Savage inequalities 

Comparing rich and poor schools

Comparing rich and poor schools

In the spring of 1999, thanks to the Indiana Cooperative Library Services Authority (INCOLSA) and the Indianapolis Foundation, I had the great good fortune to be invited to make author visits to 30 high schools in Marion County.

Having served as the writer-in-residence at Broad Ripple High School Center for the Humanities and the Performing Arts for 20 years and traveled to countless high schools throughout the state to talk to teen-agers about writing, I knew what schools were like. I knew, all too well, the disparity between the learning resources available to kids in wealthy school districts and kids in urban districts like Indianapolis Public Schools. Looking at the list of schools I’d visit, which included IPS schools, township schools, private and parochial schools, I knew I’d end some days feeling heartsick and angry all over again at American education’s “savage inequalities.” I knew, too, that kids in every kind of school would surprise and enlighten me. I knew I’d meet teachers who would amaze me with their commitment to preparing students for whatever real world awaited them after high school. Of course, I said yes.

I have a whole notebook full of details I collected during those three months, when I often visited three or four very different kinds of high schools a week. But the small, seemingly absurd detail that I remember most is an oak chair in a township school on the Southside of town, one of dozens just like it pulled up to long oak tables. The chair was upholstered. Not quite a rocking chair, its front legs were straight, but the back legs curved ever-so-slightly, meeting the oak bar that connected them, front to back, just short of the floor, subtly thwarting the adolescent chair-tipper, keeping him safe.

Maybe the detail hit me so vividly because the day before I was at Manual High School, where students in the classroom I visited had to share textbooks because there weren’t enough for all of them. There was a rickety bookcase bulging with battered paperback books the teacher had purchased with her own money, scavenging at garage sales on Saturday mornings.

Maybe it was — no pun intended — the tipping point of a pile-up of details I collected about what I came to think of as “Stuff.” Suburban high schools with rooms and rooms full of computer work stations equipped with upholstered office chairs, media centers with state-of-the-art video equipment, friendly hall spaces furnished with comfortable couches and chairs, cafeterias with pasta bars. I added the library chair to the list. The taxpayers’ willingness to spend extra to buy a chair that afforded this small protection became symbolic to me, a reflection of the community’s depth of concern for the safety and well-being of students using the library.

I’ve thought about that chair a lot; now it’s floated up again, in my thinking about the controversy surrounding the IPS bond issue. Especially right now, with township schools in the area lobbying for pro-class athletic facilities while IPS fights to provide its students with the most basic kind of learning environment. I am amazed at the number of taxpayers who are unable or unwilling to acknowledge the inequities inherent in the way educational resources are distributed in Marion County and to support this relatively modest effort to right at least a few of them.

Most taxpayers, I’d bet, haven’t visited an IPS school to see the differences, as I have, or, more importantly, to witness the indomitable spirit of some of the best teachers I’ve ever known. These teachers are dedicated to serving the children left behind; they beg, borrow and spend way more of their own money than they can afford to create vibrant learning environments where kids thrive despite their own community’s apparent lack of concern for them.

Some years ago, I read Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, a book that made me weep. Kozol visited the richest and poorest schools in cities around America, cataloguing the realities of educational policies that have created a shocking pattern of separate and extremely unequal learning opportunities for our young people. Talking with students in one wealthy suburban high school, Kozol described the terrible inequities he’d witnessed in his travels and asked them what they thought should be done about it. To their credit, most were concerned. Yet they were unwilling to go so far as to say that they’d be willing to sacrifice any of their own learning resources to help bring other schools up to speed.

And why should they, really? The resources they had in their school were no greater than every kid in America deserves.

But think about that expensive tipping library chair. Is it a learning resource? Do students need it? You do the story problem. Take that upholstered oak tipping chair (at $250, versus a plain, sturdy oak chair at $79.99 or a perfectly suitable molded plastic chair at $17.99 — I Googled it this morning) in a beautiful, sunlit, fabulously equipped library in suburbia and set it against IPS students sharing textbooks, trying to concentrate in crowded classrooms where the temperature is 80 degrees or higher and rain is dripping through a hole in the roof — with no computer lab in sight. Where is the balance?

Barbara Shoup is the author of six novels; her most recent is ‘Vermeer’s Daughter.’

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