Our nation’s greatest injustice by Laura N. '09
I didn't exactly grow up in poverty, but socioeconomic inequalities have featured heavily in my life story.
My hometown is a real-world manifestation of the phrase “the wrong side of the tracks.” In fact, I’m from the wrong side of TWO tracks. In Middletown, NJ, the residents on the south side of Highway 35 look down on the poorer residents from the north side. Those guys sometimes get kind of tired of getting looked down on, so they turn further north and deride the residents on the north side of Highways 36.
Obviously not everyone in my hometown is a classist jerk, but more than once have I or a member of my family found ourselves in the following awkward situation while in the center of town:
Person 1: “The houses south of 35 really are beautiful, it’s a shame this area of town isn’t as nice.”
Person 2: “Yeah, but at least we aren’t on the other side of 36!”
Me/family member: “Umm….guys?”
These socioeconomic differences manifest themselves in the township’s public education system. The town’s 17 elementary schools feed into its 3 middle schools, which feed into 2 high schools. Despite the fact that they’re in the same town and governed by the same school board, Middletown South High School is better funded than Middletown North High School. Period. This is just a fact of life which I’ve known since I was a little kid. North is far older than South- several decades ago, back before the township was large enough to need two high schools, there was only Middletown High School. When the district decided to expand, the original building was re-named Middletown North, and the new one became High School South. Since then, South had been renovated numerous times, while North was left in the same dilapidated state it was in when South was built (until about 2001, when it finally got a much-needed makeover). In a ranking of all of New Jersey’s high schools in 2008, South ranked 92 out of 316, while North ranked 143. It isn’t fair, and it doesn’t make sense, but that’s just the way it is. Ask anyone.
I’ve known and understood this since I was a little kid. That’s not to say I accepted it, of course. When my mom couldn’t explain the rationale for this discrepancy to me in the 7th grade, I declared my ambition to one day run for a position on the Middletown Township Board of Education, claiming to my mother that I, as a 12 year old, could do a better job than the current members. (Sorry to offend anyone out there who might serve on their local Board of Ed, but I rather agree with Mark Twain when he said, “In the first place, God made idiots. That was just for practice. Then he made school boards.”) Throughout my life I remember instance after instance of hearing about the schools (at the elementary and middle school levels as well) on the richer side of town getting everything first. New athletics uniforms, fancy science labs, you name it, South got it, and North wondered if anyone would ever replace the masking tape holding the plastic covers on the unfriendly fluorescent lights together.
In the interest of full disclosure: I never attended Middletown High School North. I would have- I attended its “poorer” cousins at the elementary and middle school levels, and was all set to enroll in the decades-old building in the fall of 2001. But my mom found a pamphlet in the Sunday newspaper one week about the Monmouth County Vocational School District (MCVSD)- a district of competitive “magnet” high schools with pre-professional specializations. Students from all across the county could apply to one these magnet schools, which each had a different focus- one in marine biology, one in health and medicine, one in communication technologies, and one in engineering. (Since my high school graduation they’ve added another one in biotechnology.) I had absolutely zero interest in these schools, but my mom wasn’t going to let me get away so easily. She dragged me to the information session of the engineering school, the dreadfully named “High Technology High School.” I mean, really. What, do they call it “High Tech” for short?!
Answer: yes. How do I know? Well, after 4 years of being asked the same dumb question, you start answering with “Well, what would you call it for short?”
So what happened? What changed? I started out that sleepy Saturday morning in the fall of my 8th grade year resentful that I had been woken up at some ungodly hour and dragged away from my cartoons, and left the school in the afternoon eager to start filling out my application. I’m going to be completely honest: the descriptions of the rigorous academic program weren’t all that exciting. The list of technology-related classes seemed okay, but I could take them or leave them. The student to computer ratio was insane, which was sort of impressive, but that’s not to say I cared much. No, what won me over, I’m ashamed to say, was the building itself. It was clean. I had never seen a school building like it before in my life. The hallways were bright, the desks were free of graffiti, and after one fateful trip to the bathroom in which I discovered a door on every stall and actual running water in the sinks, I was sold. (Do as I say, not as I do. This was a stupid way to pick a high school, and would also be a stupid way to pick a college. Just sayin. =) It had astounding ramifications on my life path, but I do think it all worked out for the best in the end.)
