“The Whole World in one School” – A Visit at one of the Most Diverse Schools in Chicago

The enormous babble of voices already sounded unsettling. When visiting Swift Elementary School on Chicago’s North Side we expected to meet some students, one class maybe, to learn about their experience at one of the most diverse schools of the city. But when we stepped into the cafeteria, more than 150 pairs of eyes looked at us expectantly.

Group Picture

We were a bit surprised – to put it mildly. But the awe did not last long. Prof. Keil dauntlessly grabbed the mic. (Yes, they had a mic – and we took seats in the front, it had something of a press conference.) After introducing ourselves and telling the kids about the purpose of the study tour, Prof. Keil asked for a volunteer who would tell us about Swift school. A black boy from 8th grade was brave enough to come up and talk about the concept of getting students from different cultures and backgrounds to study together peacefully. After that the ice was broken. One hand after another went up, the kids were extremely eager to tell us about their school. Whether from Eritrea, Bosnia, Mexico, Poland, Pakistan or Chicago’s South: The tenor was always the same. At Swift students don’t get judged by their nationality or background. “It’s not about where people come from, it’s about what they do”, one girl put it. They also stressed the respectful interaction and harmonious environment. It was astonishing with how much self-confidence and pride of their school the seven and eight graders spoke, always cheered on by their classmates. One of their teachers was moved to tears. After listening to a few more kids, we split up and mixed with the students at the tables to ask them a couple more questions. It was great to see how little fear of contact they had.

After the meeting with the students, Professor Susan Hirsch from Loyola University helped us to put it into context. Swift is of one of the most successful schools in managing the extreme diversity of the student body.

Susan Hirsch

Prof. Susan Hirsch and Prof. Keil

For one thing, a lot of emphasis is put on respectful behavior in order to create a peaceful environment. Many students have experienced horrendous situations in the countries they come from. Hirsch sees the peace at school as critical for the students’ ability to learn. It is therefore part of the educational process at Swift. There is no violence or gang presence, so students can feel save at school. Furthermore, there is no religious instruction, so everybody can feel comfortable. And when they talk about Christmas, they also talk about Kwanzaa or Hanukkah. In terms of language, Swift practices the concept of English immersion, which means that students are taught in English only. Bilingual education would be impossible anyway because of the sheer number of ethnic backgrounds found at Swift. The dozens of flags decorating the hallway of the school already give a hint at this enormous diversity – a diversity we were able to experience today in a unique and moving way.

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