This was written by Mark Naison, professor of African and African American Studies at Fordham University in New York and chair of the department of African and African-American Studies. He is also co-director of the Urban Studies Program, African-American History 20th Century.
By Mark Naison
On Friday, June 10, I left my office at Fordham University around 2 p.m. to drive to a rally against education budget cuts at Herbert Lehman High School in the East Bronx, where I was slated to speak. I took the Bronx River Parkway South at Fordham Road and got off at East Tremont Avenue and began a 2 1/2 mile drive through the Bronx on East Tremont through crowded, vital neighborhoods which most residents of Manhattan and Upscale Brooklyn will never see.
On streets clogged with cars, trucks, city buses, gypsy cabs, and school buses, I observed a social and architectural landscape which resembled the Brooklyn of my youth, with the faces changed to reflect New York’s current demographic profile.
There wasn’t a single luxury high rise in sight. The housing stock consisted of two and three family houses, some brick, some wood covered with aluminum siding, and apartment buildings ranging from four story walk ups to the twenty plus eight to ten story buildings in the huge Parkchester development built in the 1940s that are now middle income co-ops. The commercial strip was vibrant, filled with diners, furniture stores, used car lots and body shops, and rows of stores ranging from nail places and hair salons to travel agencies, ethnic restaurants and banks.
There were several schools along the way, public and Catholic (including St. Raymond’s High School) and school buses everywhere. The sidewalks were as crowded as the streets, filled with school kids, mothers with young children , elderly people taking a stroll or going to the diner, and strong looking men loading trucks and making deliveries.
But what was most striking is that there were no visible signs of great poverty or great wealth. There were no vacant lots and storefronts, no food lines outside storefront churches, no idle young men hanging outside bodegas. But neither were there health food stores, sushi bars, and hip young professionals sitting at tables outside cafes. What you had were crowds of working class and middle-class New Yorkers of multiple ages, colors and nationalities, some Black, some Latino, some South Asian, some white, going about their business purposefully on a hot Friday afternoon.
To an old Brooklinite raised in a New York where the wealth was much more equally distributed than it is now, it felt familiar, it felt good.
After a 40-minute drive, I finally got to Lehman High School, a huge modernist building that sits atop the Hutchinson River Parkway, parked outside the diner across the street, and started looking for the rally. It was almost 3 p.m. p.m., and kids were pouring out of the school, thousands of them!
This was far the most diverse crowd I had seen at the more than 10 Bronx high schools where I had spoken. There were many Black and Latino students, but there were also a significant number of white and South Asian students as well. The students represented every color of the rainbow and multiple cultural traditions. Women in hijabs, mostly South Asian, walked side by side with black, and Latino and white girls wearing tight shorts and low cut tops; and the guys’ outfits varied from football and baseball jerseys, to hip hop and skater gear, to nicely ironed shirts and pants that could have come out of a JC Penney catalogue. For the most part, the kids looked happy, relaxed and comfortable with one another. I didn’t sense the fear or the air of menace that I sometimes felt outside Bronx high schools.
I had to remind myself that this was a school that had been given a grade of “F” by the New York City Department of Education ( more on that later!) and had been assigned a team of School Turnaround Specialists to raise test scores and create a more positive atmosphere.
From the outside at least, the school atmosphere looked just fine! When I finally found the rally site, where a small group of teachers had assembled, along with a large number of police officers, I introduced myself and began preparing to participate in whatever capacity they wanted me to. The main organizers were two Latino men in their thirties or forties and a white woman in her late twenties who had invited me to the rally, Debbie Looser.
Three or four teachers soon arrived to join us, all black or Latino women who appeared to be in their forties, along with a small group of students, and we began walking in a circle carrying signs which had been made up for the occasion chanting “Bloomberg Says Cutback, We Say Fightback.” The line of marchers kept growing rapidly. I was gratified to see that a former student of mine, Cathy Chan, who lived in the neighborhood, had come to the rally with her boyfriend to show her support for the students and teachers at Lehman, but I was most pleased to see how many Lehman students joined the picket line.
After 15 minutes of marching, the group had grown to 60 plus people, more than half of them students and had created a loud and forceful protest that was visibly supported by many people in the area, including a group of fire fighters who honked loudly in support as they drove by.
As the protest grew, a couple of things stood out for me. First was the incredible rapport between teachers and students that I saw on the picket line. The teachers assembled, whose number grew to over 20 by the time the protest ended, clearly knew students personally, and from the comments exchanged and the hugs and high fives, had relationships with them that extended beyond lecturer, tester and grade giver.
The rally chants that were unveiled when the students arrived in numbers also were telling:
“Stop the Budget Cuts—No More Football”
“Stop the Budget Cuts- No More Baseball”
“Stop the Budget Cuts- No More Art Classes”
“Stop the Budget Cuts- No More Theater”
“Stop The Budget Cuts- No More Computer Classes”
Clearly, at this so called “Failing School,” students developed powerful relationship to teachers through activities like sports, and the arts and the cultivation of computer skills, activities which were are not seen by the current generation of school reformers as worthy of preservation in times of fiscal austerity.
And as I marched and chanted with this group of wonderful students and teachers, who represented the heart and soul of immigrant working class/ middle class New York, I thought, if this is “Failure” our city needs a lot more of it. The camaraderie and mutual appreciation I saw between teachers and students may not be quantifiable according to Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind, but it is more important than anything they are now measuring when it comes to determining the quality of public education.
In a corner of the East Bronx, I saw a school of more than 5,000 students that was an integral part of a vibrant, multicultural neighborhood, with teachers who loved their students and worked hard to bring out their talents inside and outside the classroom.
If what I saw and heard and experienced at Lehman High School can’t be captured on existing tests and assessment systems, maybe it’s time to throw out the assessments, not destroy what’s positive in this remarkable school.
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