Over the last ten years, I have interviewed well over 200 people about their experiences growing up in the Bronx between the 1940s and the 1980s, the large majority of them African American, smaller number Latino and white.
School experiences played an important role in these interviews, and from them, I have been able to draw some conclusions that have implications for current policy discussions.
One thing that came across loud and clear was that there was no “Golden Age” in public education for working class students and young people of color. The schools my informants went to were heavily tracked, and young people in the lower tracks got a far inferior education to those in the higher ones. There were also more than a few racist teachers, and others whose teaching methods were rigid in the extreme.
Nevertheless, a good portion of my informants did manage to go on to college and achieve a foothold in the middle class coming out of Bronx public or Catholic schools. Their explanation for how they did so revealed common themes. Some came from families where academic success was nurtured by taking children to museums and concerts, and by giving them music lessons; others were taken under the wing by teachers or coaches who would give them extra instruction, help them find jobs, or intervene very aggressively if they felt they were taking the wrong path or hanging out with the wrong people.
The common denominator here was the “personal touch.” Virtually everyone I interviewed who was able to move from a working class childhood to professional status had someone invest large amounts of time and energy in expanding their “cultural capital” by building their self confidence as well as their skills.
Schools as institutions did not do that — it was teachers and coaches and occasional school administrators who took it upon themselves to develop one on one relationships with children in their care which created the basis for collective social mobility.
And as badly as schools were tracked and as discriminatory as some of their practices were, they had a few things going for them that made this kind of mentoring possible. First was the extracurricular activities these schools offered. Until the fiscal crisis of the mid 70s, New York City public schools not only had great music programs and sports teams from middle school on up, they were open five days a week from 3 to 5 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. for supervised activities led by teachers. These activities allowed young people to develop relationships with teachers doing things they enjoyed, as well as giving teachers a chance to get to know young people in settings where grades and tests were not involved.
Even though teaching in many of our schools may be better than it was then, I am worried that the constant testing, coupled with the threat and reality of school closings, is removing the possibility of the kind of mentoring that was the key to young people escaping poverty in the Bronx schools of the post war era. I am not sure that testing and drilling by teachers who leave the profession after a few years is an adequate replacement for that kind of personal attention.
With A Brooklyn Accent
Tuesday, 14 May 2013