High Tech High began my second adventure into the social ill of unequal educational opportunity. The MCVSD practices “affirmative access”- which means they take one student from each of the middle schools that fall under its jurisdiction, which creates maybe half of the class. (It’s sort of like geographic affirmative action.) The rest of each incoming class is filled strictly by merit (meaning mostly grades, standardized test scores, and performance on an admissions exam which all applicants take), with no regard to where the students are from. The result? Holmdel, (median family income $122,785, 2.7% of families below the poverty level), is always one of the most common hometowns in each class. In contrast, Asbury Park (median family income $26,370, 29.3% of families below poverty level) usually sends one student. That student is nearly always black. In my class, he dropped out.
Now you tell me: do you think that students in Holmdel are just naturally that much smarter than students in Asbury Park? It must be something in the water, right?
The MCVSD is sort of like the Ivy League of public high schools. But it is public, which meant I didn’t pay for it. So how did I end up with such a great education, basically for free? Extra funding from the government and, oh yeah, the little detail that each student’s “home” school district is required to pay for the student’s tuition in the MCVSD. I always felt a little weird about that. No doubt the extra expense of my top-notch education meant one more semester without new biology textbooks at North. (I figured South would get along okay). And what about that student from Asbury Park, whose school district had to spend to send him to a school that they hadn’t even adequately prepared him for? And just like the Ivy League, my school district had its own particular flaws. I call it the legacy effect. Having a relative who attended the school doesn’t give you a boost in admissions, but you’re more likely to know about it and apply. If your parents went to college, they’re more likely to seek out extra challenges and programs for you in high school. If your parents are professionals, there’s a much higher emphasis placed on something like going to a fancy “pre-professional” school.
My best friend from high school is named Sarah. Her mom is a bank teller and her dad is a truck driver. My mom works in an elementary school, and my dad is a construction worker. We were pretty alone in our lower-middle class upbringings. Most of our classmates’ parents were doctors, lawyers, engineers, computer scientists, and consultants. It made life sort of difficult right from the start.
Teacher: “Okay class, today we’re going to learn about resistor color codes.”
Friend from Colts Neck (median family income $117,980): “Oh, my parents taught me this years ago.”
Me: “What’s a resistor?”
(For the record, my hometown’s median family income is $86,124- but if you look at the neighborhood I’m from, that little section off on the north side of Highway 36, that average drops almost 30% to $60,893.)
Teachers often assumed a lot of us. They usually taught for those engineer’s kids, who almost didn’t need instruction. They didn’t usually notice the handful of us with glazed expressions on our faces. We were High Tech High students, we’d been brought up from the crib knowing about the ferromagnetic properties of molecules, right?
It got almost surreal when I started to realize that not only were my friend and I fairly alone in having non-professional parents and feeling slightly (okay, completely) overwhelmed by this school, but that we were often alone in realizing it. My richer friends had no idea how much better off they were than me to begin with. I worked hard, happened to have a natural aptitude for subjects like physics, and ended up near the top of my class- so I can almost hear their reactions to this, telling me I’m exaggerating and that there’s no way that they were better off when I ended up with a higher SAT score or what have you. But the honest truth was that I spent the first half of my high school career in some kind of terrified misery, drowning in math and science. I came through the fires tougher than before, but it wasn’t an easy road.
One memory that really sticks out in my mind is the discussion that happened during “Bullying Awareness Week.” My classmates and I found the week’s programs to be pretty silly- sure, bullying is a problem, but when you go to a school full of people who are ALL nerds, it’s much less of one, and after a week we were getting kind of sick of doing express-your-feelings-positively exercises. A discussion to this effect began on our school’s message board system. A good friend of mine chimed in with a bitter and mocking comment: “I mean come on, it’s not like fistfights are a real problem. Name one fistfight that happened in your middle school that wasn’t a total joke or quickly broken up by the teachers.”
