Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Culture Shock

It's not new news. In a metropolitan area, schools in the suburbs spend more money per pupil than the city does. The deciding factor is often property taxes. While they are high everywhere, they are astronomical in wealthy suburbs.

Why? So they can have good schools, duh. Parents can also afford to provide laptops, cellphones, cars, and other perks associated with the higher incomes that suburban families enjoy.

One of the best schools in the state, perhaps the country, is New Trier High School. It's located in one of the wealthier suburbs of Chicago and its district includes students from several other nearby, equally wealthy communities.

New Trier spends over $17,000 per kid.

By contrast, the city of Chicago only spends a little more than $10,000 per kid in their school system.

One difference may well be that New Trier property taxes for a 3000 square foot center entrance colonial on 1/3 of an acre, with 3 BR and two and a half baths are $12,000 per year.

And the taxes for a home that size in the inner city aren't.

The other difference is that the teachers at New Trier earn more than teachers in other school districts. So a lot of the money spent per student is actually spent on the people teaching the students.

To protest the disparity between what Chicago Public Schools spend versus what New Trier spends, there's a movement among a couple of inner city ministers in Chicago to have the city kids ditch their schools in the city and register at New Trier this fall.

[By the way you can attend New Trier from out of the district, but it costs money, although not as much as a private school.]

Since New Trier is ninety per cent white, down from 99.9 per cent when I went there, and the inner city schools are more than ninety per cent minority in some cases, the race/ethnicity card is also being played. Can't be helped.

Too bad, since there are many excellent inner city schools with a high percentage of minority students that are providing an excellent college prep education to their students, no matter what's being spent.

Money isn't everything.

Besides public high schools like Roberto Clemente and Whitney Young, there are charter schools, parochial schools, and schools like Providence-St. Mel. After the archdiocese of Chicago closed Providence-St. Mel over thirty years ago, a dedicated principal, Paul Adams, and a group of equally dedicated teachers reopened it as a private school. Despite serving a population of low income students in one of the poorest sections of the city, PSM has sent 100% of their students to college for the last fifteen years.

I was there shortly after they reopened, when they were still struggling just to make ends meet. I wasn't a teacher. I was a copywriter from a big ad agency who went there to visit so I could write an ad to help them raise money to stay open. Even then I discovered they sent a higher percentage of students to college than a bunch of the top suburban high schools. So that became the jist of my headline.

That one ad raised $150,000, a tidy sum thirty years ago.

President Reagan heard about their hard work and dedication. So he came to make a speech to the student body in their auditorium. Before he said a word the kids stood up and recited the school mission in unison:

At Providence St. Mel, we believe.
We believe in the creation of inspired lives
produced by the miracle of hard work.
We are not frightened by the challenges of reality, but believe that we can change our conception of this world and our place within it.
So we work, plan, build, and dream - in that order.
We believe that one must earn the right to dream.
Our talent, discipline, and integrity will be our contribution to a new world.
Because we believe that we can take this place, this time, and this people, and make a better place, a better time, and a better people.
With God's help, we will either find a way or make one.

That was a powerful moment. I remember getting goosebumps when I heard all those teenaged voices speaking as one. A few years later, Oprah heard about the success of this hardworking high school and donated $1,000,000 to their endowment.

Even now, in the midst of this city vs. suburban financial battle, I have the feeling Paul Adams would be thrilled to have as much as $10,000 to spend on each of PSM's students.

Money isn't everything.

The one thing New Trier has in common with these high achieving inner city schools is a student body that shows up every day to learn and parents who offer their time and participation to insure that learning takes place.

The problem with this movement to register inner city kids at New Trier this fall is that on the surface, this seems to be about getting a quality education, but deep down, it sounds like pure envy.

All I hear about during interviews with the ministers is how the New Trier kids have laptops and they get better books to use.

But the NT school district doesn't hand out laptops. The parents buy them. And the students don't get handed their books for free. Their parents have to pay for those, too. And there are plenty of kids at New Trier who need scholarships because not everyone's dad is a CEO.

At the same time, I'm reminded why Oprah said she didn't want to start one of her leadership schools in the United States.

In Africa, attending school isn't a right or an entitlement. A child must have a uniform in order to go to school. It's simple. If the family doesn't have enough money to buy a uniform their child doesn't get an education.

Oprah saw how grateful the children were just to get uniforms. They didn't want computers or ipods or Air Jordans. They wanted an education.

Unlike Africa, in the US, every child is entitled to attend school for free. No matter what kind of clothes they wear.

Nothing else is promised.

But mass media has created a sense of entitlement among people who covet luxuries, but can't afford them.

That's how envy can fuel a sense of entitlement.

So instead of fostering this culture of entitlement with a march on New Trier, the Reverend Meeks would do well to encourage a culture of pride in education in his own community high schools.

Instead of complaining that another school has more money to spend than yours, make every dollar your school has count. With parental and community involvement.

Instead of expecting laptops and fancy books, expect good grades and perfect attendance.

In the end what goes around comes around. The reason kids can go to New Trier is because their parents worked hard and got an education. The reason they worked hard to get an education was so they could earn enough money to live where there was a culture that encouraged their own children to get an education.

My mother was valedictorian of her high school class. But her parents couldn't afford college. So she became a nurse. My dad had to work his way through college. My mother's job as a nurse helped to pay for his education. It took him eight years. After graduation he joined the Army and they put him through medical school.

It's not the laptops. It's not the iPods. It's the culture.

All you have to do is see what successful inner city schools are already doing.

Money isn't everything.


sgeorge952 said...

Wow Mrs. L, you've touched on a subject that I think about often.  I live in an urban area with horrible schools.  We have the same deal with property taxes and the suburban schools doing amazing (one is one of the top in the country) and the inner city schools failing.

I send my kids to parochial school (because I can!) but wonder often about the kids in my neighborhood.  I have noticed that these kids really don't seem to have much of a chance, it seems to me that nobody is making sure that their homework is done (they seem to never have any) or that they are able to read or write.  I'm not sure that money is the only answer, I've often said to my husband that if I were worried about keeping a roof over our heads or food on the table or my kids getting involved with gangs or whatever else, I may not be as rigid about school.  

It looks to me like a cycle, the poor use the system which only enables them to continue the use.  This leads to the big entitlement idea, it does not occur to the neighbors that they have a responsibility to their own children, it's the school's fault, or the state's fault.  I do not know what the answer is.  I do find it interesting that my kids' inner city parochial school always has high national test scores and really good kids who happen to live in the same area as the public schools.  It's not the money either, our teachers are paid far lower than the lowest public school teachers.  My son had a 14 year old math book last year.  Go figure!

suzypwr said...

Here, they just take our much higher tax money from the suburbs and give it to the city. We pay higher car insurance due to car thefts in the inner city. Creeping socialism? Never heard of it.

thisismary said...

Standing to applaud.  

screaminremo303 said...

Einstein didn't have a laptop. Stephen Hawking used chalk and a #2 pencil while standing on crutches.

Adversity doesn't determine your aptitude but culture can influence your attitude.

Nice work.