They’re Still Dying at an Early Age

Photograph Source: Kenneth C. Zirkel – CC BY-SA 4.0

The same day that Jonathan Kozol appeared on Democracy Now (“Jonathan Kozol: Joe Biden Didn’t Just Praise Segregationists. He Also Spent Years Fighting Busing,”June 25, 2019), a report from a review team at Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy on the state of the Providence public schools in Rhode Island was released. The report was so damning that the commissioner of education of the state admitted that she would not enroll her own child in those schools. Members of the review team stated that the conditions in the schools were so “concerning” that “they were left in tears.”

Kozol’s Death at an Early Age (1967) was the seminal work for documenting segregation and inequality in the Boston public schools in the 1960s.

Rewind to 1969 and I’m only days away from having graduated from college.

Before heading off to a summer job at a camp for children with special needs, I thought that I might spend a few weeks at the end of the school year substituting in the Providence schools. I taught at a middle school.

Fast forward thirty years later. I retired from teaching in public schools and learned that the Providence schools were looking for counselors. I put my name in for a position and I was soon called and asked to report to a middle school only a few miles from the school where I had taught in 1969.

The single day I spent in a counseling role in that school opened my eyes as almost no other experience I had in those decades of teaching. I was assigned to work in a counseling holding room where students who misbehaved spent the day out of class. It was a recipe for disaster because placing so many adolescents in a room for an entire school day was akin to asking a leftist to spend a day trying to reason with all of those doves that Donald Trump claims to have working in his administration.

During the first hour of that day, two students began prodding a young girl to arrange times after school where she would be available to have sex with people they were lining up. After listening in on the conversation, I called the administrative office to have someone come down to the room to sort out the situation: No one ever showed up.

Next, a student in the back of the room found some 78 rpm records on a shelf and began breaking them by hurling them across the room. I had never seen this kind of acting out, and thought that I had seen and dealt with everything in several educational roles over many decades.

Those bookends of outrageous behavior sandwiched other kinds of more garden-variety behaviors during the day as the room filled with students sent out of class for failure to comply with teacher directions. The iron bars on the windows of this in-school detention room gave the space an almost prison-like appearance. I had been a counselor for several years and the detention room was beyond anything I had ever seen.

At the end of that day, I left the city for my home and thought about the prospects of the kids I had seen in the detention room and wondered if anyone in that room could lead a productive life.  The odds were against the latter and it was another example of more death at an early age. Students had gained absolutely nothing from the time that I had spent with them.

When the report on the schools in Providence was published in the Boston Globe (“New report indicates dire state of Providence schools,” June 25, 2019), I was not surprised that the results of the Johns Hopkins’ report because it paralleled in some ways what I had seen 18 years ago. The new report noted fights that had been arranged on social media in which female students were to take part. Students complained about rodent traps stuck to the bottom of their shoes. Also noted was infrastructure decay in ceilings in classrooms. How different was the fight scheme from what I had viewed as students attempted to set up an adolescent for sexual exploitation?

Looking at the National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly called the Nation’s Report Card, Rhode Island ranked 16th at the 4th grade level and 29th at the 8th grade level (in reading and math skills). The NAEP is a reliable measure of academic progress and was a staple in courses I taught at the college level to provide a snapshot of educational progress across the U.S.

I’m convinced that many poor kids and children of color don’t matter in this society anymore. They do, however, matter to their families and they matter as human beings who benefit by education. It’s still about guns and butter with the manufacturers of those “guns” doing a hell of a lot better than those kids left in crumbling school buildings, or those kids left alone in border detention centers without adequate care or education. Many school districts across the U.S. with high numbers of poor children make up failed states within the U.S.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).