Lois Weiner is a professor of education at New Jersey City University in Jersey City, N.J.
When I taught at New York City’s Martin Luther King High School almost 20 years ago, it was already the “troubled” school described in news reports last month of a shooting that occurred there, ironically, on Dr. King’s birthday. The extensive media attention paid to the shooting of two King students by another recalled the bitterness I felt each January in those years as I listened to politicians’ bromides about Martin Luther King’s legacy and the successes of the civil rights movement.
Though Martin Luther King High School sits directly across from LaGuardia High School for Music and Art, in the shadow of Lincoln Center, and although both schools draw students from all over the city, LaGuardia picks its students in a highly competitive process. For the most part, King draws two categories of students: those whose test scores and skills keep them out of schools that can select their students, and those without guardians or family members able to navigate the high school admission procedures so that they can attend a “good” school. Frequently, the two categories overlap.
As governmental and media surveillance of schools’ test scores has increased, the competition for students who have strong skills and respectable scores on the statewide tests (those who “meet standards”) has increased. Few schools want students who are academically weak, because they will need a degree of support and attention that very few city schools are organizationally and financially capable of providing. So most students who attend King and other “neighborhood” high schools are there by default, and they know it.
Almost every year that I taught at King, teachers were subjected to a new plan devised by the board of education to improve our students’ academic achievement. Meanwhile, we endured a revolving door of principals, budget cuts that always meant less help for our kids, and increased paperwork and regulation stemming from new state and city requirements. Periodically, the school was in the news for the sort of event the media adore: a shooting, a rape, a teacher using sexually explicit poetry to which a religious student objected. The then-current schools chancellor would issue a statement deploring the event and giving new guidelines to prevent another occurrence; the teachers’ union president would rush to the scene to determine the facts. Shortly thereafter, a new plan would be formulated to improve the school, one that would not be adequately funded or supported. The school’s steady and inexorable decline would continue.
From my former colleagues still teaching in the school, I know that the board of education’s newest plan is its ultimate weapon: It will “redesign” the school by cutting off new enrollments while new, small schools are put in its place. Forgive me for being suspicious of what this redesign will bring, but I left King to work in a “redesigned” neighborhood high school that reverted back to its previous self within seven years. And where will the students King currently serves, most of whom were unwanted by selective public schools, go now?
There is no mystery about what’s needed to make city schools that serve poor, minority students—schools like Dr. King’s namesake in New York—become models of Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision. It’s just not popular among politicians to state the truth. We need the resurrection and realization of Dr. King’s ideals: economic and political justice and full democratic rights for all members of society. Martin Luther King High School and the city schools that serve poor, minority kids need the government on all levels to commit resources for community development, so that schools aren’t coping with social crises created by economic conditions beyond their reach. Schools like King should be part of a democratically run school system that’s well-funded, one that reflects the racial and social diversity of the city, one committed to help each child develop emotionally, morally, socially, and intellectually.
City schools that serve poor, minority kids need the government on all levels to commit resources for community development.
Without programs supported by the federal and state governments to realize Dr. King’s dream, we’ll continue to have city schools that contradict every one of his ideals. The platitudes about racial justice we hear from politicians on the holiday marking his birth ring false to kids and their teachers in the racially segregated, underfunded schools that bear his name. And there are many of them in the country. I know, because when I taught at King, we were part of a network of these schools, and I noted that most of them were segregated.
So you’ll have to excuse me for not taking seriously the pledges and exhortations made last month on the day set aside to remember Martin Luther King’s contribution and sacrifice. I taught in a school named after him.
A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as A Legacy Deferred