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Apr. 23 2010 - 8:52 am | 196 views | 1 recommendation | 4 comments

Should schools mix rich and poor kids for the greater good? (part 5)

All week True/Slant writer Michael Salmonowicz have been debating the issue of mixed-income schools – school districts where students are assigned so that no one school has a huge number of students in poverty. Today’s post is the end of a great conversation. You can catch up on Monday’s, Tuesday’s, Wednesday’s and Thursday’s posts, or just jump in today and start reading:

Hi Michael,

My eyes almost popped out of my head when I read about those Mississippi schools. How can this be serious? Still segregating students, and it’s 2010? It just about made me ill.

I feel like I run into the same problem in nearly every issue, especially when it has to do with kids. Parents want the best for their children. Not other people’s children—their own children. Sure, there are a few celebrities who say how becoming a mother made them want to help all children everywhere, but that’s only because their children already have miniature Prada handbags and Gucci burp cloths, so they have nothing to worry about. By and large, most parents will do what is best for their own kid, even if it is at the expense of other kids or society.

And I can’t really fault them for it. As I consider have my own child, it’s quite different to think about that little baby growing up to go to a school that might have some kids in it with serious issues. Those kids might sit next to my daughter or son. They might encourage them to act up, or worse yet, get involved in illegal activities. While I don’t want to be a helicopter parent, the thought of my kid, who’s not even yet a twinkle in his father’s eye, turning out to be rotten is truly frightening.

The parents in Wake County wanted to do what we all want to do: insulate their kids from any possible negativity. But it pains me to think that so many parents don’t have that choice. They can’t choose to move to a nicer district or be home every afternoon when their kids get off the bus.

I also want to believe, as you have stated, that there can be schools so well run and organized that it doesn’t matter who steps through the door. I do believe every child can learn, but my experience in the classroom has taught me that although every child can learn, many have significant barriers to doing so. The kinds of schools we’re talking about—where it doesn’t matter what issues the kids have—take a lot of money and sheer will, which is something their communities lack.

Maybe we should start the next great parenting movement. After all, there’s helicopter parents, homeschoolers, unschoolers, soccer moms, and the like. Why don’t we start a parenting movement where it becomes really cool to think about other people’s kids and the impact your behavior has on them? We can move into the Chicago Housing Authority’s mixed income neighborhoods and help create mixed income schools, day care cooperatives and a neighborhood watch. It’s idealistic, but it’s honestly the way I want to raise my future children. Plus, it will keep me from embarrassing myself by buying a ridiculously expensive stroller.

It’s been great fun debating the issues with you! I learned a ton. Let’s do it again sometime.


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  1. collapse expand

    I believe we need to back track even more to get to the heart of the matter: Any culture which places a premium on exploiting the education system starts a cycle of wealth for its members.

    If the cultures in the high-poverty areas have no value on achieving the highest level of education possible for their students, all the bussing, motivation, special teachers, after-school programs and well wishes aren’t going to do much good, long term. The kids who are bussed to the high-income areas have the emotional burden of “why can’t I live out here?” going through their head each day. When you’re 11 or 12, there’s a lot of residual anger when you get back on that bus and head to your own home in one of the more dangerous parts of the inner city.

    Putting kids from low-income, high risk situations in the more affluent schools causes social problems of acceptance and excruciating levels of self-awareness (“I don’t fit in here, these are the rich kids”) which means the problem is just compounded. How do you study well for classes when you’re 12 and have an elevated level of severe self-consciousness?

    The low-income, high risk culture is the problem because it self-perpetuates through the lack of hope for any well mapped, proven out bound path. Young kids hear of the value of education from their teachers but align that with what the rich kids do instead of what their friends and family do.

    There are some poor, first-generation parents who bring their kids to the US and not only do these kids learn to speak English fluently (and quickly) but these foreign families are constantly submerged in a mindset that higher education is the golden ticket to financial self-sufficiency, wealth, stability and moving into areas where their own children’s kids have the best schools, the best options, the highest visibility to top college recruiters, expectations of graduate school in sciences and math.

    Until the culture changes to portray the holy grail of growing up is doing EXCEPTIONALLY well in school, there’s not a chance of breaking out of the pattern of low-income circumstances and misery this brings.

