Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Lake Readenwald

“Who needs to know what the word ‘fetiparous’ means?” the Nephew complained.  I told him since he’s graduated with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, still doesn’t have a job, and is still living with his father (and occasionally his mother) that he ought to look it up, because that’s what he and his generation are becoming.  They need to know what the word means, actually.

Oh, I was no better.  If it hadn’t been for Jane Eyre, I’d never have gotten past community college and my typing and shorthand classes.  Elementary school was not just a social challenge, but an educational obstacle as well.  The Sixties was the era of Noam Chomsky grammar, “new math”, and social studies as a replacement for history.  Our school library was a janitor’s closet with a nasty librarian who enforced strict, grade-level reading rules.

For reading material, we were given the dreary short stories of Langston Hughes and Ring Lardner Jr., and the plays of Arthur Miller.  I could read the words well enough – I had a good vocabulary, thanks to my parents.  But I fell down in comprehension.  No , indeed, I could not comprehend the notion of a totalitarian society where down was up and up was down and ugliness was beauty.

By the time I got to middle school, I’d pretty much given up on reading.  The middle school librarian was a very nice lady and she tried to entice me with offerings of Anne of Green Gables and National Velvet, traditional children’s literature.  But I refused even these, not trusting anything anyone gave me to read, except Mom and Dad.

It was only in my freshman year of high school that I discovered – or I should say, rediscovered – the joys of reading when my English teacher assigned Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.  I read it through in one afternoon and was completely hooked on reading after that.   My next foray into the adventures of reading was A Tale of Two Cities (a parental recommendation) and then The Lord of the Rings, recommended by a book store clerk.  Ultimately, I got by on my SATs, but I was no scholar.  At least, not yet.  I wasn’t convinced that reading would do me any good; my parents had assured me that I was going to be a secretary.

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, only 43 percent of 1.66 million private and public school students who took the college-entrance exam posted accepted scores that indicated they would do well in college.  The scores are unchanged from last year, and the lowest the scores have been since 1972.

Students need a score of 1550 out of the total 2400 to achieve college readiness, defined as a 65 percent chance of maintaining at least a B-minus as a college freshman.  Nationwide 44 percent of high school freshmen continue on to college and 21 percent of those earn a bachelor’s degree within six years.

The SAT data mirror scores from the ACT college-entrance exam—which showed about 75% of students failed to meet college-readiness standards—and served to increase the hand-wringing over whether U.S. high-school students are prepared to attend college and compete in a global economy. Colleges generally accept results of either test.

College Board officials and other experts noted that the declining scores could have much to do with the testing pool, which is growing and becoming more diverse. Last year, 45 percent of students who took the exam were members of a minority group, up from 38% of the 1.56 million who took it in 2008. And 28% of test takers reported that English wasn't exclusively their first language, up from 24% in 2008.

Minority and low-income students are less likely to take a core curriculum—defined as four years of English and three or more of math and the sciences—that would help them prepare to do well on the exam.

David Rusk (Cities Without Suburbs; Inside Game, Outside Game); Myron Orfield, (Metropolitics:  A Regional Agenda for Community and Stability); and Peter Dreier, et al.  (Place Matters:  Metropolitics for the Twenty-First Century) blame white flight and suburban sprawl for this educational apartheid.  The flight of the middle class to the suburbs and safer neighborhoods and better schools, left the metropolitan cities with no one to pay the bills or serve as role models for at-risk students.

All the authors recommend some form of regionalization or annexation by the cities to recapture the fleeing middle class before they get so far out of reach that there will be no possibility of taxing them for their “fair share” of urban education.  They admit that all the money that has been thrown at the schools has been for nought, as the most current SAT scores demonstrate.

They accuse the middle class of being selfish racists who have dragged the jobs too far away for the most poverty-stricken to reach.  No word is said of the heavy taxation and union rates that drove those manufacturing jobs out of the cities, and finally, out of the country.

Someone must have told Rusk to dial down the racism charges after Cities Without Suburbs, for he’s more willing to admit, in his second book, Inside Game, Outside Game, that the inner cities bear some of the responsibility for their plight.  One of the prime reasons for their failing schools is lack of stable, two-couple homes.  Female-headed households are more likely to be lower down on the poverty scale.

Rusk rode around with some inner city cops to get a feel for the neighborhoods.  He asked them what they thought was the biggest single contributor to urban blight.  “The drugs,” the policeman replied.  “Get rid of the drugs, and you won’t have any more problems.”

Rust tells a story of the creation of the Sprawl Machine by an evil enemy of America.  His advisor suggests luring the middle class out of the cities with dream homes and low-cost mortgages, without any money down on the property.  My parents paid the 20 percent down on our house in 1961, probably on Mom’s insistence.  My grandfather didn’t raise a stupid daughter.  But the real introductory agent that caused America’s economic spiral downward was not dream homes.  My parents weren’t all that happy about living 20 miles outside of the city where they both grew up.

The introductory agent was drugs, and other illegal activities.  White flight didn’t swallow up my great-grandmother’s house (which we drove by in the 1970s) in the Lake Edenwald (now called Mount Eden) section of the North Bronx.  The way Mom described her childhood home, we expected to find a neat little bungalow-type house with a tidy front yard and painted shutters.  What we found was a dilapidated house with a dirt yard, surrounded by barbed wire.  The local deli, which her friends’ parents owned, was a lonely outpost of commerce in a desert of vacant lots, long since burned out.  The neighborhood looked more like Mount Doom out of The Lord of the Rings than Mount Eden.

