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Commentary Last Updated: Jan 29th, 2010 - 00:36:08

Is it failing schools or failing communities?
By Jerry Mazza
Online Journal Associate Editor

Jan 29, 2010, 00:28

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Wednesday night, I heard President Obama�s State of the Union address. He spoke about many issues, from finance to economics, jobs, national defense, the war on terrorism, entitlements, to the Supreme Court permitting unrestrained corporate contribution to election campaigns. But there was one issue mentioned in passing that really stuck in my mind. It was this comment . . .

�Now, this year, we�ve broken through the stalemate between left and right by launching a national competition to improve our schools. And the idea here is simple: Instead of rewarding failure, we only reward success. Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform -- reform that raises student achievement; inspires students to excel in math and science; and turns around failing schools that steal the future of too many young Americans, from rural communities to the inner city. In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education. (Applause.) And in this country, the success of our children cannot depend more on where they live than on their potential.�

First of all, it sounds like a warm-over of the �No Child Left Behind� disaster left over from George Bush, who forgot to leave behind the money to bring that promise to light. I have also heard this �failing schools� philosophy espoused by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is now planning to literally close a half dozen more schools that supposedly have failed his Department of Education�s criteria.

Having spent several years in the early 1960s as a young substitute teacher, working in some of the best and worst parts of Brooklyn, and as a friend of many active and retired school teachers, I can break the news to the president and the mayor that those schools live in communities that have failed. Communities rife with poverty, dysfunctional families, parents, single or in couples, that have been overwhelmed by the forces of life.

Their despair (which I also encountered on my first job as a social investigator for the Department of Welfare), their lack of educational skills, which may be the result of their upbringing, or of being new to this country and its crushing economic system, are passed on like a virus to their children. I remembered kids who came to school in ghetto areas filled with rage, with empty stomachs, with not enough sleep, with all the symptoms that would qualify them for social services or a good, family shrink, though they received the back of the hand of the social welfare system, certainly not the right answer from those who were in charge.

Nor were the �enforcers� those schools had for the �problem students� the answer. For those �problem students� who were tough enough, big enough to topple a teacher, or to intimidate students that were willing to give learning a try, �enforcers� were not the answer. The �enforcers� might be an intimidating gym teacher or two, a dean that wasn�t afraid to bully the wild ones into submission or even those that threatened physical punishment or actually physically conked those kids. Yet those �enforcers� in some strange way were filling the role of surrogate parents, filling in woefully for the discipline that had not been ingrained in a more humane manner at home.

But many more of the more benign kids lacked the matrix of learning, reading and comprehension skills, attention skills, vocabulary, that I would see present in students in schools in middle class or affluent neighborhoods. I think in the nearly five decades since I taught and went on to other things, partly in frustration, mostly to better support myself and family, the paradigm has not changed. Only now the physical school and its teachers are on the slicing block, as if the teachers came to work wanting to kill time, as opposed to trying to get a modicum of discipline, focus, and attendance on a daily basis, in order to teach.

Today I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, on West End Avenue, in a neighborhood of gentrified co-op buildings that borders the low-income projects of Amsterdam Avenue and the barrio that surrounds it. Walking those streets, I too frequently see teen-agers idling on street corners, wandering the streets during school hours, as well as teen parents still children themselves, and a culture tainted with societal abandonment.

It�s easy to dislike some of these kids. They look like slackers. They can be menacing. They have nothing to do, hip-hoping into oblivion and questionable role models. School doesn�t fill the bill for whatever reasons, learning disorders, family disorders, and all the social ills you can imagine. Yet, too often it�s the schools that service these areas that take the hit for failing. Closing these schools will only create more failure, shuffling these �students� hither and yon, where their likelihood of failure will be exacerbated by �higher achievers,� and they will slip through the cracks still one more time.

In a recent local television station (NY1) interview of the teenage students of a school slated for closing, the Paul Robeson High School, a name synonamous with black musical genius and political activism, the students blamed the school�s failure on themselves. It was heartbreaking to hear them admit they came late, slipped out of school early, or did not appear at all or infrequently in school, or simply weren�t interested. One or two of the students seemed to be succeeding for whatever magical reason, perhaps a good family life in a working class family.

One of the frustrated teachers interviewed looked like he was on the brink of tears himself, explaining how it was hard to teach the �dip in, dip out� students who showed or no-showed while an ongoing curriculum was in progress.

Now, perhaps for Obama, who had an educated mother dedicated to educating her son, whose white grandparents also chipped in with the chores of child-to-man rearing, it was a whole different ballgame. Perhaps for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was raised in the Boston-suburb of Medford, Massachusetts, in a comfortable family that was able to send him to Johns Hopkins for an electrical engineering degree, and later to Harvard Business School for an MBA, it is unquestionably an entirely different story, which is not to say he did not work hard to attain success. But he had tools and an invested family.

But for the forgotten, the marginalized, the story is too real, yesterday as well as today. The closing of a school is a kind of death in a community. Imagine, that this one educational institution standing in your blighted urban neighborhood will be padlocked, it�s windows shuttered with plywood, and then what? Someone will send a wrecker�s ball or unmercifully let it sit there and rot until the wrecking ball is the only option. Wouldn�t the injection of funds into these forgotten communities, the introduction of smaller learning, centers, after school programs, sports, arts, and other programs within these �failed� schools snag these kids back into school? I believe they would.

But here comes the hook of hypocrisy. The money isn�t really there. New York City�s economy is in deep crisis and New York State is nearly bankrupt as is the United States economy, which is in massive debt owing to the profligacy of the well-educated bankers and their corrupt financial system plus a decade of a war-making, tax-cutting for the rich, blown trillions, sucking up even the $200 billion budget surplus left behind by President Bill Clinton.

So, let�s put the burden of giving back a portion of what the banks, the rich, and super-rich have earned (or stolen) to those communities. If we don�t want banks to fail and be closed, why are we so ready to fail schools and leave them to the abyss? Abandoned schools like homes abandoned in foreclosure are the gravestones of social injustice.

It�s a conundrum I would love Mayor Bloomberg, his Department of Education head, Joseph Klein, and no less than President Obama to consider and comment on with a less than pat answer. Similarly, in these same communities, we see hospitals closed, even police and fire stations shuttered or consolidated into other precincts. If the American Dream is not only for those who can afford it or are able to dream, then what does it bode for those lost kids drifting out of closed schools, seeping into idleness, drugs, unemployment, the margins of crime, alienation, depression, career poverty, or at best a minimum wage service job?

A society, like an individual, gets what it pays for. And if we are so taken with conquering the world, spending trillions of dollars on wars, as well as to prop up the schemes of Wall Street, what is the blowback and price tag in lost children, closed schools, and empty offers of National Contests for Educational Excellence? Excellence in all areas of society has to be paid for, one way or the other. Punishing the victims is not the answer. Never was, never will be, in 1962, when I learned so much about the world from the kids I taught, as I do today, seeing a whole new generation of them forgotten by the system, headed all too often for failure, the by-product of a larger, systemic failure.

Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer and life-long resident of New York City. Reach him at His new book, State Of Shock: Poems from 9/11 on� is available at, Amazon or

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