Published Online: December 22, 2006
Published in Print: January 1, 2007, as The Children in Room E4
Book Review

The Children in Room E4

American Education on Trial

by Susan Eaton
(Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 416 pages, $24.95)

American Education on Trial

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In one of the more heartbreaking scenes in this often-heartbreaking book, a former teacher describes the extraordinary thing that happened when she took her 1st graders from inner city Hartford, Connecticut, on a rare field trip. As the school bus reached the bridge over the Connecticut River, the kids jumped to their feet and cheered. They were so astonished to see a river flowing just miles from their homes that they gave the river a standing ovation.

The point of the scene—and there are many like it throughout the book—is that most Hartford kids are worse than poor. They are “experientially impoverished”: clamped in such intense poverty, both in their neighborhoods and at school, that they are shut out from the rest of American life.

The Children in Room E4 by Susan Eaton

Back in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Brown v. Board of Education that “in the field of public education … ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” Yet some 50 years later, 95 percent of Hartford’s students are either black or Latino—about the proportion found in the public schools of many other large Northern cities. As author Susan Eaton puts it, “There [are] a hell of a lot of Hartfords out there.”

The educational disparities between rich and poor, black and white, urban and suburban students are well known. But Eaton, who has a PhD in education policy and has also been a newspaper reporter, takes the old familiar story and invests it with new interest.

Eaton meticulously follows the ups and downs of an 18-year-long, still-running legal battle, Sheff v. O’Neill, launched by a team of civil rights lawyers who hoped to end de facto racial segregation in Connecticut schools and, as a bonus, revive the ideals of Brown. Although the lawyers have won key courtroom victories, they haven’t yet succeeded in forcing the state to deliver the equal educational opportunity promised in the state’s constitution. Hartford’s schools are actually more segregated now than when the case began.

What happens to a dream deferred?/ Does it dry up/ like a raisin in the sun?/ … Or does it explode?” black poet laureate Langston Hughes wondered. Eaton’s book poses much the same question. The answers aren’t very reassuring.

Vol. 18, Issue 04, Pages 46-47

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