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.

Poverty to prosperity solutions for Hamilton’s lower city

The following op-ed "Breaking down economic segregation: Is moving poor people out of the lower city an acceptable anti-poverty strategy?" ran in The Hamilton Spectator May 15th. The op-ed was in response to The Spectator's Code Red series that highlighted concentrated poverty and 3rd world health outcomes in some of Hamilton's lower city neighbourhoods. Hamilton needs some gamechanging solutions and could those solutions include getting folks out of poverty by getting them out of the lower city? Borrowed some of the solutions from a great book — Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh.

Breaking down economic segregation: Is moving poor people out of the lower city an acceptable anti-poverty strategy?

We all agree the poverty in our lower city is unacceptable and unsustainable.

We all agree something must be done and done now with an urgency, a single-mindedness and an unreasonableness that's equal to the crisis at hand

We all agree we need to ramp up and double down on game changing poverty-to-prosperity solutions.

We agree that we need to adopt and scale up the most effective and efficient solutions we can find, whether those solutions are Hamilton-made or imported from other communities.

There's a lot we agree on.

But are we going to agree on the solutions?

What if we discover some of the best solutions for getting people out of poverty are to get them out of the lower city?

What if those solutions include giving lower-city families the option to send their kids to any school in Hamilton? Or requiring developers to earmark a percentage of all new housing built anywhere in Hamilton for low-income families from the lower city?

Getting families out of poverty by getting them out of the lower city will put our values to the test. And odds are good that there will be pushback from more than just the NIMBYs.

Suggest these solutions and you may be told that you're being disrespectful and insensitive. That what you're proposing is a slap in the face of hardworking community builders who are proud and passionate to call the lower city their home.

Yet for every resident who's proud, passionate and about to write a letter to the editor, there's a family who's planning to get out. There's a family who's desperate to get out but doesn't know how and needs help. And there's a family who's all but abandoned any hope of getting out.

Not helping these families is disrespectful. Choosing not to listen to these families is disrespectful. Telling these families to hold tight and wait it out is disrespectful.

And promising an influx of the middle class, upper class and creative class may be wishful thinking. The Hamilton Spectator's Code Red series exposed third-world health outcomes and living conditions in some lower-city neighbourhoods.

We're not seeing an exodus of Canadians who are packing up and moving their families to third world countries. The migration is all one way. People leave for the promise of new opportunities and a better life. So why would migration be any different within our city? Creating magnet schools in the lower city with unique programs and great teachers may encourage an influx of families. But will it be enough, will it happen soon enough and should that be our only solution?

While our postal codes are different, we all share the same aspirations. We want good jobs that pay living wages. We want to live in safe neighbourhoods. We want to send our kids to great schools where they will flourish. Above all, we want a better life for our family.

If families can get that in the lower city, that's great. If families want to get that and can get it now by moving out of the lower city, we absolutely need to make it happen as fast as we can.

Moving people out isn't an abandonment of our lower city. It may well prove to our best hope of saving the lower city and my father is proof of that.

My dad grew up in poverty. He was born and raised in a Code Red neighbourhood in the industrial east end of London, Ont. Getting out motivated my dad to stay out of trouble and be the first in his family to get a post-secondary education. With a degree in hand, he got a good job and he moved our family from the east end to South London. We lived in a safe neighbourhood. We went to great schools. And we had a better quality of life. He broke the cycle of poverty for his kids and grandkids.

Yet my dad didn't abandon his neighbourhood or forget his roots. For most of his career, he was a teacher and principal at high-need elementary schools in low-income neighbourhoods. Those schools were full of kids who'd been dealt the same lousy hand as my father. And my dad knew from experience and believed to his core that for many of those kids, school was their sanctuary, their safe harbour and their single best hope for getting out.

My dad set high expectations for teachers, parents and the kids. And he did everything he could to help those kids realize their potential. He set up breakfast programs. Ran a popcorn machine in his office so no one went hungry. Shot hoops with the kids during lunch. Always kept an open door. Lent out his dress clothes at graduation. Got rid of the bad teachers and stood up for the good teachers who somehow persevered in the face of the challenges that poverty inflicts on inner-city schools.

My dad made a real difference. He was a poverty to prosperity solution for hundreds of families. The proof came in the weeks after my dad died suddenly and unexpectedly. Parents and former students sent my mom cards of condolences and letters of thanks. They talked about how my dad had believed in them. Looked out for them. Advocated on their behalf. Challenged them to do their best, to aim higher and to dream bigger.

At times when no else seemed to care, to understand their challenges or to even notice them, my dad gave a damn and he never wrote them off. And that made all the difference. These former students wrote about how they too had stayed on the straight and narrow. Went on to college and university. Got good jobs. Raised a great family. Had a better life. And broke the poverty cycle.

If we want the rest of Hamilton to care about what's happening in the lower city, if we want to get rid of the income inequality that has divided Hamilton and created a poverty that's concentrated, corrosive and uncontainable, then we may well need to get families out of the lower city and into the rest of Hamilton.

Lower city families deserve the best poverty-to-prosperity solutions and they need them now. Limiting what strategies get put on the table is not an option.

That's disrespectful, it's an abandonment of our lower city and it's an abdication of our moral obligation to our fellow citizens.