Name one…per week? Or per day? Wait, was he serious? Apparently, yes. Apparently, where my friend comes from, fistfights are rare and usually happen between kids who wouldn’t know how to do each other damage no matter how badly they wanted to. I asked him what happened if people arranged to meet after school for a fistfight, like at the local park? What if someone brought brass knuckles? What then? “Oh come on, we’re talking about real life, not T.V.”
Fistfights were a fact of life in my middle school. “Meet me at McMahon Park at 3.” Notes were passed, word spread, and a crowd of spectators would gather at the chosen baseball field or other landmark. Gossip about brass knuckles or a “caged match” on the fenced-off tennis courts would be whispered in class or passed through scribbled notes passed in the halls.
A general fact of my life from the ages of 11-14, in my mind not good or bad, just the way things are. And only ten miles away, another 11 year old who would one day be one of my closest friends thought that those things only happened on T.V. His hometown’s median family income? $109,760.
These experiences have really driven home to me, in a pretty personal way, the very real effect that socioeconomic status has on…everything. How you grow up, your childhood experiences, your worldview, and most importantly, your educational opportunities.
Well, it turns out that I’m not the only person to notice these patterns. Wendy Kopp noticed it too, so she started Teach for America, an organization which recruits top students from prestigious universities and hires them to work as teachers in low income communities. In theory, these students have a double impact. First, they are intelligent and enthusiastic young people fresh out of a college, who really believe they really can make a difference in the short term and on a small scale. Second, participants will have a deep personal understanding of the problem, so when these “future leaders” end up in powerful positions, they’ll use their understanding of the problem of education inequity to affect change on a larger scale.
Obviously, the organization has its flaws. Some critics point out that most teachers study to be teachers, whereas members of Teach for America do not. Also, it’s sort of interesting that the organization plays the system against itself. Which is sort of cool, but the idea of having the rich and priveleged kids who went to the fanciest, most expensive colleges head into the inner city to change things…well, that doesn’t sit perfectly with me.
But I ultimately think the organization does a lot of good. In some interviews I’ve seen with the founder of the organization, she cites some truly incredible examples of success- like one teacher whose 6th graders entered the year with pre-K level writing skills. By the end of the year, they were on track with 6th grade skill levels. Their parents were amazed, and experienced the first ray of hope that their kids might actually go to college, something they had never considered possible before.
That kind of change is incredibly inspiring, which is why I’m submitting an application this year. It goes nicely hand-in-hand with my application to the Peace Corps. (Do I sound like a total hippy now? Don’t worry, I’m eventually going to apply to some “real jobs” too- you know, with the UN or World Bank. =)
I know that my hometown is nothing like the inner city. I don’t claim to be from a “bad neighborhood,” but I do think my experiences show just how pervasive this problem is- it exists in all levels of society. Not only that, but my experiences provide my own personal motivation for (hopefully) joining the organization. I’ve known about educational inequality since I was a kid. And it’s made me mad ever since then. (Man, if only I had kept a blog as a kid. I would love to have a more accurate representation than my own faded memory of the time I went on a crusade against the local Little League for giving unfair preference to the boy’s baseball teams over the girl’s softball teams. I was a raging mad 11 year old, circulating a righteously angry petition about gender discrimination. I really haven’t changed much.)
Teach for America considers educational inequality “our nation’s greatest injustice.” That’s a pretty hefty statement, but I have to agree that it’s pretty bogus that despite all of our claims to be a land of opportunity, we have a long way to go for true equality. Luckily there are people out there working for change.
Some of today’s other blog entries are much more far-reaching in scale. Obviously inner city schoolchildren are much better off than starving kids in Southeast Asia, or AIDS-ravaged families in sub-Saharan Africa. On the other hand, it’s important to remember that poverty exists in all sorts of forms and at all different levels. But no matter what reference frame you’re in, poverty really affects people in many ways, and we can’t just turn a blind eye to it.
Top New Jersey High Schools 2008: By Rank