    • collapse expand

      mozza – The assumption you’re making is that people in low-income areas place “no value on achieving the highest level of education possible for their students.” I think that’s flat out wrong. In my hundreds of interactions with parents from low-income areas, I never met anyone who didn’t place value on their child doing well in school and going to college. Generally, the difference between that parent and a more wealthy, educated parent, is that the wealthy & educated parent knows *how* to make that a reality for his or her child and have the means to do it (e.g., paying for a summer academic camp, an ACT prep class, extra books and trips to museums, or visits to college campuses). Mixing students by income allows low-income students to gain access to some of the knowledge that their higher-income classmates have about things like how to get to college. It also allows low-income parents an opportunity to interact with higher-income parents and join in those same conversations.

      Also, students who live in low-income areas already know what they don’t have. They see it on TV and online and experience it when they travel to other parts of their city. Although I’m sure there is some small percentage of students who might be disheartened by a reminder of what they don’t have each day, I have found it to be a motivating force more than anything else. My experience in riding the bus with poor students (on the way to sporting events in different parts of the Chicago) is that they see what wealthier people have and talk about what they’re going to do to get that for themselves one day. And in the classroom I’ve heard similar sentiments; when I had my ninth graders fill out goal sheets for college plans, numerous students commented that they wanted to achieve a degree in a certain area in order to get a good job and move to a better neighborhood/have a nicer place to live.

      But it all comes back to knowing how to make it happen. One of the things I often heard parents say to their kids during parent-teacher conferences–usually after I or some other teacher gave some criticism about the student’s performance–was, “You better do what you have to do.” This was the parent’s way of encouraging and pressuring the student, but the problem was they weren’t actually giving the student any direction. In my upper-middle-class household, on the other hand, my father would walk me through the steps of how to do algebra or calculus problems, how to build a mousetrap car for physics class, or how to present my homework to teachers so, in his words, they would never be unclear about what my answer was or how I arrived at it. I know that low-income parents care about their children’s success as much as my dad cared about mine, but my dad had more concrete advice/assistance for me about how to succeed.

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

        Thanks for your response, Mr Salmonowicz! My experience is that it is the *culture* these low-income, high risk kids are part of that does not press education above all other things (e.g. entertainment, athletics, appearance, brand-name clothing). The culture, not the individuals.

        But my experience is the opposite of yours: I saw the kids get off the bus from the 220 Program with their heads down, hugging their book bag and not making any eye contact as they walked into school. My daughter later told me that a couple of the 220 kids (this is third grade) were in serious trouble: one threatened a teacher’s life, the other vandalized the bathroom. I’m not psychologist but can draw a somewhat straight line to behavior qualified as acting out and my belief is seeing the disparity between their living circumstances and the rich kids’ living conditions causes enough stress to be somewhat self-destructive to these 8 year old boys.

        You’re right; it all comes back to making it happen. There are Big Brother, Big Sister programs which have failed to bring results on a cultural basis. Men and women are there to work with high risk kids, who walk them through their homework, take these kids to suburban libraries, teach the kids to use the library internet and so forth. I was part of a program of professionals who went into low-income schools to talk with the kids about what they wanted (these were the hand-picked kids who were showing initiative) and how to get ahead in school and then in life. The kids sat around the table and without commenting, politely waited for us to stop talking and for the principal to arrive to escort them back to class. There was no light behind their eyes as there was no immediate relevance to them of things like graduate school and accelerated math courses for these 8th graders.

        I remember several times when the low-income family kids would be sent home with candy or wreaths or magazines for fundraisers and when it came time to bring the money into poverty-level school, the teachers who called the parents to ask where was the money collected often heard “I didn’t send it cause I need it. I already spent it and I don’t have any to give you. I need it.”

        That was generally the level of parental support I’m familiar with in the low-income schools in my area. The parents are absent from teachers meetings, berate the kids when they do show up and roll their eyes when the teachers tell the parent(s) the extra work they have to do to bring their child up to speed with his grade level tasks.

        Again, my point is: until the low-income culture changes to indoctrinate the incredible import of higher education there will be no long term change for these kids as it is perceived there’s no hope.

        I’m glad to see your experience is much more positive, though!

        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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