I had one of those rare serendipitous moments today, a moment any writer would crave. Ever since I was made aware of the dropout rates in the inner city I have been consumed with trying to understand the huge chasm separating urban and suburban schools. I’ve read studies, anyone can read studies, but now I had the opportunity, at a Subway no less, to interview a group of young black males, all of whom dropped out of Trenton High School. When I approached them at their booth, they were all willing to share their experiences.
Only 1 of the 5 was working full time, helping out his dad who does “fix up” work. Another worked part time stocking shelves at a supermarket, while the others were unemployed. After about 10 minutes, though, two of them admitted that they dealt drugs- mostly to middle class whites- in the Lamberton area of the city.
None of the group made it to their senior year, one dropped out as early as 9th grade. Once we starting talking in earnest, it became clear that, generally speaking, they felt completely disconnected from the academic culture of the school. Jay, the one in the group that seemed more frustrated than anything about dropping out, felt that the few classes he did like were so prone to disruption that he was getting nothing out of being there. He blamed part of it on the teacher, who seemed intimidated and ill at ease with discipline, and part of it on individual students. Peer pressure to conform was nonexistent. Jay also pointed out that two of the most disruptive students had no business in these classes, not because of their behavior but because they were for all practical purposes illiterate, at the very least years behind the other students skill wise. Anthony and “G” told a somewhat related story, telling me about teachers that either used materials that were too obtuse for the class, or other teachers who chose work that was so easy they were bored to tears, as if the teachers didn’t think they were capable of anything more challenging. “S” focused on curriculum that was completely disconnected from the “real world,’ history classes that provided no context, English readings that “you had to blow the dust off of,” and worksheet after worksheet after worksheet. There was, as I interpreted it, absolutely no sense of student empowerment in these classes.
More than once at this impromptu interview these teenagers openly wondered “why are we learning this stuff?” It’s actually a pretty good, valid question, one I heard many times in my own experiences as a teacher. I’ve oftentimes wondered the same thing. The answer they frequently heard- “because that’s what you’re being tested on”- is troubling to me. Would any of us as teenagers be satisfied with that answer? Anthony remembers asking a guidance counselor what he had to look forward to if he graduated. The response, “So then you could go get a job.” He remembered thinking to himself, “In Trenton, was he kidding?”
I made a point to turn the conversation to their neighborhood- they all grew up in the same part of West Trenton- and realized that “the streets” played as much a role in their decision to leave school as the school itself. The two “dealers” in the group learned by the 7th grade that there was money to be made selling drugs, and that the risk was relatively small, though both have already been arrested in the last year. Anthony told me that he essentially weighed the benefits of staying in school and graduating versus “learning the business,” and soon found himself on Perry Street building a clientele. It was through “S” that I learned about what Professor Elijah Anderson termed “the code of the streets.” I frequently used his essay in my class, and now I was getting a real lesson. The code is based on respect and is typically contrasted with the more middle class values of “normal” families. I’m guessing that their anonymity led them to open up; I learned that only “G’s” household had a dad at home, but even still they all came home to empty houses. Out on the street everything was about respect, but unfortunately that respect is typically meant to be expressed by being feared. It’s a value that would be so incredibly destructive if it were to penetrate the school, but that is exactly what is going on. Jay got his first “lessons” about the street during one of his suspensions from school, suspensions that in essence became like vacation days, letting Jay spend the day on Calhoun Street and roaming Prospect Village.
Their moms rarely asked about schoolwork, but none would say that this was a matter of not caring but more an issue of time; these moms were tired, consumed with economic issues or involved in relationships. I had little sense that these moms had the time to get involved; Anthony intimated that his mom had a bad experience the one time she tried to advocate for her son and felt disrespected- and a little intimidated- by the administrators she spoke to.
There was more, and I’ll get to that part of the discussion in a future blog. Their portrayal of “life at school” was a disturbing picture of kids that do not know how to advocate for themselves, of a learning culture that fails to empower kids, and of a “system” that is more akin to a dysfunctional factory floor than a school.
About 50% of Trenton’s students drop out rather than graduate high school. I remember one particular year in West Windsor- where I taught- that the number was 4. Not 4%, 4 kids. The actual numbers way be a little higher, but you get the point. Something is amiss in the inner city, and the consequences are far reaching and in no way positive. We can no longer accept solutions that “will take time.” As I learned today, we are losing out kids to a future of despair. Listening to Jay, “G,” “S,” Anthony, and Matt talk about their lives, I couldn’t help thinking of Hobbes description of life in the state of nature: nasty, brutish, and short.