Friday, April 15, 2016

Why I Won't Be Celebrating the Death of Public Education


All throughout urban America, school reformers, politicians and billionaire philanthropists are planning to eliminate public schools and replace them with charter schools. This strategy, first unveiled in New Orleans, is now in full effect in Newark, Buffalo, Los Angeles, Hartford, Chicago and a score of other cities. I for one will not be endorsing or celebrating this transformation. Here is why
I grew up in a working class neighborhood in Brooklyn, Crown Heights which was largely Jewish and Italian, with a handful of Black and Irish families. Almost none of the people who lived there, other than my parents, had gone to college. Many of the grandparents had less than 8th grade educations
The public schools in our neighborhood were the tallest and most imposing buildings around and they represented, for many of us, a shot a better life than our parents and grand parents ever dreamed of. For some, that dream would be achieved through academics; for others, through a combination of academics, sports and arts. My cousin Stephen, who played basketball at Columbia after graduating from Brooklyn Technical HS,  symbolized those possibilities. His father was a truck dispatcher and here he was going to one of the best colleges in the nation, if not the world, his pathway there eased by basketball skills honed in Brooklyn schoolyards and gymnasiums
I saw my own future there, if I worked as hard in sports as I did in school, and my dreams were reinforced by teachers and coaches who saw I had athletic as well as academic talent. I went to schools which had daily gym classes, made recess a regular part of the day, and had great athletic teams. While my basketball skills were not up to the level of my cousin Stephen ( he was 6'3"- I was 6'0" even) I was able to find my own sports outlet through tennis, which I learned in a nearby public park. My high school had a tennis team which played in a public school league which sent at least 20 players a year to top colleges. I took advantage of that opportunity, and followed my cousin Stephen to Columbia, where I tried out and made the school tennis team
At Columbia, I discovered something extraordinary. Not only were the vast majority of top science and math students graduates of New York City public schools like Stuyvestant and Bronx Science, but so were a large portion of the athletes. By the time I graduated from Columbia as captain of the tennis team, captains of the football, and baseball team were New York public high school graduates. And when, two years later, Columbia was ranked in the top ten in the country in basketball, its three star players, all of whom played in the NBA, were New York public school graduates- Jim McMillen from Jefferson, Dave Newmark from Lincoln, and Hayward Dotson from Stuyvestant.
Given this experience, which I have seen echoed by many of the people my age I interviewed for the Bronx African American History Project, I question the smug dismissal of public education in urban America as a failure. In my generation the public schools of New York provided hope for many young people of modest means. If in subsequent generations, they lost some of that appeal, perhaps it is because of removal , due to budget cuts,of the great sports and arts programs that schools had when I was attending them
Will charter schools play the same role for urban youth that public schools did in my formative years?. The jury is still out on that.
Especially if they put test prep above sports, arts, science and anything which allows young people to explore their multiple talents and dream of a better life.
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