This American Life, - two teachers bring together kids from a public high school in the South Bronx (97% black and Hispanic),
I had the chance this morning to listen to a compelling, heart-breaking and poignant recent episode of NPR's This American Life, in which two teachers bring together kids from a public high school in the South Bronx (97% black and Hispanic), located in the poorest congressional district in the country, and Fieldston, an elite private school – also in the Bronx, only three miles – but, in truth, a world – away. It also tracks some of the poor kids to see where they end up.
Here's the summary with a link to the one-hour audio and below is the transcript:
Mar 13, 2015
There's a program that brings together kids from two schools. One school is public and in the country's poorest congressional district. The other is private and costs $43,000/year. They are three miles apart. The hope is that kids connect, but some of the public school kids just can't get over the divide. We hear what happens when you get to see the other side and it looks a lot better.
Here's an excerpt from the transcript:
…So Lisa and Angela thought, let's get them together, visit each other. They honestly didn't think it'd be a big deal. But then Lisa, the public school teacher, says the moment her kids got off the bus at Fieldston, the private school, they had a dramatic reaction to what they saw.
They couldn't believe the campus. They felt like everyone was looking at them. And one of the students started screaming and crying-- like, this is unfair. I don't want to be here. I'm leaving. I'm leaving right now. I'm going home.
We were like, Melanie, it's OK. You should stay with the group. Let's talk.
Some context-- University Heights, the public school these kids were coming from, it's small and friendly. There are no metal detectors. But it's a public school in a poor neighborhood. The kids share a building and a gym with another school. There's not a lot of frills.
The private school, Fieldston, has an 18-acre campus on a hill. Stone buildings are connected by landscaped paths. Every few windows is the size of a garage door. There's a dance studio, an art gallery, a pool.
So on that first day, the public school kids, almost all of them Puerto Rican and Dominican kids from the South Bronx, walk onto the campus, look around at the quad, the trees, see the school's mission etched into the stone arches. Angela, the private school teacher from Fieldston, came to greet them and immediately noticed that one of the girls seemed upset.
There are hundreds of programs right now that are trying to do some version of this exchange program to help people connect across a growing divide. For a lot of students, American public schools are more segregated than they were a generation ago, not less. The gap between rich and poor is wider than it's been since the Great Depression.
Basically, whatever gap you hear about-- income gap, achievement gap, racial divide-- these two groups of kids from University Heights and Fieldston exist on opposite sides. And just seeing across that divide, something so many of us never do, can be incredibly powerful.
In this case, from the very first few minutes, it was definitely dramatic. This incident when the kids visited Fieldston happened 10 years ago, and I heard this story from so many different people-- the teachers, kids from both schools. Allison Roland was a junior at the private school, Fieldston, at the time. She remembers the girl who freaked out.
People were like, what happened? That was, like, weird. But nobody really-- it was very behind the scenes.
Even more, she remembers the feeling she had seeing the girl freak out, feeling helpless.
It's uncomfortable when you can't help someone not be uncomfortable. No one wants to feel like they're on the hill school on the top of the hill. It's uncomfortable.
But at the same time, I totally understood where she was coming from in terms of-- like, it is messed up. It's crazy. Like, our educations have been so drastically different, and that's completely unfair. But what do you do in the moment when you're still a high school student and you don't have the power-- like, I couldn't become a politician in that moment and change. Making change can take a long time.
A lot of Fieldston students do go on to be politicians and run Walt Disney and The New YorkTimes and host evening news programs and design major American cities. And part of the point of programs like these that try to bridge the divide is-- seeing as the private school kids will likely go on to be important, influential people, maybe write education policy or finance new businesses-- it's good for them to know not everybody's life looks like theirs.
But of course, then there's the question-- what do the public school kids get out of it? Right now there's a popular idea in education-- it pops up all over the place-- about exposure, that exposure is particularly important for poor kids. Not just important-- that it can change destinies. You know, you take a group of kids to tour a college campus, they'll be more likely to go to college. Or if you just know someone who went to college, that'll help.
The idea is that if you want a kid to move from one social class to another, that kid has to see what it looks like over there on the other side. Exposure is a tool for social change and economic mobility.
Or it just sucks. You see how much you did not get, and it's shocking and painful. And you freak out, like that one girl, Melanie.
The people who run programs like these hope that even if it's upsetting in the moment, ultimately this kind of experience helps more than it hurts. But nobody really knows, because this is the kind of thing that plays out over time.
It occurred to me that the group of kids who are part of that first year exchange between Fieldston and University Heights could answer this question. Does it hurt or help the public school kids? It's been 10 years. They're in their mid 20s now, so they've gone to college, gotten apartments and jobs, and it turns out this one experience really has shaped some of the public school kids in profound ways, ways I did not see coming. Today's show-- what happens when you see the other side and it looks a lot better.
Let's begin with Melanie, the girl who freaked out. I wondered about Melanie because she had such a strong immediate reaction that everyone remembered, but also because listen to what happened after that. So apparently Melanie started crying the moment she got to Fieldston, wanted to leave. But the teachers managed to calm her down, and for a while, it seemed like the moment had passed and they were fine.
They partnered all the students up, so the University Heights kids could go with the Fieldston kids to some of their classes. Marlena Edelstein, a Fieldston student, told me the girl who shadowed her-- she doesn't remember her name, but other people told me it was Melanie-- Marlena has never forgotten her.
So me and Melanie were pissed off.
We were definitely pissed off. I mean, have you ever seen Edward Scissorhands?
And you know how his house is at the top of the hill and it's all dark and gloomy, and then you have the rest of the town where all the houses are colorful, and it's sunny all day and bright, or whatever the case is? It was just like that. Like, we were leaving the Bronx and going into some complete, totally different Utopian existence.
You know, Lisa kept telling us while we were pen-palling these kids that, oh, they go to a private school, but they're just like us. And "just like us" is you live in a bad neighborhood like we do, you go to a bullshit, shitty-ass school like we do, where we have no cafeteria because it's been converted into a classroom. We have a daycare for mothers who have children. There's, what, one, two, three floors in our school. She's like, oh, they're just like us. They're nothing like us, nothing at all.
Yep. And it was just like, OK, this is private. So everything kind of is a fucking lie that you see your whole life growing up on TV shows or movies. It's like, OK, this is not free. This is not available for kids of color. This is something that only privileged or the elite can have.
I know I looked at it and I said, well, I know that we're only being taught to flip burgers in Burger King or McDonald's or to hold doors for students like them that will probably live in those buildings on Madison Avenue, and we'll be wearing the uniform, servicing these people.