Thursday, May 17, 2007

Putting $1.93 Billion On The Books

Our Town downtown
November 27, 2006

I can’t tell you what the extra $1.93 billion that the high court said must be spent by the state on the city’s schools is going to do for them. An earlier lower court decision had said the city should get a lot more than that every year, $4.7 billion. I don’t know what that would have done either. For sure it would do more, but more of what? What would move city public schools forward in a way not much has—in decades?

Here’s all I know from having taught a half dozen years in grade schools and high schools in suburbs and in the inner city as they called it in Cleveland then. (They weren’t public schools; they were all Catholic schools, but the black kids in the inner city schools were not Catholic.) I also have three grown daughters whose school days I watched closely. So here it is, after 30-some years of trying to pay attention:

At the big library downtown in Cleveland there’s a plaque at the entrance that says ‘Kids Who Read Succeed’. I think that too. That what I believe after my teaching and parenting experiences. Kids who read succeed. That may be the only thing I’m certain of from my time in the classroom and my time with my own kids.

So, I’d say take that $1.93 billion and do something about reading. I’d say screw social studies or cultural history and teach the kids to read. Don’t worry about calling part of the new Mets stadium Jackie Robinson this or that. Don’t worry about Arthur Ashe this or that or Roberto Clemente if you aren’t prepared to go to the wall for these kids to teach them to read. Those names are good names, but it’s too easy to feel good about ourselves with those kinds of gestures. These kids need to learn to read or they’re screwed.

A few years ago I taught juniors English in a Catholic boys’ high school here. It was a school for mostly poor kids that came in from other parts of the city. The guys were mostly black and Hispanic. Most of them wound up going on to college, but not really. They got in because the colleges needed bodies and maybe the school’s principal knew people in admissions. Many if not most of the kids dropped out of college. I know why, so do you. They couldn’t read well enough to do the work. It wasn’t because they didn’t know math. It wasn’t because they didn’t know science. That wouldn’t hold anybody back in their program. Not being able to read easily is what made school too tough for them.

Here’s what I told them one day in class. I don’t know why [italics that italics] day. I think it just came to me that day and I risked saying it.

I said if a bunch of Harvard freshman came into town and you wound up hanging with them for the weekend, you’d know your way around the world’s most dynamic city way better than they would. If they wanted to get a beer, you’d know ways to get that or drugs better than they would. If there were a fight you’d be better at it; you’re tougher. If there were a basketball and a court you could kill them. You can dance better than they can. You’re stronger and your teeth are better. You’ve got better hair. Many of you can speak two languages. You can probably talk to girls better than they can. You’ve probably had more sex. If you watched TV with them, you’d know more sports and could figure out the plot of Law and Order quicker than they could. So what do they have that you don’t? I asked them. I paused. Then I said, they can read better than you can. You can do every other boy thing better than they can. But they can read better.

So, I’d say the city schools should do something about making kids learn to read easily. Maybe I’d take the money and buy every kid a subscription to a magazine he liked. Maybe I’d give them a gift certificate for any three books they wanted from a local bookstore. Each semester they’d get to get three. I’ll bet the kids at Harvard had books and magazines around their house. The city should use some of the new money that’s coming to give its kids the same tools to succeed.

-- Bill Gunlocke

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