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Book review: Hope and despair in the American city. Why there are no bad schools in Raleigh

The Hamilton Community Foundation has a position paper on Hope and Despair.

Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh

By Gerald Grant

Harvard University Press ($27.50)

The workforce of 2025 goes to kindergarten this September.

There’s a lot riding on these five-year-old freshmen. By the time they graduate from college and university, the Conference Board of Canada estimates Ontario will have a shortage of 360,000 skilled employees. That shortage could hit 560,000 vacant jobs by 2030.

The fate of those kids will go a long way in deciding the future of our community. So it’s in our collective interest that every once of those kids stays in school, realizes their full potential and graduates to success. For that to happen, we need to deal with the poverty that’s swamping our lower city. Because when poverty overruns a school, kids can’t learn and teachers can’t teach.

If we’re lucky, we still have time to make a choice. Do we stay the course and become the Syracuse of the North? Or do we borrow from the playbook of Raleigh, North Carolina?

The answer’s obvious.  A 2007 study by the Brookings Institution ranked U.S. cities on two measures: growth in terms of employment and annual payroll and economic well-being in terms of family income, the extent of poverty and unemployment rates. Out of 302 cities with more than 50,000 residents, Syracuse ranked 297th on growth and 279th on well-being. Raleigh ranked 13th on growth and 24th on well-being.

Author, professor and Syracuse resident Gerald Grant offers a cautionary tale for Hamilton. In Syracuse, an invisible wall went up between the inner city and suburbs. “On one side of the wall were greater and greater concentrations of the poor and minorities – those with the greatest needs,” says Grant. By 2000, more than half the kids in Syracuse public schools were poor and three quarters of fourth and eight grade students were failing state tests in reading and math.

“On the other side of the wall, in the suburbs, where less than 2 per cent were black and only 4 per cent lived in poverty, 70 to 85 per cent of schoolchildren passed the same tests,” says Grant.

Grant and his wife joined with neighbours to spearhead community renewal and rebuild depleted social capital in their urban neighbourhood. There was a Westcott East Neighbourhood Association, two nonprofits rehabilitating housing and the Westcott Community Development Corporation reviving the business district. Taken together, these efforts made a difference.  But Grant says it wasn’t enough and community activists can only do so much.

“Reclaimed neighbourhoods in cities like Syracuse are islands of success in a slowly rising sea of poverty. Despite the real gains we made in Westcott, little that we accomplished was able to touch the underlying problems of increasing poverty, joblessness and failing schools that afflicted the city as a whole. It takes vision and action on a larger scale to change the context within which neighbourhood reforms will succeed.”

So here’s what vision and action look like. In Raleigh, they found the courage and political will to integrate elementary schools. Inner city kids went to suburban schools. Suburban kids went to inner city schools. Raleigh also created magnet schools with unique programs that drew kids from the city and the suburbs.  No elementary school could have more than 40 per cent of pupils who were poor enough to qualify for subsidized lunches.  

In 1998, Raleigh announced that 95 per cent of kindergarten to Grade 8 students would achieve at or above their grade level in the state’s math and reading tests within five years. The 95 per cent goal drove real reform, creating new cultures of leadership and teaching. In 1994, 71 percent of kids were passing the state’s math and reading tests. By 2003, 91 per cent of kids were passing the tests. Passing rates for kids from low-income families went from 55 to 80 per cent.

In 2006, 94 per cent of parents agreed or strongly agreed that their child’s school provided a high quality educational program and 96 per cent said the school was a safe place to learn.

“Breaking down the wall between affluent suburbs and impoverished inner cities created a ‘healthy balance’ of rich and poor in every classroom,” says Grant. “The policy guaranteed that all schools would have a core of middle-class students who would establish a floor of positive expectations and create student networks across class lines that would benefit poor students. Schools with a majority of middle class parents will not tolerate incompetent teachers, or drinking fountains that don’t work, or restrooms with no toilet paper.”

Raleigh redistributed social capital by changing and expanding the networks of opportunity for poor and minority students. “Social capital is the yeast that makes a good school rise,” says Grant. “The goal is not just to close test scores. The goal is to provide more opportunities for people to freely associate across racial, ethnic and economic lines.  The diverse social networks that children form in Raleigh schools promise benefits not just for themselves but, in the long run, for the nation.”

Given the labour shortage facing Hamilton, the invisible wall that divides our city and the poverty that’s overrunning our lower city schools and neighbourhoods, now would be a good time to import Raleigh’s vision, courage and political will. The kids heading off to kindergarten in September deserve nothing less. And postal codes shouldn’t be limiting the potential of any student in Hamilton.

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