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Still Separate, Still Unequal

"Ms. Kroll, my desk's got switches!" Richard called to me in the middle of our math lesson as he rocked his uneven desk back and forth. (He was referring to the hydraulics that people soup up their cars with which make them bounce around while cruising down the street.)

I smiled at the clever comparison, but cringed inwardly at the unfortunate reality. Richard's desk needed to be propped up on books to stay even, and so did Sam's and Crystal's. This was, however, the best I could give them at the time. At the very least they had desks - De'veon and Bryant had to squish together at the round table in the back corner of the classroom. There simply wasn't enough space for everybody in my 5th grade classroom, and the class size continued to increase daily. 35 students. 36...37...38...39.


There goes that theory!

Overcrowding was one of the biggest obstacles I faced when teaching public school in a low-income neighborhood. How could I arrange the classroom so that everybody fit, and still have room left over to walk? Would I be able to make time for one-on-one interactions with all of the students? What could I do to keep that many students on-task and involved? Where would I get enough test-preparation materials? How could I plan effective lessons for all of the different learning levels and styles in my one classroom?

It was a challenge, but one I felt passionate about facing. I moved to Long Beach, California to teach for two years in a school that simply couldn't find enough teachers to fill all of its openings. I went there because I saw that something was terribly unequal about the quality of education that poor students receive in our country, and I wanted to do what I could to change that.

When I arrived, I found out first hand what inner-city educators already knew: while city schools are handed some of the nation's neediest children, "they are robbed of the resources to make a real difference and compensate for poverty, prejudice, and adverse living conditions." There were no art, gym or computer teachers where I taught. There was no classroom library for independent reading time. There were no school sports, no student council, no computer labs. For a year, we were told to forget teaching science and social studies all together, and spend all of our days teaching reading and math. Can you imagine how boring that would be?

The students' test scores at my school were terribly low, hovering around the 20th percentile in the nation, and most of the kids couldn't read at their grade level. It's easy to see why when you take a moment to look at what they're up against: All of the students at my school qualified for the federal free breakfast and free lunch program. Their parents simply don't have the money to provide their kids with healthy meals each day. Add to their basic poverty: language barriers, learning disabilities, parents that work 2 and 3 jobs each, parents and siblings in jail or involved in drug and alcohol abuse, violence in their neighborhood, the threat of gangs, the lack of extra curricular activities, and the absence of mentors to look up to. Then throw in a substandard education in an overcrowded classroom without the necessary educational resources to get them college bound. Ultimately, you are left with a recipe for disaster. However, there's not much these kids can do about their life situations without our country making a major shift in how we look at the education of all of our children.

The children at my school were no less intelligent, creative or hopeful than kids anywhere else, but they weren't given the same opportunities as the kids in wealthy neighborhoods. Well-funded schools offer their kids quality, credentialed teachers who intend to stay and teach for their length of their career. They offer a well-rounded education overflowing with art and music and drama and technology. Their kids have computers and internet access. They have desks for every student and libraries full of books for pleasure reading. They have parents who have money to buy their lunches, who can pay for after-school sports and classes, who can afford to expose their kids to culture and travel and a larger world than the neighborhood they live in.

Obviously, there are very different educational realities for children in our country, and the factor that divides them is money. Although most people will acknowledge that this problem exists, they can't agree on what to do about it.

Some people say that school vouchers are the answer. This idea basically consists of offering around $1500 to parents in low-performing public schools to help them pay for their child to go to private school. People have certainly proposed all sorts of variations on the theme, but the main idea of all of them is to give kids who are currently in a bad school situation a way out. Although this sounds great initially, there are many people who object. They don't like vouchers for a number of reasons: 1. The voucher money comes from the funds that would ordinarily go to that child's public school, so when a child takes a voucher, they remove much needed money from an already struggling public school. 2. They undermine people's faith in the public school system by assuming that a private school is inherently better than public. Anyone who's gone to a well funded public school (this trekker included) knows that's definitely not the case, and this just makes a public school's efforts at improvement that much harder. 3. Then there's the issue of private school costing way more than $1500 a year. While this amount of money may help middle income parents send their kids to private school, it can't possibly help the poor parents who simply don't have the money to make up the remainder of a private school tuition.

Currently, there are voucher systems in place in Milwaukee and Cleveland, with trial systems popping up elsewhere. These usually work on a lottery system, so only a fraction of the students that apply for them are given the option to use them. This means if it's not your lucky day, vouchers won't help you anyway.

So if vouchers aren't the answer to balancing out the equality in education in our schools, what can be done?

A lot, actually. Many concerned people are looking for ways to reform the existing public school system. Legislation has made some improvements, like in California where the class size in K-3 is required by law to cap at 20 students. School districts themselves have also made progress. More and more districts are offering "school choice" to their students, meaning that a student can choose to go to any school in his/her district that has an opening, not just their neighborhood school (although transportation to these schools is not always provided.) Also, there are many non-profit organizations that are doing what they can to provide free resources that the public schools themselves can't or won't. ArtsConnection in NYC brings artists into public school classrooms that otherwise wouldn't have the funding to provide art class to their students. Powerful Schools in Seattle organizes a low income community to be participants toward change in their schools. They involve local adults as both teachers and students in after-school programs on the premise that "what's often perceived as a poor community is actually very rich with talents and skills."

Then there are organizations like Teach for America that are seeking solutions to the teacher shortage in the most under-resourced, under-funded schools in the country. They recruit talented and enthusiastic college graduates from around the country to dedicate two years to teaching in an inner city or rural location with the mission that "one day, all children will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education." Many of these people decide to make teaching a lifelong career, while others go on to different careers after completing their commitment. However, almost all Teach for America teachers are deeply changed by the experience and become lifelong advocates for evening out the educational playing field.

Even with all of these excellent programs in place, low-income schools are still struggling. Ultimately, the problem is that no one has one perfect cure-all answer. "More high-stakes testing!" some may shout. "More arts and student motivated learning!" others may counter. "Smaller classes...better teachers...stricter discipline...longer school days...more integration..." the ideas tumble from the lips of politicians, parents, teachers, and administrators. However, results from any change are not immediately measurable, and often schools/politicians don't know how long to try a new solution/method before they scrap it for something else. With all of the variables that affect student achievement, one is constant: students succeed when given the tools and the opportunity to do so.

My hope is that we continue to try what our gut tells us is right. ArtsConnection, Powerful Schools, and Teach for America have achieved some incredible success stories, and they will continue to do so if they have our support. We need to somehow guarantee that students without money are not students without access to a quality education. When we ensure that all kids have enough books to read, art projects to create, and a qualified, enthusiastic teacher that will be there for the entire year, we'll be on the right track. Maybe then we'll get all four feet of Richard's desk flat on the floor.


Please email me at: rebecca@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephanie - Putting a cap on violence in our schools
Rebecca - Being a parent is a 24/7 job that never ends
Neda - Thinking of having a beer while pregnant? Think of your baby and think again!
Irene - Righting a national wrong as old as our school system
Stephen - Forget classrooms! There are more things to learn and great ways to learn them