Worst Schools in America
Educational Segregation leads to Segregated Expectations
Erica* is sweet and soft spoken, her fluffy black hair is worn down in braids. She smiles often, giggling sheepishly into her shoulder. She’s in the third grade, still stumbling over words like “road”, placing her literacy skills far below the State’s mandated average. She shares with me how badly she wants to go to college, how she wants someone to help her with her homework but no one at home knows how. Erica is one of many students in America aching to learn, yet faced with an underfunded school and a poor or working class lifestyle that doesn’t afford tutors or other educational luxuries.
Mrs. Burt’s* classroom is overcrowded, one teacher expected to teach a gaggle of children. Leaving no one-on-one time. Just a few weeks ago I caught Kevin* copying the answers off his neighbors paper, instead of scolding I ran through several problems with him, instantly realizing Kevin just didn’t know how to perform the function of multiplication! He picked up quick, only needing the one-on-one clarification his overcrowded classroom had failed to afford him. Kevin didn’t look at his neighbor’s paper again; instead wearing a large grin he scribbled his own answers, all of which were correct might I add.
I’m defiantly not the first to notice inequalities in the public education system based on race and class, and I surely have yet to experience what the very worst schools are like. In Southern California a poorly funded school is an entirely different situation that an underfunded school in say- New Orleans. Jonathon Kozol spent many years in the very worst schools, reporting his horrific findings in a book he conveniently titles, The Shame of the Nation. Kozel describes walking down hallways lined with lockers, watching as water poured in through the roof above. The students completely unfazed, as this was normal routine. He also talks of a Principle's office he sat in, where a garbage bag held up a dilapidated chunk of ceiling.
Agreeably, poverty is something American society could do without. Social science routinely demonstrates that poverty creates crime and costs our Government more money than it can afford. The positive thing about poverty is that because it is socially constructed it can also be deconstructed. But when we continually give our poorest kids the worst education and access to resources, we allow poverty to persist through generations.
All of our worst schools are located in our poorest cities, many heavily concentrated in New Orleans. Just after Hurricane Katrina the State stepped in with a restructuring program for its failing schools. This program has only been marginally effective.
Albert Wicker Elementary is in the middle of this mess with only 28% of its students meeting proficiency standards. Just as class is segregated, so is race when 244 of the 245 students at this highly undesirable institution being black and the median household income only $7,448. Many American families couldn’t live one month on that salary, let alone a year. By ‘punishing’ the poor with the worst schools we are actually punishing innocent children and our future selves. Receiving substandard education with inadequate and unequal funds will only push these children towards the only life they know; uncomfortbaly raising a family on $20 a day.
After doing some ethnographic work in communities riddled by poverty, I have found a very similar theme- one opposite to the prevalent stereotypes. Poor people want to work, they want to be self-sufficient and often they work very hard for very little. The littlest things knock them down and with no resources at their side they hit more brick walls than they can let themselves count.
In Flint Michigan, where poverty and crime are known to soar we unsurprisingly find another tragically bad school. Schools of Choice received a “d-alert” rating, which is only one step away from a discredited school. While 60% of Flint’s total population is black, at Schools of Choice 99% of the students are black.
Demographics- time and time again- dictate the performance of a school; not because of the students or even always because of the teachers. Looking up images of the ‘worst schools,’ it’s always the same. A dusty little community, worn down or flat and dull. The schools are rusted; small and prison-like, with no track or fields. They appear forgotten.
And then there's the "Best" or rather the "Richest"
Rated one of the top elementary schools in the US, Muraco Elementary is located in Winchester, Massachusetts where the poverty level is below 2%. 93% of the students are white and per pupil funds are $12,267, far more than the pupils at the above-mentioned schools receive. Leading anyone to wonder: does having more identical demographics to our nearly all white policy makers help win compassion money for some schools? Or is the criminalization of poverty so bad we believe poor schools actually deserve less? As if children born into poverty dictate their own fate somehow. Of course, alternative funding comes into play such as private donations. Yet of course, rich schools are the ones with direct access to. For instance, schools in New York City, where real-estate is sky-high- literally, have been fighting budget constraints with private donations. Some of the city’s families have raised over $100,000 to bring in new teachers, keep class sizes down and insure their children’s good education.
These parent's raise these funds knowing that without a good education, no matter how ‘nice' their child is they will be subjected to a hard life. So why doesn’t this same logic apply to the poor who routinely go to the worst schools and then find themselves blamed for turning out “delinquent?”
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.