17 November 2008

Mean Streets

I'm subbing at in East Oakland high school today. Many people would refer to it as a ghetto school. I've got no statistics at my finger tips but I'm quite sure that the dropout here roughly equals the graduation rate.

It's a pleasant enough building with well supplied rooms replete with a lot of updated materials, computers included. The neighborhood is one I'd avoid at night and I've never been one to scare easily.

No one I've encountered among the staff or students has been especially unpleasant but neither has anyone been particularly welcoming. Students are quite clearly not academically inclined. The teacher in this room has grades posted (no names ID numbers instead) in each class Fs outnumber all other grades combined.

Judging by appearance most of the students come from lower middle class or downright poor families. Two students were taken out of this classroom and word is they were arrested. No one felt this was an extraordinary occurrence, likely because it wasn't.

In the course of a conversation one girl said, and this is nearly verbatim: "If I get jumped I get jumped, if I get shot I get shot. Don't people know what I've been through already in my life? Don't people know what my home life is like? I'm not scared of nothing." Sadly I believe this 10th grader was speaking honestly.

These young people are lost. They live for the day and perhaps a party or holiday in the near future. Life after high school is an unknown to them. They'll take it when it comes, if it comes. They don't seem depressed. There is a sorrow about them, along with varying degrees of anger but they're too young to sink into depression. Many doubtless have hope, whether realistic or not.

By my estimate 90% of this school is either African American or Hispanic. That doesn't surprise you, does it? The achievement gap has grown, and not just by a little bit, since I was in school. Even with the ascendancy of the country's first African American president this is a topic rarely brought up in public discourse.

Poverty, crime, drug use and high school drop out rates are way out of proportion among people of color. Some people, some schools, some programs are making a difference. But all of these, as worthy and important as they may be, are not part of a systemic or widespread change.

Clearly there are huge issues in education, jobs, drug treatment and other areas that need to be addressed. Otherwise we will continue to have young girls accepting the possibility of their own murders.

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