Field notes: Big ideas interrupted by guns, drugs, and eviction

I was just finishing up my ?Sunday morning, big picture memo about school district priorities when the phone rang.

I should know better by now than to answer a phone on Sunday morning.? But I did.

It was Ken*, my son's one-time classmate and a member of the memorable 3rd grade basketball team I had coached -? what I remember is that the kids, three of them sons of state troopers, spent more time fighting each other than the other team ? almost ten years before. ?I had recently helped bail one of those kids, now 19 and not a trooper's son, out of jail.

I had run into Ken a few months earlier, and we caught up a bit. He had been a wonderful athlete,?though shy?and unassuming on the court, and not a fighter.? An African-American, he too was now 19, unemployed, the father of a two-year-old and living with his girl friend ?in one of our town's many subsidized housing units. Nothing unusual there. He had said he was getting his GED and wanted to go to college and I had told him to let me know if he needed a reference and gave him my number.? And that's what I expected him to be asking for when I heard his voice yesterday.

Instead, he told me that his mother and younger brother were being evicted from their HUD-operated, low-income housing apartment.? Could I help?

I knew how this would go if I said Yes.? I have said Yes many times over the years ? and it is never simple. (Several weeks earlier I had tried to help a mother get her children back from Child Protective Services ? the son was raising a ruckus in school, so it seemed a ?school matter? ? and I fell into what can only be described as a swamp of indeterminate depth and breadth.? There are no winners or losers??in this our vast social services system; too often, no exit.? And this? felt, as many of these brushes with the poverty industry do, more like a ride on a long, endless narrative in which everyone seems destined to live out the drama of their assigned roles.? (As Mike reported, just try to escape: keeping poor kids out of good schools is a nationwide phenomenon.))

Our school district is 50% free-and-reduced lunch and 30% African-American ? and many of the students, including Ken, grew up in these housing projects, now thirty-some years old, and are now raising their own children there; second and third generation poverty. ?I was afraid to ask the reason for his mother's eviction, but I did.

According to Ken, his younger brother, a high school sophomore ?- again, as a school board member, I count this as my territory ? was given some guns and drugs to hold on to for some ?older guys? and the younger brother hid them under his bed.? The cops soon arrived (it's a small town!), found the bad stuff and, even though ?no one was arrested,? said Ken, his mother was being evicted because of HUD's one-strike-and-you're-out rule.? Temperatures were heading to single-digits and she had nowhere to go.

There went my quiet Sunday morning.? My grand ideas memo about school district priorities ? board communication, district focus, curriculum committee, task force on student academic performance ? was now sidetracked by the realities of poverty, race, guns and drugs, and, in my not-so-humble opinion, bad schooling. I made some calls, eventually tracking down the fellow who managed the housing project. I pleaded, but got nowhere. The rules were strict. ?One strike and you're out,? he said, adding that this ?was serious.? And it was hard to argue leniency in the face of the several guns?found under the beds, not to mention?the drug paraphernalia scattered around.? (The question of innocent until proven guilty was not a HUD problem, apparently.)

?So what are we going to do?? I asked the housing manager.? ?What can the schools do??

?I'll tell you what they can do,? he said without pausing, obviously having thought about this subject. ?Empower teachers.?

For a moment I was hopeful, thinking he might mean teacher training regarding the problems of race and poverty.? But that bubble was quickly popped. ?We have to let teachers discipline these kids.?

If I have heard this solution to school problems once, I've heard it several hundred times; often, from teachers themselves.? I am not sure how prevalent the notion is nationwide, but many people in my town believe that teachers' hands ?are tied? with regard to discipline. And many of them mean that quite literally; ?a good whack? would straighten these kids out.? The other problem, of course, which is nationwide, is the tendency to blame the victims: bad parents and/or poverty?are the problem.

In my experience, bad parents surely are a problem (as is poverty), but hardly the problem. ?(?Good? parents are also a much underestimated explanation for ?good? schools.) ?No Child Left Behind and the work of many reformers, including the indefatigable gadflies at Fordham, have helped turn the tanker of low expectations around. But here, in the inland ports, the big ships are far away and the burden of schooling continues to be put on those who have not been schooled.

So, I had to break the news to young Ken that I couldn't save his mother from eviction. ?Catholic Charities, I suggested. ?Then I finished my memo, ever-hopeful that the discipline of ?study, well-executed in a public school system, ?is worth a dozen whacks on the side of the head.

?Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

*I have changed the names here to protect the innocent and the guilty.

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