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The student body was 99.5 percent black, 0.5 percent Hispanic, and 95 percent low-income. When Jasmeen was a freshman, only 4 percent of the school's students met or exceeded standards on the Prairie State Achievement Exam; by last year, that had risen to 7 percent. In the class of 2011, the average composite ACT score, 14, ranked in the 11th percentile nationally.
On a scale of 99, Hirsch students and teachers surveyed last year gave their school a 28 on "supportive environment and ambitious instruction," and a 13 on safety.
Jasmeen recalls walking through Hirsch's halls her first days as a freshman and seeing half a dozen pregnant girls. She felt challenged in a few of her classes, she says, "but some of the teachers didn't care, so they didn't give us a heavy load." She remembers a freshman algebra teacher telling the class, "I don't care if you do your work, I'm still gonna get paid." Another teacher "let people from other classes come to his class—it was like a hangout spot. People didn't do much work."
She wanted to transfer out of the "hangout" class, but that required a meeting with a counselor. There were only two counselors in the school, and when she tried to make an appointment, she was told they were busy helping seniors.
She says her classmates offered little in class discussions. "Some of them were smart, but they just didn't apply themselves." Many didn't see college as a possibility. "It's called learned helplessness. They don't feel like they can do it, so they just don't try. They don't want to fail. They want to stay in their comfort zone."
Jasmeen remembers a freshman algebra teacher telling the class, "I don't care if you do your work, I'm still gonna get paid." Another teacher "let people from other classes come to his class—it was like a hangout spot. People didn't do much work."
Her peers' lack of self-confidence bothered her, but it didn't surprise her. In the neighborhoods where she was raised, she says, "People get a lot of negative messages, and they're hard to ignore. I know people who have family members who tell them, 'You can't do that—none of us did that.' They'll make you feel bad for doing something different."
Why were people conveying negative messages? "There are people who want you to be down there with them, and they'll do anything to get you there. When you go out and do something, they have a sense that you think you're better than them, so they're going to put you down." She said she tried to keep such people out of her life.
She got all A's all four years at Hirsch. This didn't win her friends. "Sometimes I felt I didn't belong," she says, "'cause I didn't really care about a lot of the stuff that other people cared about. Being cool was not important at all to me. I never kissed up to a teacher or anything, I just did the work."
After-school tutoring from some of her teachers helped. She also seized opportunities that led her outside school.
Her freshman year, a teacher recommended her for a Law and Public Safety Academy that introduces students to careers in those fields. Hirsch and three other Chicago public high schools participate in the academy. This led Jasmeen to an internship one summer in the Cook County courts. In housing court, she saw people who were crying because they were losing their homes in foreclosures. "Some of them didn't have lawyers, and I was thinking, 'I wish I could be that lawyer to help you.'"
Jasmeen's family had their own housing problems while she was in high school—they had to move when the gas in their apartment building was cut off. The building had changed hands without the tenants being notified; her mother ended up losing her security deposit. None of the tenants knew how to fight back. "People with formal educations know these things," she tells me. "Knowledge of the law is power."
She decided she wanted to become a lawyer who represents poor families. "I'm able to empathize with them," she says. "People who haven't lived in those situations aren't going to try as hard to help. When things come easy to people, they don't understand—and sometimes they don't want to understand. They're like, 'Why are these people having these problems?'"
Jasmeen also got involved with Upward Bound. It's a University of Chicago program that helps prepare low-income public school students for college. With Upward Bound, Jasmeen was able to travel for the first time—during spring breaks, the group visited colleges in New York, Washington, D.C., and South Dakota.
She also got tutoring through the program from University of Chicago students. She appreciated that, but it also meant an uneasy trip home from the U. of C. campus in Hyde Park. She was usually escorted by her boyfriend, who was also in Upward Bound. Jasmeen's family had moved after their gas was cut off to an apartment on Eberhart near 63rd. Getting home from the U. of C. involved waiting for a bus on a perilous corner under the el tracks at 63rd and Cottage Grove.
They were accosted there one night by a young man who demanded money from Jasmeen's boyfriend. Jasmeen felt sure the youth was part of a group lurking nearby, so she talked her boyfriend out of fighting back. They took shelter in a beauty shop near the corner. They didn't bother calling police; in west Woodlawn, Jasmeen tells me, police respond slowly if at all. After a long, nerve-racking wait in the beauty shop, she and her boyfriend caught the bus.
Jasmeen felt she made the most of her high school years given her circumstances, but she wished Hirsch had offered her more. "I would have liked to go to a school that had all the advantages," she says. "Those schools shouldn't be just for wealthy kids."
Like Hirsch, New Trier is public, but there the similarity ends. Founded in 1901, New Trier has long been regarded as one of the nation's premier high schools. Noteworthy alum include Harvard Law School dean Martha Minow, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, novelist and lawyer Scott Turow, actors Charlton Heston, Ann-Margret, and Rock Hudson, director Edward Zwick, former Playboy CEO Christie Hefner, singer-songwriter Liz Phair, chef Charlie Trotter, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
In the 2010-'11 school year New Trier had about 1,000 freshmen on a campus in Northfield, and 3,100 sophomores, juniors, and seniors on its campus in Winnetka. The student body was 85 percent white, 9 percent Asian, 3 percent Hispanic, 2 percent multiracial, and 0.7 percent black; 4 percent of the students were low-income. Last year, 90 percent of the students met or exceeded standards on the PSAE. In the class of 2012, the average composite ACT score, 28, was in the 91st percentile nationally.