School Choice & Charters Opinion

‘Urban’ Schools and Other Euphemisms

By Deborah Meier — May 29, 2014 4 min read
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Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Mike Klonsky today.

Dear Mike,

Americans (maybe all “high” civilizations) have a special kind of romance with rural life. They look down upon while also “admiring” what are seen as stoic, hard-working (if ignorant, even stupid) ways of life. Maybe the object of humor, but not hate.

Simple. Versus the city life—with its illicit, suspicious sophistication and its lazy, criminal poor. The latter the haven of unwanted diversity. Democratic life was imperiled, it was “argued,” by city corruption. My friend, Ann Cook, once did a high school class comparing children’s literature re. rural and urban life which carried this implicit message. (I must get hold of her bibliography sometime.)

So it is that our caricatures of bad education are generally urban. The 1955 film, Black Board Jungle, billed as a gritty film about inner-city students, was mostly about white, urban, working-class kids. It might make good re-viewing to see the similarities and differences between a class versus race view of public schooling’s “recent” history.

Even the “urban” has switched its meaning. When the 1955 film appeared, it was a word for low-income city kids. It’s now a euphemism for the “African American,” “Latino” poor. The book The Power of Their Ideas starts with me asking kids what it meant to refer to as “inner city” in preparation for a visit to a largely white college. They got it when I added that Dalton (a rich white school 20 blocks further “into” the city) was not considered inner city. It was a euphemism for another euphemism—ghetto.

They got it, and it made them angry, just as they were when the Brown University campus newspaper referred to their visit with the headline “Inner City Kids Visit Brown.” Of course, today East Harlem and Central Harlem are following Brooklyn’s example and becoming up-and-comer communities, with more and more buildings no longer renting within a range accessible to the “native"* population—African Americans and Latinos. When will the meaning of the word follow the families currently so named to the outskirts of our cities where many will relocate?

What I was writing last week was about urban vs. rural choice. I was suggesting that it is perhaps easier and less problematic to combine neighborhood and choice in dense cities than in one-school communities.

How much it matters if a school is truly part of a longstanding community, one that expands the family’s influence, is an interesting question. I suspect it could be a critical factor in young people’s life trajectory. I’d like to explore questions like this because we have gone to such opposite lengths of late to place children in schools unrelated to their “home” community—in style and in actual locality. It’s one reason that I’m dubious about the possibility of integration until we create far greater housing (community based) integration.

Since it took legislative initiative, in part, to create the kind of segregation that followed WWII and still dominates the market, it will, I’m convinced, take equally an aggressive initiative to achieve unsegregated housing.

Even the successful housing integration that became more common in the 1960s and 1970s (called Mitchell-Lama) are disappearing and the new legally required “integrated” buildings are creating separate entrances for their subsidized tenants and forbidding them to use recreational and storage areas! But could the 1954 court decision be used to require it?

It’s amazing the lengths to which we will go to avoid the questions that surround poverty and segregation, and how useful instead it has been to focus our animosity on schools. Bloomberg Views ran a piece on the 27th by Richard Vedder headlined “Congrats on That Diploma, You May Not Need It.”

The word “need” has multiple means. You may need it to get a job, but you don’t need it to meet the qualifications for such a job. College graduates are now filling many of the jobs just recently filled by high school graduates. Getting a B.A. is now a useful norm—for explaining what the poor have failed to do—because they are lazy, dumb, or have bad mothers. It also now has underwritten the money to be made off of the “deserving” lower-income students via student loans.

But, your account of Moral Monday is inspiring, and maybe it will catch on. I’m going to a FairTest** celebration this week to celebrate Michelle Fine’s work in this field and to conspire with my colleagues on ways to spread our concerns to wider audiences. We’re meeting at a high school that represents well the possibility for “urban” school reform—Julia Richman. How long will it be able to be such an example is worth paying attention to, having become a successful site for six different public schools 20 years or more ago. Fingers crossed.

Let’s start thinking of the books we’ve read that played a major role in our thinking on these and other education-related issues? Maybe that will be a way to end our conversations, or perhaps we can have a few farewell words the week after. You start.


* Both East and Central Harlem real “natives” were neither Black nor Hispanic. Long after the original natives were pushed out, Central Harlem was billed as a fancy white neighborhood and East Harlem as a “ghetto” for early immigrant populations (Jews, Italians, and then Puerto Ricans).

** FairTest is the one and only organization that has for over 30 years been a watchdog over testing companies and testing practices. Look it up and join its work.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.