On the surface, people might be surprised to learn that high-poverty schools in South Bronx and Amsterdam have a lot in common.
In Toxic Schools: High-Poverty Education in New York and Amsterdam (2013), Dutch ethnographer Bowen Paulle lands a job as a teacher in a South Bronx high school, where he admits to not seeing a single White student and begins observing the school environment. After teaching in the South Bronx, Paulle also teaches for several years at a high school in poverty-ridden Southeast Amsterdam.
|“The killing, that’s what I would change
about my neighborhood, the killing…and the gangs”|
Through his observations, he provides a powerful close-up look into the gang activity, drug dealing and bullying students face on a daily basis in public schools in both Amsterdam and the South Bronx, along with the challenges teachers face in teaching kids with such severe traumas.
In his book, Paulle breaks down “the natural order of things” in the two schools by examining how the students interacted with each other while on campus. He finds the classic social structure of popular kids versus squares that happens at most high schools. However, the intensity of threats and violence at high-poverty schools create a particularly toxic environment that both teachers and students have to endure on a daily basis. Paulle argues that, because of the violence and bullying at school, students at both schools suffer more harm than good in the very environments in which they are supposed to learn and develop social skills.
Paulle profiles several high school students in order to find potential solutions to educating students in schools located in high-poverty areas.
Roxanne is one of the students Paulle spends significant time with. She attends Johnson High in the South Bronx and attends class infrequently. Her distant attitude while in class goes unchallenged by her teachers.
Paulle asks her what she would change about her South Bronx community, if anything.
“The killing, that’s what I would change about my neighborhood, the killing…and the gangs,” she says.
Roxanne’s situation is typical of students on both sides of the Atlantic—schools are plagued with toxic learning environments, and students struggle to pay attention in class even when they are able to attend class in the first place.
Toxic Schools gave me a clear understanding of how school suspensions contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline. Paulle observes that students were often suspended for minor behavioral problems. Studies show that students who are suspended from school have a higher propensity to end up in prison than those who graduate from high school.
One interesting commonality between public schools and prison: both are understaffed and overcrowded, which produces anti-social behavior.
The school-to-prison pipeline is a subject currently in the national presidential debate.
In mid-February, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton announced a plan to use $2 billion to bring social workers and staff into schools across the nation in order to address Black students’ school suspension rates and end the school-to-prison pipeline.
Clinton’s pledge comes on the heels of President Obama’s pilot program that gave a limited number of inmates federal funding to take college classes while behind bars.
Closer to home, there are 5,000 children in the Oakland Unified School District who have identifiable disabilities and require Individual Education Plans. They could benefit from a surge in funding, as they are currently squeezed into classrooms of 30-31 students, without the staffing to address their special needs.
Paulle’s conclusion is that students thrive when they receive individualized attention and care from teachers and authority figures.
One part of the solution to the school-to-prison pipeline is more of what Obama and Clinton prescribe. Smaller class sizes are the key to being able to deliver quality education where students can flourish.
Juan’s Book Review