The following essay is adapted from a paper I wrote in 2006. One can only imagine how much more dire the situation is in the wake of the recent recession. The original paper, with references, may be downloaded from the box labeled, ACADEMIC PEACE PAPERS, to the right of this post; click on the “Central High School” link.
Central High School: The Failure of a City
Providence: A City of Contrasts
Central Career and Technical High School is located in and draws its students from Providence, Rhode Island. The Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce boasts of Providence’s recent inclusions in three major lists of top places in the United States to live or do business. Providence was Rhode Island’s first permanent settlement, on land purchased from the Narragansetts, and was later established as the state capital. The city is home to several universities and has long been a center of wealth and commerce in New England. However, even with the loudly touted downtown improvements of the last several years, the rate that children under the age of 18 lived in poverty in providence was a shocking 40.5% in 2000. Nearly 20% of Providence children under 18 lived in extreme poverty in 2000. Children are said to live in extreme poverty when their family income is below 50% of the federal threshold that defines poverty. The percentage of Providence children under six years old who live in poverty is even higher than for those under 18: 42.5% in poverty and 22.5% in extreme poverty in 2000. The overall child poverty rate in Rhode Island increased from 16% to 21% from 2000 to 2004 – the highest child poverty rate in New England. This suggests that the current child poverty rates in Providence are also higher than the reported rates in 2000. The effects of growing up with such deprivation are devastating. Rhode Island Kids Count (2006) puts it succinctly: “Children in poverty, especially those in poverty for extended periods of time, are more likely to have health and behavioral problems, experience difficulty in school, become teen parents, earn less as adults, and be unemployed more frequently.”
The racial and ethnic disparities of wealth and health in Rhode Island are so obscene as to give the impression of an apartheid social system. Race and ethnicity are unambiguous indicators of a child’s chance of living in poverty in Rhode Island. While 11% of White Rhode Island children live below the poverty level, 38% of Asian American children and about half of Rhode Island’s African American, Native American, and Latino children – 48%, 51%, and 52% respectively, live in poverty. Although staggering in and of themselves, these official figures fail to convey the full scope of the crisis. The federal poverty threshold for a family of three with two children is $15,735. However, the Poverty Institute (2003) estimates that a more realistic income required by a Rhode Island family of three to meet basic needs is $23,000, or $48,096 for a two-parent, two-child family, with the addition of child care and other government subsidies. The median income for African American families in Rhode Island is $24,872, and for Latino families it is $22,872 (the lowest median income for Latinos in the country). By contrast, the median income for White Rhode Islanders is nearly triple that amount: $65,208. For a further sense of the enormity of the problem, one can examine unemployment rates for African Americans and Latinos 16 and over in the Providence-Fall River-Warwick area. U.S. Census figures from 2000 reveal that among African American men, 45.5% are unemployed. For African American women, the figure is 48%. Among Latino men, 41.6% are unemployed, and among Latina women, the unemployment rate is an astounding 54.7%. In the same region of Rhode Island, 31.7% of White men 16 and over are not employed, as are 41% of White women. While this data at first may suggest a high unemployment rate for White Rhode Islanders, it should be noted that the enormous gulf in median income between White and other Rhode Islanders means that most White teenagers included in this data have the luxury of being comfortably supported by their parents, while that is simply not possible for approximately 50% of the African American and Latino teenage population who even by conservative federal measures, live in dire economic circumstances. To put these numbers in perspective, one might consider that during the Great Depression, the overall unemployment rate in the nation peaked in 1933 at just under 25%.
The People of Providence
Of Providence’s approximately 160,000 residents, Census data indicate that about half self-identify as White, 37% as Latino of any race, 14% as African American, and 7% as Asian. Twenty-nine percent of the population is foreign born, and 45% of foreign born children in Rhode Island come from Latin America. The twentieth century saw a huge influx of immigrants to Rhode Island. From 1898 to 1932, 20,000 Portuguese and 54,975 Italians made Rhode Island their home. In 1980, there were 185,000 Rhode Islanders of Italian descent, many of whom live in the Providence neighborhoods of Federal Hill. Silver Lake, and the North End. Many of the 90,000 Rhode Islanders of Portuguese ancestry live in the Fox Point, East Providence, and Washington Park neighborhoods. A large immigrant population also arrived from Poland in the early 20th century; in 1980, their descendants numbered 42,715, and many reside in the Olneyville, Manton, Valley, and West River sections of Providence. Jews escaping persecution in Eastern Europe began to arrive in the decades before the 20th century, largely settling in South Providence, Smith Hill, and North End neighborhoods, and in 1980, 27,000 Jews lived in Rhode Island. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 lifted ethnocentric barriers to immigration, and many more Portuguese, Latinos, and Southeast Asians began to emigrate to Rhode Island. In the second half of the 20th century, Colombians started arriving to work in Rhode Island’s mills, and in the past 40 years, Dominicans, Cambodians, Liberians, Mexicans, Guatemalans, Puerto Ricans, Nigerians, Laotians, Haitians, and Cape Verdeans, and others have come, some fleeing persecution and others seeking employment. These newer immigrants also tend to reside in specific neighborhoods, clustering with others of the same national origins.
Providence School District
Providence’s de-facto racial and ethnic segregation is reflected in its schools as well as in its residential neighborhoods. Although Whites comprise roughly 50% of the district’s population, only 14% of students in Providence public schools are White. Fully 75% of students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch, a figure not surprising considering the child poverty rates for the population that attends public schools. Over half of the schools are currently identified as in need of improvement, and have been so for between one and five years. Eleven of Providence’s 54 schools are in their second year of such identification. The dropout rate for the Providence school district is 27% as compared to 15% for the state. One-fourth of Providence’s students do not graduate from high school, and a woeful 49% take the SAT.
