "enterprise" story, a quasi-investigative story. In 2011, I followed principal Leonetta Sanders around the neighborhood as she rounded up truant students one morning; I was trying to get a sense of how the school district might go about one of its newly stated goals, which was to re-enroll kids who had dropped out. Later, for a series WBEZ did on race, I interviewed 12th graders from Harper (and other schools) who had never been in class with anyone outside their race, from kindergarten through graduation. And obviously, I was around Harper a lot during the fall 2012 semester, as Alex Kotlowitz, Ben Calhoun, and I were working on the This American Life stories.

The airing of Harper Funeral on WBEZ was actually what brought This American Life to the school.

In that time, you've gained close access to both Principal Sanders and Harper staff and students. How has your relationship evolved with the Harper community?

An assistant principal at Harper recently told me I could now consider myself part of the Harper family, along with Alex Kotlowitz and Ben Calhoun from This American Life . And really — I have felt that, being in the school. Harper is a very welcoming place. It's an open-door sort of place. I think it's natural for school staff to be wary of having reporters around... I rarely felt that at Harper; even at very difficult moments staff let us be present, running the tape recorder. I came to care really deeply about the staff and kids there. I'm rooting for all of them.

I would say the fact that I had covered Harper previously and that I knew Principal Sanders to some degree helped make the interview at Shakaki's funeral possible. I interviewed her in the basement of the church. Shakaki's body was in the sanctuary above us. This was Ms. Sanders' eighth current or former Harper student killed in 13 months. I was the only reporter at the funeral. Principal Sanders broke down during our interview. I cried at that funeral as well. I cried again when I wrote the piece.

Harper Funeral is as much about Principal Sanders, as the challenges she presides over at her school. What do you hope listeners will take from the piece?

My hope is that they will feel something of what Ms. Sanders feels, that they'll feel something of what this school community feels. In 2012, 70 kids 18 and younger died of gun violence in Chicago, and hundreds more were shot. But somehow, the daily headlines about violence don't seem to make us FEEL this tragedy. A colleague told me that the success of the funeral story was that it "broke through" to actually touch people. That's what I was hoping for.

Ms. Sanders is incredibly strong. I interview her at what is an amazingly difficult moment. We see how the violence is affecting her. I think it comes through that she is normally an incredibly strong leader with a strong foundation and faith. But in that interview, she is willing to be vulnerable for a moment. And it gives us a window into the pain she is carrying, the pain the school and the whole community is carrying. I think that's why it's so powerful.

Can you talk about some of the production decisions you made in Harper Funeral ? The listing of deceased students' names come to mind...

The hardest production decision for me actually was how to include the wails of Shakaki Asphy's mother. Her cries at the funeral over Shakaki's casket are the most deeply disturbing sound I think I have ever recorded. I wanted Chicago to hear what a mother's wailing sounds like at the funeral of her dead child. But I had to get to a place in the story where I could play that, and where listeners could hear it and process that and feel something for it.

Regarding the names, the fact that this principal had started a binder, that's such a principal-like thing to do, start a three-ring binder. Label it. Put it on your desk next to the test score binder. Ms. Sanders brought a list with her to the church. She had it folded up in her pocket or her purse—two type-written pages of names—so that's what she's reading from. The way she read off the names, and the way I placed them in the story—one after another in this sort of slow march forward—it mirrors the way this violence takes place. It's Sandy Hook, but in slow motion. And it just continues, continues.

We hear you've been tracking Harper's football team lately. What's new on that front, and how's the team looking these days?

I actually spent much of my reporting time for This American Life with Harper's football team. Despite really difficult circumstances, Harper High School has a scrappy, determined, winning team, the Harper Cardinals. So I'm making some stories about the team that will run during Morning Edition on WBEZ. These will be stories about this most quintessential American experience—high school football—playing out against a backdrop of gangs and gun violence that threatens everything.

[ Editor's note: We'll link to these reports as they air, so check back soon. ]

How did the Harper community react/respond to all of the radio stories about them that have recently aired (and continue to air)? (Thanks to producer Sasha Aslanian for prompting us to ask this additional question.)

The reaction from Harper has overall been really positive. One staff person stopped me in the hallway after the first hour aired, and told me she'd been avoiding all of us (reporters) for months because she felt there was a real risk that the school and Harper students would be exploited by the media—and she was steering clear. But in the hallway that day, after the first hour aired, she thanked us for painting what she felt was a true picture of what the school is up against, and how it's moving forward. A few teachers and administrators told me, "Thank you so much! My spouse finally understands where I work!" Ms. Sanders felt the stories really showed what her students have to deal with every day, and how Harper is actually a refuge from the violence. More than two thousand people have made donations to Harper so far, totaling more than $124,000. The students' reactions have been varied, and not all positive. A lot of the students are very aware of the negative way in which their community is often portrayed, and the negative way African American kids in particular are shown in the media. In one class I talked to, many students felt this was just another story in a long line of reports on the violence in their neighborhood that never mention anything positive that's happening.

Students told me they wish we had focused on some of the clubs and activities Harper offers—including a program called Embarc and a club called Princesses to Queens for girls. They also thought we should have spent more time highlighting exceptional students who persevere despite the challenges. Other kids appreciated the stories; they talked about how they may help people beyond Englewood understand the situation Harper students are growing up in. All the students were surprised to hear about the overwhelmingly positive response—toward them, toward the school—that the general public has expressed.