“Mount Eden” was in the news recently, when the north Bronx community unveiled a brand new school for the community.  I thought Edenwald was farther north than it is; it’s actually below the Cross-Bronx (Rusk and the other Regionalists bitterly hate this roadway – as does everyone who’s ever been stuck on it in traffic – for dividing the Bronx.  It wasn’t the highway that divided the Bronx, though).  Evander Childs H.S., both Mom and Dad’s alma mater, was farther north near the border with Mount Vernon.  The public schools in that area have dismal ratings; the charter schools are faring a little better, though only one was ranked “above-average.”

Things were no better in Camden, N.J., 12 years ago.  The city’s elementary schools were ranked dead last in the state.  The residents couldn’t participate in a volunteer garden planting for fear of the drug dealers.  Anyone who thinks legalizes drugs is a great idea should visit this section of Camden.  But be warned; in an effort at “efficiency,” the city disbanded its police department.

Drugs, alcohol, and sexual promiscuity.  What Rusk and the others claim about intense segregation is undoubtedly true.  At least that’s what I remember from my linguistics class back in the early days of college, when I finally broke free of the secretary track.  Isolated communities tend to retain their original language, oral traditions, and even accents, if they aren’t exposed to other cultures.

Urban planners find it easier to blame “racist” white people for their urban ills rather than face up to the failures of the minority communities.  Excuse us white folks if we don’t want our children robbed in or on the way to and from school.  The urban schools are a hell of no discipline, gang wars, drug dealing, and intimidation.  That’s straight from a lucky group of students who got the opportunity to attend a charter school in Harlem.

The Regionalists believe that the low-income students will learn better if their blighted communities are broken up and Section 8 voucher holders be allowed to plant themselves, through federal legislation, in any community they choose.  Only a few here and a few there, we’re promised.

None of this is the fault of the kids.  Well, not exactly.  I’ve met some of them through Read for American programs.  There are minority kids willing to give reading a try.  The older kids are fans of the Vampire series.  The younger kids loved all the “lily-white” happy family, exciting adventures people donated.  They might take more of an interest in reading if someone wrote books about black and Hispanic kids in happy families, going on Harry Potter-type adventures, and so forth.  Most of their literature is about slavery and civil rights, and I’d bet that the average black student cherishes these stories about as much as I cherished Ring Lardner.

Giving them some readable, relatable literature would carry the minority kids a long way.  But before that can happen, something has to be done about their parents.  Kids are like ducklings – they pattern after their parents.  If they don’t see Mom and especially Dad, reading, they’re not likely to take up the reading habit themselves.  But of course, first, you have to find the black Dads, who may be in prison or wandering the streets.  Someone has to tell them, “Go home!”

Rusk notes that a large part of the problem with black marriages is unemployment.  True enough.  During the Great Depression, marriages took a huge nose-dive, and that included my maternal grandparents.  Kids who don’t have a father they see – and see going to work – have no path to follow.  So they’ll follow a gang leader or drug dealer instead.

Until black families get their acts together, white suburbanites are going to keep on fleeing.  The object of annexation or regionalization is to stop the flight by preventing the building of anymore suburbs.  In other words, we’ll be trapped ourselves, with no way out.  Regionalists who tout the positive aspects of their plans only need look across the Hudson at New York City, the most taxed city in the nation.  Crime isn’t as bad in New York as it is in Chicago, Murder Capital of the Nation, but the taxation is.  New York tried annexation over a century ago and it didn’t help the city much.  As soon as the George Washington Bridge was built, people started up buying up land here in New Jersey and the subdividing it.

In 1983, ethnographer Shirley Brice Heath published the now-discredited and out of print study, “Ways With Words:  Language, Life, and Work in Communities and Classrooms.”  Heath studied two mill towns in North Carolina, only a few miles apart:  one, white working-class, the other, black working class, and a third, wealthier white group referred to as “the Townspeople.”.  She recorded the differences in spoken language and reading habits between the two communities.  Heath found that even in two, fairly equal working class communities, there were noticeable differences in parental styles of teaching their toddlers to speak, read and learn (i.e., white townspeople began reading to their children much earlier and had books in the home, whereas the white working class people were not as focused on education and looked upon reading as a way to escape chores, and the black families had no books at all). 

It took a long time to find a copy of this book, which I first learned about in a Teaching Reading class in college.  This is the book I told my former colleague about.  She’s deeply involved in community outreach, and education in particular.  I started to tell her about it, but our department manager (both women are black) shushed me up.  Still, AL sounded interested and as I’m going to have lunch with my former boss this week (something I never did when I worked for him) I wanted to have him give her the book.

Only it didn’t come and it didn’t come.  I paced the floor every day last week waiting for the delivery truck.  Finally, it arrived today, along with the news about the SAT scores. 

The fetiparous graduating class of 2012 posted an average score of 496 in reading, a one-point drop from 2011 and a 34-point decline since 1972, the first year the College Board began tracking the scores of “college-bound” seniors. The way the test is scored changed in the mid-1990s, but the mean scores in prior years were recalibrated to make them comparable.

You get past the SATs and into college in much the same way musicians get to Carnegie Hall (“Practice, practice, practice”).  Practice, practice, practice for the tests and read, read, read.

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