There are 4,369 children who are English Language Learners in the Providence school district, or 17% of the total district population. In fact, Providence boasts 53% of the state’s English Language Learning population. The first language of 75% of Rhode Island’s English Language Learners is Spanish.
Education and Economic Outcomes
Both economic status and race have an enormous influence over the type of education that children can expect to receive. The facts could not be more black and white: In Rhode Island, 12% of White high school students attend schools identified by the state as in need of improvement, and 63% attend high performing schools. These numbers are inverted for Latino children: 69% attend schools in need of improvement and 17% attend high performing schools. African American students are not much better off in than Latinos in this regard: 55% are attending high schools in need of improvement and 22% are enrolled in high performing schools.
Poverty and inferior educational opportunities conspire to drive African Americans and Latinos out of high school at rates higher than that of White students, and grim financial prospects await those who leave without graduating: Low income workers are three times more likely to have dropped out of high school. Thus, generations are stuck in a malevolent cycle of poor education and perpetual poverty.
Central Career and Technical High School
It is in this context that Central High School finds itself. The region from which Central High School draws its student population was “the second most segregated large metropolitan area in the nation for Hispanics in 2000, and was also the metropolitan area with the largest increase in segregation between 1980 and 2000” (Rhode Island Kids Count, 2006). The term “minority” is a misnomer in several areas of Providence, where children of color account for over 90% of the student population, “with some of the highest child poverty rates in the state” (Rhode Island Kids Count, 2006). Indeed, according to Information Works, 2004, 90% of Central High School’s students are students of color.
Central’s assessment results in mathematics and English language arts are frightening. The percentage of Central students achieving the state standard in Mathematical skills, concepts, and problem solving are 12, 3, and 2, respectively. By far, the highest score is in the writing conventions category of English language arts assessment, where 44% of the students met the standard. However, that compares with 71% state-wide.
The state target for graduation rate is a modest 73.3%. Sadly, only 59.8% of Central students graduate. Even those who graduate are highly unlikely to see college as a realistic option; although 49% of Providence students take the SATs, only 39% of Central seniors bother to take the test.
Results from the School Accountability for Learning and Teaching (SALT) survey of students’ perceptions reveal a chilling school climate at Central. When students were asked if they would feel comfortable speaking to a teacher about personal or family problems, only 10% replied in the affirmative. Just 23% replied that they can talk to a teacher about academic matters. This indicates an alarming absence of a key component of community: trust. Although academic failure statistics suggest that Central students need more help from teachers than do students from other schools, fewer than 20% report that they often get individual help or advising. Trust among students would also be difficult considering that 18% report having been robbed in school.
In her seminal book SchoolKids/Street Kids, Nilda Flores-González explains that one of the most critical predictors of student success is a sense of belonging in order for an individual to develop a school identity. At Central High School, only about a third of the students report a feeling of belonging. In 1999, the school was visited by a SALT team. Their report to the school concluded, “the dreary entrances, the locked and curtained doors, and the tired looking main office space of the Central High School building belie the warmth and openness of many of the school’s students, teachers, and staff. They also contribute to the perception that Central High School is not a good place to be.”
Further Contrasts: Central and Classical
As if the oppressive nature of Providence’s system of economic, racial and ethnic division were not obvious enough, Central High School is located adjacent to one of the city’s premier high schools, Classical. Classical High School has a 45% White population, and just 18% of students are African American, and 23% are Latino. Both are public schools, yet families must apply for admission to Classical while any child in the district can be sent to Central.
As one might expect from the clear correlation between school performance and student race and ethnicity, Central High School has been classified as “making insufficient progress and [being] in need of improvement” for the past two years, whereas Classical High School is identified as “high performing and sustaining”. At Central, there were 260 out-of-school suspensions for disorderly conduct last year, while next door at Classical, there were five.
The SALT team that visited Central High School put the blame for low performance, chronic absenteeism, tardiness, and high drop out rate on “the low expectations of district and school administrators, faculty and students about what students can accomplish.” Students can not be expected to achieve if we do not expect them to achieve. A belief in the ability of all students to achieve as well as hope for the future must be inculcated into the professional culture at Central. However, the catastrophe of Providence’s alleged public school system has systemic roots in the structural violence of poverty and institutional racism. The faculty, staff, and students of Central High School can not be expected to solve their educational problems without the citizens of Rhode Island simultaneously addressing the appalling conditions of life for so many of the state’s residents.
Is it possible that the abhorrent deprivation of huge numbers of our citizens has existed for so long as to be accepted as normal? Perhaps the injustice of widespread poverty in the midst of a wealthy city and nation is just too overwhelming for people who are not trapped in poverty to allow themselves to see. As Phil Oches, the great chronicler of the American Experience, sang, “This is a land full of power and glory, beauty that words cannot recall… Yet, she’s only as rich as the poorest of the poor, only as free as a padlocked prison door, only as strong as our love for this land, only as tall as we stand.” If we do not address the basic needs of people in our community, then all of the triumphs of Providence, from the new downtown renovation and infrastructure to the popular WaterFire installion along the Providence River, are illusions built on sand.
This flower will take you to 12 suggestions to reform schools:
Whereas this flower will take you to my concerns about trying to differentiate instruction without differentiating outcomes: