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Apr. 21 2010 - 11:01 am | 256 views | 1 recommendation | 6 comments

Should schools mix rich and poor kids for the greater good? (part 3)

True/Slant writer Michael Salmonowicz and I share a deep interest in issues of race, class, and urban life, so the two of us decided to bring our perspectives together on the issue of income diversity and school segregation.  Catch up on the conversation by reading Monday’s and Tuesday’s messages, or jump right in with today’s:

Hey Michael –

You make some great points about busing. As someone who wants to have kids, it would be stressful to put a kid on a bus for 45 minutes, knowing they are going to school in a completely different part of the city. I actually love our neighborhood school, and sometimes think about how my kids could walk to school there, something I never was able to do as a child.

But here’s what I wonder: what if an intensely high-poverty, high-needs school is just an untenable situation? Yes, it can work. We see outstanding examples of schools that make it happen, like the Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academy and the KIPP schools. But by and large, high poverty schools are the schools that struggle. If it can be done, it’s extremely difficult. I’d love to have the funding and the intelligent, powerful minds aligned to make these schools happen in every poor neighborhood in every city in this nation, but the realist in me does not see that happening, especially with our current tax structure for funding schools.

So if I can’t make high poverty schools work, and mixed-income would work much better, my only solution then is to make people unsegregate themselves. A friend of mine was actually telling me about just such a proposition in Singapore, where she grew up. The government said that every block had to be racially-mixed with a certain percentage of each group living there. At the time, she said, people thought it was terrible. Now, they are used to it, and the racial tensions that plagued their society have disappeared.

Of course, we live in a country where people are freaking out because we want everyone to be able to go to the doctor when they have the flu. So telling people where they can live and who they have to live next to is pretty much out of the realm of possibility.

But, seriously though—if we can’t mix schools, then we have to find some other way to mix people up because these high poverty, high needs neighborhoods are just too much for any school system, for any police district, for any social service network. If a teacher can’t be expected to teach in a room where more than a quarter of her kids have documented abuse or neglect, then how are we expected to make that neighborhood—where conditions like that abound—a safe, decent place to grow up?

I suppose that my friends on the right would say we don’t need to make that neighborhood a safe, decent place to grow up. That’s the responsibility of the people who live there. But, for me, the history of racism and its ties to the economy mean I am responsible for the way that neighborhood turned out. It’s the reason my neighborhood is so nice.

All of this to say that I understand the impracticalities of mixed-income schools, but still, it seems like the most practical, cost-effective solution to save a school system that’s failing millions of kids each year.


Tomorrow, look out for Part 4, which will appear here. Check back all week to see our conclusions and share your responses and ideas.


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    Re: the Harlem Children’s Zone, you miss a critical piece of the story. The reason this works so well is that the students who go to this academy have complete buy-in from their parents. Let me quote a section from their website:

    “The HCZ pipeline begins with The Baby College, a series of workshops for parents of children ages 0-3. The pipeline goes on to include best-practice programs for children of every age through college. The network includes in-school, after-school, social-service, health and community-building programs. The pipeline has, in fact, dual pathways: on one track, the children go through our Promise Academy charter schools; while on the other track, we work to support the public schools in the Zone, both during the school day with in-class assistants and with afterschool programs.

    For children to do well, their families have to do well. And for families to do well, their community must do well. That is why HCZ works to strengthen families as well as empowering them to have a positive impact on their children’s development.”

    In other words, you MUST have complete participation and support from the community in order for this to work. To simply take a bunch of disadvantaged kids from non-supportive, dysfunctional environments and plunk them into a better school in a better neighborhood without that parental buy-in to do the hard work is a recipe for failure.

    I will also direct you to a similar non-profit organization in Los Angeles–A Place Called Home. http://www.apch.org Instead of busing, they opt to give kids from tough neighborhoods the afterschool supportive environment they need to overcome their untenable home life. It works. And I think programs like HCZ and APCH are more the answer than busing.

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      inmyhumbleopinion – I think it’s important not to apply the same descriptors to all low-income folks. Just because a child is poor does not mean she comes from a non-supportive and dysfunctional environment, or has an untenable home life, or does not work hard. There are plenty of low-income parents who are supportive and stable, and whose children work hard, but who do not have access to good schools. Going back to Megan’s original post, some schools are overwhelmed with students who have instability at home (among other issues); so even if most of the low-income students in a building have support at home, the 25% who have many needs may render teachers unable to work with the other 75% like they would in a different school environment.

      Other low-income parents are extremely supportive and encourage their children, but simply do not have an educational background that allows them to give their children specific guidance academically. In this case, a student could learn quite a bit by picking up study skills and strategies from peers whose parents have taught them those things.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        I hear you and I apologize for the sweeping generalization.

        But I think now we’re talking about a separate topic, which, if I’m interpreting your post correctly, suggests that kids who can achieve should be allowed to attend magnet schools, regardless of which neighborhood school they feed into. That reduces the “stress” on teachers who have to spend more time on catching up the kids who are too far behind, and allows the achieving kids a fighting chance by being with others who are working at the same level or beyond. If that is your assertion, then yes, I agree with that as a possible solution. It’s essentially what New York City does at the high school level, requiring an exam or an audition depending on the magnet school concentration.

        But I don’t believe that’s what the original question was about. The premise was simply mixing different income levels together in the hope the lower income kids would do better because they would have access to better teachers and better facilities. As I pointed out in an earlier post, being at a better school doesn’t necessarily mean that kid is being exposed to the college-bound peers you hope they will learn from unless they test well. And that’s what’s brilliant about HCZ (which was founded because of the neighborhood dysfunction, btw). They are not only embracing the kids’ development, but they are teaching the parents to advocate for their children. As you say, it’s not that they don’t have the desire, they just may not have the skill or exposure to assist their kids.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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      IMHO, I disagree. It’s not a failure and research has proven that it can work. Take a read:


      I love HCZ. Love it, love it, love it. But the fact is, it’s an expensive program that took years to build. What about the kids who are struggling right now? I would love it if we could build an HCZ-like program in every poor neighborhood in America, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.

      And, I think it’s difficult to say that if you don’t have parental buy-in, a kid’s never going to succeed, so why bother trying? We can’t give up on these kids because they happened to be born to parents with problems. That’s not fair to them, and it’s not the kind of opportunity I want for children born in America.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    About Me

    I'm a journalist living in Chicago writing about poverty and public housing. I don't come from the streets - I grew up on a farm. But I'm passionate about urban issues and getting to know people who are completely different from me. I'm quirky, funny and friendly.

    I have this idea about journalism - that it should be approachable and less "newsy." I want my stories to make you laugh, cry and draw you in to neighborhoods and situations you don't deal with every day. I hate the broadcaster voice. I hate TV news. I hate the inverted pyramid. I love surprise. I love humor. I love people and telling their stories.

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