A month at a Bronx high school

I expected that spending this January assisting at Roosevelt High School in the Bronx would challenge my assumptions on inner city education, but what I had not anticipated was a reversal of many of the principles I developed on the Williams campus. My work in classrooms and with individual students was simultaneously inspiring and draining, leaving me both hopeful and depressed when reflecting on such disadvantaged school districts. In the end, I realized that the idealism I had come to take for granted in myself and on our college campus will never be enough to solve some of the deep-rooted problems of urban education.

Roosevelt High School pleasantly surprised me. I expected that students would be hostile, resenting that we had just stepped in for a short vacation from a prestigious (and expensive) college. Instead, students were eager to meet us, and to talk to us about college and what had drawn us to their school, an environment that they were sure few people valued. I thought that the teachers would be disgruntled, frustrated from working too long in a place so difficult to change. Yet they in particular were enthusiastic, happy to have us there, and often surprisingly willing to give us classroom responsibility.

Although many aspects of Roosevelt were better than I expected, the issues plaguing the school were also far more serious than we could comprehend, let alone attempt to solve. In a school of 4,000 only about 2,000 come to class each day. Despite metal detectors and visible police security, there is still a violence problem, particularly between students of different racial backgrounds. Many high school students who are eager to learn and advance to higher levels have only rudimentary educational backgrounds and lack the basic skills they need to pass the New York State standardized tests. The disadvantages soon pile up to affect even the most motivated students: when papers are handwritten rather than word processed, students don’t learn the practice of casual editing; when attendance is so unpredictable group work becomes impossible; when there is a problem with textbook theft no one has the chance to take volumes home.

At the end of this past week, it was the problems rather than the triumphs of Roosevelt that left the final impression on us. The heightened ethnic tensions and gang problems throughout the semester led the administration to believe that the last day of classes could be particularly dangerous; shootings at a Manhattan high school earlier in the week further confirmed their suspicions. So, for liability reasons and for our safety, we were abruptly asked not to come to school for our last day of classes. We left Roosevelt that Thursday jaded and upset, feeling powerless without the chance to wrap up classroom projects and say goodbye to the students we had come to know. Yes, the friendships we had found were important, but in the end they were overshadowed by the realities that Bronx high school students face day-to-day.

I may not have learned how to solve any of these problems this month, but I did figure out my opinion on the different approaches to urban education. A few of my fellow interns noticed that the most ineffective teachers seemed to be the ones who believed themselves to be doing “God’s work,” and who were there almost solely out of the hope to “make a difference.” None of our good intentions, whether in a Winter Study course, a partnership with Teach for America or a career in teaching, are enough to quell the problems at schools like Roosevelt alone.

Contrary to what I often come to believe when isolated on the Williams campus, idealism is not enough. Students at schools like Williams need to stop thinking of teaching as something one does to help people, and start thinking of it as a career. No one can master the art of conveying knowledge to a class instantly, let alone deal with students’ emotional baggage and varied educational backgrounds. Thus, a two-year program like Teach for America seems almost counterproductive, as it abruptly throws recent graduates into extremely needy classrooms and pulls them out, exhausted, once they have begun to master the craft.

I still have tremendous respect for people who immerse themselves in such an environment where help is sorely needed, but I now question if programs such as that can ever find long-term solutions to America’s educational problems. More than anything else, this Winter Study made me think that many of the efforts we, as conscientious Williams students, pride ourselves on — such as taking two years before law school or business school to dabble in education — may serve more for self-fulfillment than for affecting the school system.

My time at Roosevelt taught me that sheer idealism, no matter how prevalent or appealing it may be on our idyllic campus, will never be enough on a larger scale. Volunteering a Winter Study or a few years out of college to “make a difference” now seems close to futile in the long run. Though friendships and mentoring relationships with students will always be incredibly valuable, we need to look far beyond that. All that a month at a disadvantaged school can do is make us more aware, and perhaps ready to look for long-term solutions if we are ever in a career position of leadership.

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