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Friday, September 16, 2005

Clean Slate

Michael posted this on Wednesday:

From the latest St. Louis Schools Watch:

"According to Reuters News Agency, Sajan George, a managing director at management company Alvarez & Marsal, said of New Orleans public schools that 'the destruction Katrina caused was, in its own way, an opportunity to renew the beleaguered system.'"

...and I just wanted to add my own little commentary to it.

Reading this reminded me of recent efforts at reforming the public schools in both St. Louis and Chicago.

As you may recall, multiple waves of school closings have swept St. Louis City in recent years, with the closings disproportionately shutting down North Side schools. SLPS placed confusingly upbeat signs in front of each shut-down school. The most prominent statement on these signs was "FEWER BUILDINGS = STRONGER SCHOOLS." Despite the fact that overcrowding was already bad enough, despite the fact that kids with behavior and gang issues would now be packed into classrooms with everyone else, despite the endangerment of such fine historic buildings, despite the toll that these almost entirely untended abandoned buildings stood to take on their neighborhoods, those signs were somehow still optimistic.

Similar school closing efforts have taken place in Chicago recently, as a part of the Renaissance 2010 plan. As is the case in St. Louis, the closings primarily affecting low-income, majority black areas of the city. Shut-down schools will be revamped and reopened--critics say, reopened in time for significant gentrification to have occured around the area of State Street where some of the schools are located. Mayor Daley plans to build 100 new schools within the next few years, although he still inexplicably plans to tear down some perfectly good extant historic buildings.

The people running the public schools in New Orleans certainly did not bring on Hurricane Katrina, and I'm sure they're just trying to sound positive, but still it troubles me to hear yet another urban public school system invoke this idea of sweeping away. St. Louis, Chicago, and now New Orleans public school administrators have now all expressed the idea--in some way--that the schools in their respective cities are so bad that the best way to cure them is to just completely obliterate them and start with a clean slate. (This line of thinking does not reuse perfectly good resources, and it's often too busy denying that the past happened to learn any lessons from it before proceeding with its new creation.) As someone who's gotten most of my education at troubled urban public schools, I can't help but feel vaguely insulted. Somehow, the messages seem to imply that my classmates and I part of what's supposed to be swept away. I get this image of some of the low-income black neighborhoods where I went to school, and I imagine them being erased. Maybe that's just me, but still, one school I attended has already been closed, and I can't help but take that personally. Does my history and tradition as an inner city poor person have to be to be eradicated in order for you to make things better?

Or, another question: If you've let things get so bad that everything has to be completely thrown out so you can start over and do things right with the city public schools this time, do all of us who went to these schools get to start over, too? The kids I've seen go unreached in overcrowded classrooms, kids who just couldn't learn in their perpetually 90 degree schools, kids who gave up on St. Louis based on their school experiences here, kids who've lost their love for learning in such tense and stifling school environments, kids who've gotten beat up or shot at at school, the girl I knew who ended up in a coma from injury due to construction workers' neglect on our school building.... Well, do we get to start over, too?


Joe said...

As a product of SLPS whose mother-in-law teaches in the district, I can understand that kind of rhetoric - but at the same time, it infuriates me.

The "Fewer Buildings = Stronger Schools" mantra was so, so lame. And yet, last summer they rather quietly shut down one of the most historic schools in the district, in terms of African-American student achievement: Banneker Elementary. Indeed, the city saw fit some years ago to rename that entire stretch of Lucas Ave to "Samuel Shepard Drive" in honor of the one-time superintendent for the Banneker sub-district, etc.

Meanwhile, poor old Garfield Elementary down here at Jefferson and Wyoming sits empty. Although revived temporarily over the summer, it is locked up again, a lovely little gem of a 1930s PWA school building, complete with an early 1990s gymnasium add-on, and an even more recent updated playground, now rather extensively vandalized.

Garfield, thus, is a mothballed school, not on the SLPS for-sale list. I think Roe in Dogtown shares a similar fate - they're being held - empty most of the time - to serve future needs. Might be worth an EOA essay.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, that slogan...wow. Words cannot describe how angry that made me, on so many levels.

Good point about mothballed schools. I understand that their enrollment figures are rising, but if you let a building stand in this town and everyone knows you're not watching it (Sodexho has PROVEN they're not watching these buildings quite conclusively--they don't even care for the ones that are still open very well!), um, it does not stay pretty or even functional for very long. As more time passes, the amount of money it would take to get a building usable again is only going to get higher and higher in comparison to how much it costs to just keep the damn school open during that time. And you can't monetarily measure the positive effect that an open (vs. mothballed and neglected) school has on the students that are less cramped with one more building, and on the neighborhood that lives with that building.

I didn't know Banneker was closed, and that makes me sad. I know several African-American SLPS students who studied who Benjamin Banneker was last school year (including one whose face absolutely lit up when I first started explaining who Banneker was), and I'm sure the meaning of the closure in that respect isn't lost on them. Jonathan Kozol had an excellent article in the September issue of Harper's about continuing segregation in American schools, and he just went on and on listing all these schools across the country that are named after Martin Luther King, where the school is almost 100% African-American and Latino, and the kids are in conditions unfit for animals. I also remember Kozol's much earlier book Savage Inequalities, in which he describes things like how MLK School in East St. Louis had to be closed down because sewage repeatedly backed up into it. It was just...wow. These kinds of "learning" conditions would be completely wrong anyway, but then to create these conditions in places with these names and histories..... Yeah, what SLPS did to Banneker speaks for itself.

I have more to say that's semi-related, but I'll drop you an e-mail....