Lost in the City. Trapped in the public school reform debate.

{Dwayne Betts}

Two months into my first real job teaching poetry at a middle school in Southeast D.C. the English teacher whose class I took over once a week got hit in the eye while breaking up a fight. Two weeks later, after the student who'd struck her hadn't been expelled, she decided not to return. This was a seventh grade English class, first quarter of the school year. So early that the kids sneakers were still uncreased, the chalk still at the edges of the blackboard. I hadn't yet learned every child's name. The end of this story? The school never hired another teacher - I watched a rotating cycle of substitutes come in and hand out worksheets to students that ran the gamut from on grade level to barely reading.

If you read this in a major newspaper the headline likely would read: school overrun by violence. Teaching at the school has taught me that it's more complicated than that, but I've also learned that the struggles to maintain a sense of normalcy in the classroom push good teachers away. One of the best young teachers I worked with is off to Kipp, and most of the other good young teachers in public schools across the city are finding reason after reason to go work in charter schools or private schools - even when it means working more hours and longer school years.

This is where James Forman Jr.'s essay "No Ordinary Success" comes in. In "No Ordinary Success" Forman looks at two models of school reform, Geoffrey Canada's Promise Academy based in New York and the Kipp Charter Schools that are in 19 states across the country as he tries to answer his own question: How much can schools improve the life prospects of children growing up in poor neighborhoods? I highly recommend the article, which you can find here.

As a starting point, Forman talks about Richard Rothstein's 2004 book Class and Schools. I mention it for the same reason Forman does. Rothstein concluded that "the challenges facing low-income students meant that they would always do worse, on average, than their higher-income peers." It reminds me of the Boston Review article by Patrick Sharkey in which he asserts that "almost three out of four black families living in today's poorest, most segregated neighborhoods are the same families that lived in the ghettos of the 1970s." His article, The Inherited Ghetto, can be found here.

The point is, of course, that anyone jumping into school reform has a fight on their hands and if what Rothstein says is true, and what Sharkey says is true....

There's no real reason for me to rehash the details of the article, except to say this: Canada's model looks to transform an entire neighborhood. That is to say that he started Harlem's Children Zone (HCZ) a complex network of parenting classes, health centers and tutoring spots to serve about a 100 square foot are of Harlem. Initially, Canada used the HCZ to aid the schools, and he had people in schools to support the public schools. He found the public school's didn't support his efforts, and that his efforts weren't producing the expected results. So he started Promise Academy. Canada makes a point to take all students, no matter their reading levels, no matter how problematic their behavior is, and looks to transform lives. Canada does this, too. 

Kipp's model is a little different. David Levin and Michael Feinberg began working in the Houston schools with teach for america and when they weren't getting the support they expected - and after a few disturbing incidents that you can read in the article - they began Kipp. Kipp relies on rigorous standards and teachers who are willing to work longer hours and students who are in school for longer hours over longer periods of time and commit to two hours of homework each night. Kipp has been able to sustain achievement over the 19 states and 66 schools.

But this is the trouble with this manner of school reform - only a limited number of students have access to these kinds of programs. What of the other students? When Forman brings this question of pockets of success to Jay Mathews, author of Work Hard. Be Nice., a book about Kipp's history, contends that a school like Kipp proves the idea that kids from low income neighborhoods can't achieve success is a lie. The assumption behind his statement is that the underlying reason money, resources and time aren't put into public school systems is because the larger society sees them as hopeless. I tend to think a large number of the public, especially the educated public, believe this. It might very well be a false assumption but it seems the American myth of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps infects many minds, to the point that Mathews would even assert that there is a need to "prove" students from low-income neighborhoods can succeed. But that's the narrative of the underdog - do it to prove you can do it is what people are sold again and again when the evidence says that the solution goes way beyond a lack of work ethic.

In the end, Forman believes that Kipp and the Promise Academy should be seen as viable models, but not the only model. He argues that they work, in part, because of the hyper dedicated people they bring around them. Specifically citing Kipp's HR department's ability to attract talent. Forman doesn't really answer his question directly. He gives us more than enough examples to show that it's possible to improve the life prospects of young kids in poor neighborhoods - but it seems that finding the answer he sought, led him to reveal to us a more troubling problem: How do we create environments where average teachers, even just good teachers, can excel in a school system that provides a quality education - if we aren't going to acknowledge all of the complex needs and issues that are part and parcel with a student's success and independent of homework?

Even tackling that question will keep us from arguing about the need or lack thereof for charter schools that, by their nature, can only provide services for a limited number of kids in any community.