Our Schools Suck: Students Talk Back to a Segregated Nation on the Failures of Urban Education

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Gaston Alonso, Noel S. Anderson, Celina Su, Jeanne Theoharis
New York University Press
289 pages. $70 hardcover, $22 paperback.

Sharing conclusions from separate research projects, four culturally diverse political science professors from Brooklyn College at the City University of New York challenge assumptions about poor and working-class urban youth of color.

The book tries to separate the real reasons why urban youth often fail – half drop out of high school – from the rhetoric that blames the youth for their own failures. All point out the deplorable conditions of urban, still-segregated public schools that make it difficult to learn or to succeed. In 2004 in the U.S., 73 percent of African-American students and 77 percent of Latino students attended such schools.

Because these students’ viewpoints are largely absent from the media or research, the authors consulted young people to bring a level of reality to the “adult-driven debates on inner-city youth.” The youths’ voices, along with the authors’ outrage, add punch to these research results.

The authors take particular issue with what they call the media’s “culture-of-failure fest” that began with Bill Cosby’s May 2004 speech celebrating the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that ruled segregation of American schools unconstitutional. Cosby scolded young African-Americans for deficient values, lack of motivation and negative behaviors that cause them to fail.

In the book’s introduction, Celina Su counters such judgments with one of many stories collected from youth. When – through administrative bungling – Jorman Nuñez, 14, lost his year-long struggle to enroll in the gifted program at overcrowded DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, he dropped out of ninth grade. When we “diagnose the young as producers of their own disease,” says Su, we keep “racial and socioeconomic hierarchies intact.” Suburban white students, she says, face none of Jorman’s roadblocks.

In the opening chapter, Gaston Alonso critiques the widely publicized cultural blame games of Cosby and other “pundits,” such as sociologist Orlando Patterson and news correspondent Juan Williams.

Jeanne Theoharis’ 2003-04 case study at Fremont High School – “one of the most troubled schools” in South Central Los Angeles, where nearly 40 percent live below the poverty line – follows. This severely overcrowded, understaffed school of 5,000 students runs year-round in three tracks, counting on truancy to maximize space. Locked into school grounds with police, students overflow into prefab structures that resemble a juvenile detention facility. They can’t fit into the cafeteria. Often only one bathroom is operating. Each classroom has one set of textbooks. There is one college counselor.

“Virtually no whites or Asians” attend Fremont, where Theoharis spent a year co-teaching, with a veteran social studies teacher, four U.S. history classes for juniors. From students’ weekly journals, Theoharis quotes youths of all ability levels who write about their lives, school and hopes for the future. “I hate it when people treat me like a fxxx-up [sic],” wrote Rodrigo. “I’m not stupid and I’m not a little kid. … I do plan on going to college, but with all this pressure, how can I succeed?”

While dreaming of making their parents proud, many youths complained that teachers and other adults thought them incapable of success. Lack of attention made them feel worthless. Theoharis saw students “blame themselves for their own failure,” but when treated with respect in her class, most improved their skills. If we call on “young people to be responsible,” she concludes, where is the public’s responsibility for providing decent schools?

Noel S. Anderson conducted a 2003-04 interpretive case study among 150 low-income, first-generation college-bound students at the College Access Initiative (CAI), a college preparation program at an unidentified Eastern urban university campus. Then he spent a year getting to know four African-American and Latino young men from CAI, ages 15 to 16, so he could write their “rich personal narratives” about their inadequate public school education and difficulty finding jobs.

For the book’s final case study, Celina Su spent 18 months with teenage South Bronx members of Sistas and Brothas United (SBU), a volunteer youth organizing group dedicated to school reform. One of many such inner-city groups, SBU has some paid adult staff, but its leaders are student volunteers who show up after school to run campaigns that have won repairs and safety protocols in schools, created a small school, and advocated more state funding. Student activists learn and teach skills from statistics to government administration, funding, critical analysis, writing, research and collaboration.

One of the book’s most effective shocks is delivered near the end, when two African-American high school juniors are introduced. Barbara and Tanisha attend schools with no white students, bursting with double the student population intended. Barbara’s school has no cafeteria or gym; Tanisha’s cafeteria is so small that most students don’t eat. Their teachers are underpaid and underqualified; few college-prep courses are offered.

These “separate but unequal” schools are then identified: Tanisha’s Fremont High School in Los Angeles is where Theoharis’ students wrote the journals quoted in this book. Barbara’s Moton High School in Prince Edward County, Va., is renowned in history: It is where student Barbara Johns led the 1951 strike that became one of the precipitating cases in Brown v. Board of Education. Nearly 60 years later, Moton’s parallels with Fremont cannot be ignored.

“The kind of education Tanisha Smith receives is now being justified by many people as the fault of her own values and the mores of her community rather than a disgrace to the spirit and substance of Brown,” says Theoharis. “This book recenters the issue of segregation in the public discourse around education, in the process exposing the methods used to mask and maintain inequality in post-civil rights America.”

Students’ voices deliver their own message, distilled in one young woman’s comment to officials from the New York Department of Education as she represents New York’s Urban Youth Collaborative: “Please. You keep staring at your piece of paper and referring to questionable ‘data.’ Please look up and listen to us. We’re sitting in front of you. We are the data.” (212) 998-2575, http://www.nyupress.org.