There is nothing especially new about the theme of John B. Simon's "To Become Somebody." It is one that practically every study of the urban schools has already accented: These schools confirm the worst of what underprivileged kids believe about themselves.
Take Spanish-speaking Ramon, for instance. When he went to an Upper West Side Manhattan school he felt "like a dummy." His English was poor and pretty soon the teacher was yelling at him. He dropped out. Only later did it become apparent that Ramon was exceptionally motivated and gifted.
A young woman had a report card full of excellent grades. But she could not name the continents, tell the difference between a governor and a mayor or say how long ago Christ was born. She knew the grades were a charade, but she accepted them for what they told her about herself. Because she was a girl, and a member of a minority, her teachers expected almost nothing from her.
Then there was Calvin, stereotyped as having brain damage early in his school experience. In a more caring and concerned atmosphere, he began to read and his real character came through.
These are just a few of the hundreds of young people Simon has come to know well as a teacher and youth program director for a decade on the Upper West Side. "To Be Somebody" is, as Robert Coles writes in his foreword, a "gentle, self-scrutinizing, even self-critical book." The Dome Project, an alternative education program that Simon helped organize, has helped many young people who are poor, black or Hispanic, but Simon relates the failures along with the successes. He does not claim to have all the answers, and his insights into the problem are hardly original.
What makes the book important is Simon's grace in standing back and letting the kids define what is going wrong in their own words and through their own experiences. In the process they bear chilling witness to the fact that public education is not serving the poor well.
It is not that the teachers in "the system" are all bad, though Simon's reporting makes clear just how incompetent (or, more charitably, numb) many of them are. What comes through is a sense that the entire system has run out of ideas and the courage to look honestly at itself and what it is trying to do.
What sets the Dome Project apart is the uncommon commitment of people like Simon. He believes its successes have to do with the program's willingness to take risks, to confront kids with real challenges rather than make-work tasks, to utilize the many resources in the community and--perhaps most important--to constantly examine and criticize itself. Simon probably should have said right out that it is unfair to compare a small alternative program run by dedicated idealists (and financed in part with foundation funds) to the New York City public school system. On the other hand, if results are what really count in schools (Simon doubts they really do in most of them), then the Dome experience needs to be emulated more widely.
Simon describes himself as a "middle class Jewish boy" who more or less drifted into working with ghetto kids and stayed involved. In the late 1960s he read Eldridge Cleaver's "Soul on Ice" and "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" and was moved to "put down roots and make some kind of significant contribution." Reading that in the scared, increasingly self-concerned climate of the 1980s, one gets a sense of how much the country has changed in a dozen years.
He taught for a semester, becoming convinced "how inappropriate most forms of schooling are for many youngsters." In his neo-Deweyian view, the confining classrooms and abstract schoolwork only confirm the almost universal sense of personal failure in ghetto kids. Simon broke the mold by raising funds to erect a geodesic dome on some land in the Catskills. The dome was built, after fiascos, near disasters, and finally elation that unskilled ghetto kids had the discipline and determination to see it through.
When the Dome Project took root back in the city, the notion that classes had to be only one part of the educational curriculum stuck. Personal follow-up with families, nonacademic work and community involvement 24 hours a day are at the heart of the Dome's educational concept. Simon says--and his modest style makes you believe him--that the project has broken down the powerful barriers between school and parents:
"Most parents with whom I have worked . . . don't trust their children's teachers and don't feel comfortable in their children's schools. Teachers complain that parents don't come for school conferences and many large schools can't draw a handful of parents to regular PTA meetings. Yet most of the parents of Dome Project students support our program enthusiastically and turn out in impressive numbers for meetings, fund-raising benefits and other activities."
Is this "experimental" education? Not at all, says Simon. It is a return to the old days when parents and teachers shared the same values and supported each other.
"What does our society expect from these young people?" asks Simon. "The sad answer is we don't expect anything from these youngsters. They happen to be here, these descendants of slaves and colonized people, so they must be fitted into the system somewhere."
In a time when social commitment and idealism seem to be rapidly going out of style, the Dome Project shows there is hope. But to realize that hope will take something close to an educational revolution. Simon's book is a reminder that there are people willing to take the first steps to make that happen.