Sunday, May 04, 2008

Conversation Recap for May 4, 2008

We went through introductions, during which we learned that the amputee support group is up and running. The activities during Fair Housing Month are now done, although every month is fair housing month. We also heard the Pierce County Department of Community Services released its 2008 Homeless Survey, which is linked from within the Department’s web site, at

For many people, this is the storm before the calm….

We discussed some additional pieces of our documents, the introductory paragraph to the longer document, and the one-page “Welcome to the Conversation” piece. The group read through and suggested several changes.

Today we heard Sol’s story. The ensuing discussion crossed paths with many themes in the book we are reading—for example, the Prince Georges County public schools were closed for a decade after the Brown ruling in 1954.

To begin the book, A Hope in the Unseen, by Ron Suskind, we are looking at the first four chapters (100 pages). In chapter one Suskind describes a tough, intimidating situation for students, open hostility toward achievement in school. In chapter two the focus moves more to family life, the streets, and prison. In chapter three we get a more detailed introduction to many characters at school, particularly Cedric’s peers. Then in chapter four, we get the story of Cedric getting into the summer program at MIT.

Dexter started with a couple of excerpts. First, bottom of p. 20 to top of p. 21, where Cedric is talking with LaTisha. In this passage, the chapter theme is repeated, Ballou is a school where academic achievement has no social currency, and social status is withheld from the best students. We are reminded of Jonathan Kozol’s many books, including his Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America (2005), where he reports this is the norm in poorly financed schools. [Here is a favorite passage from Kozol’s book: “One parent from a wealthy district observed of the funding inequalities, “We wouldn’t play Little League this way…. We’d be embarrassed. We would feel ashamed.”” (p. 55)] One dimension of this is about the standards applied to personal worth, who gets to set and enforce the standards, who gets defined as admirable and less admirable. Someone with experience in our local schools says this squares with local reports—the popular students in some schools are the mean students, not the students doing well in classes. Being smart is constructed as the albatross from The Ancient Mariner. Someone brought up Kozol’s book from 1992, Savage Inequalities, which reports the trends we are discussing and that form the backdrop for much of Suskind’s book. One person contested the notion of the mean students being the leaders—there is something else going on in the social order of schools.

To the question, Does this passage reflect what really happens, people in the room reported they have seen things like it. One of the features of stories we have heard is this: we hear characterizations of the people in these neighborhoods and schools as somehow toxic. We might want to watch the ways we jump to conclusions about what causes all of this. One person reported hearing a teacher say it would be better if a bomb was dropped on a certain section of a city with similar schools…. Kozol, in contrast, offers a very different explanation of the causes—we apply scary labels to people in part as a way to keep us at a distance, so we don’t have to ask whether individuals get real opportunities, whether the financing of schools supports a fair distribution of opportunities, and so on. [See below, the point called the ‘two-step.’]

One person described the culture of fear we see described in the schools as pervasive in the culture. It is not just in the schools, it is in the neighborhoods. Note one thing it supports—that distance may be reported obliquely in the book, something Suskind lets happen—that our attention latches on to the small number of students who might make it, and ignore the rest. Kozol won’t let that go, and keeps bringing it up. So far (we are only looking at the first four chapters) Suskind is not directly pointing this out.

On to chapter two. Some insights into parenting, a bit on working, church, the streets, the prison system, and we are left to reconsider the chapter one material—how does school function in this wider world? The place of school, the book seems to suggest, is the education of the young within this world…. and we have some clear tensions between the reality described and our sense of how it ought to be. So we are invited to draw out these relationships, and consider that schools can’t do this well if the surrounding institutions do not support it.

We look at the passage starting on the bottom of p. 30, going on to p. 31, the one that includes “by this reckoning, Cedric Lavar Jennings wasn’t so lucky,” and young men being left with “a hardened exterior masking deep insecurities.” Dexter offered this as Suskind’s account of how young boys turn in to black men in America.

One idea about how we take stories that seem to sum it up for us, and we use it to apply an answer to the problems described in Suskind’s book—beware of the ‘two step,’ of idealizing part of our own younger days and explaining the troubles of the present as due to the absence of those things we remember. We all might have memories of teachers to made a big difference in our lives—I sure do. I wonder where Mr. Best is now.

What Suskind has to offer is this: parenting, jobs, housing, church, neighborhoods, and prison are institutions that surround schools, and the troubles of the schools will not be fully explained by looking at things found in the schools.

If we ask, what would schools look like if we designed them for the society we have now, we get a long list of things that schools could be that addressed those many things mentioned in the previous paragraph.

We looked at Barbara, Cedric’s mom, and the school. She is in important ways walled off from the school. The forces she was working with require a huge effort to set up a number of things—child care, getting the necessary bills paid, lining up other forms of support her child needed—there are so many high risk intersections, where if things go in a slightly different direction so much can go wrong. So much time is required to just keep things from falling apart. Barbara turns out to be amazing, resourceful, and indefatigable.

We discussed some of Suskind’s depictions of low income life. Someone with experience with a foster care system said child abuse is endemic. Things just cost a lot more—recall the rent-to-own story that had the Jennings TV cost $1500. The safety net just isn’t there the way it was, it makes those small things we read Barbara doing all that much harder. (The story of Cedric going to college ends about the same time the 1996 ‘end welfare as we know it’ law was passed.

We were reminded several times that the element of fear is a huge part of the situation—kids trying to be intimidating so as ward off danger, forced to find strategies to find security. And we heard a story, from last night, of how it is possible to defuse the fear, change is possible. One of the things schools needs to do is to spread skills in defusing the skills.

We talked about the idea of system design. Look where we can go with this. Poverty might not be necessary. But it is part of the design of how we do things. So, for example, our levels of support—income support that is 60% of an adequate existence, a shelter system where people are allowed to sleep on a cot and not know if the cot will be available tomorrow, and other examples—choices that we make that guarantees some will live that way. We design poverty in. Different informed choices are possible. A shelter system can choose to house people permanently. We can make similar observations about changes in schools—how have we designed in these things, how can we design it differently?

Suskind does show there are a lot of schools that do produce well educated people who expect to learn, who expect to do well, the works. So we will want to see how the subsequent parts of the book is how the differences are treated. That is, can the good schools be reproduced in the toughest case neighborhoods? Jonathan Kozol likes to include such counterexamples in his books—if he describes a dysfunctional school, and explains the ways the dysfunctions are produced, and then gives an example of a school nearby where things work.

For our part, we also want to connect the discussions to how we can do something here where we live, and do something about Tacoma schools.

Next time, please have read chapters 5 through 10, pages 101-161.