A fabulous low-income school: On Friday morning, January 23, we got in our car at 6 AM and headed south toward Durham.
You can click here to confirm.
We arrived before noon. From there, it was off to the neighborhood school for the school-wide spelling bee, which started at 1:30.
This clash of the titans was being held in a neighborhood public school. As best we can tell, it’s also a low-income school.
As best we can tell, the state of North Carolina no longer makes school-by-school income data available. Three years ago, when we first visited this school, it had a high percentage of kids receiving free or reduced-price lunch.
Today, like then, its students are about one-third white, one-third black and one-third Hispanic. Some of the kids aren’t speaking English. This is the new, and thoroughly glorious, American public school.
It has struck us as a fabulous school in each of our formal visits. We thought of this school, and of the children and teachers within it, when we heard Lani Guinier’s recent tired, scripted remarks about American schools.
Professor Guinier showed little sign of knowing jack squat about schools. She didn’t seem to know about the large score gains which have been recorded by all major student groups over the past few decades.
She failed to defend our public school teachers against the gloomy denigrations offered by a gloomy caller.
She even recited the Finland script. It’s hard to get lower than that!
Guinier recited the gloomy old tropes which make some liberals glad. We don’t spend enough on our schools, she said. We don’t even seem to care about lower-income students.
It’s easy for a slacker professor to recite these tired old tropes. It made us think about what we saw at the school-wide spelling bee.
Just for starters, the school in question has very low class sizes. The city of Durham is spending some money on those low-income kids.
To our surprise, the auditorium was packed to the gills when we arrived. The entire school was on hand to watch their champions joust.
There were three contestants from each grade (grades 1-5), plus three more kids who reached the finals by virtue of ties in the grade-level contests.
At 1:30, these contestants were marched down the center aisle. The rest of the school went wild!
We’ve never seen a bunch of kids who were so in love with each either. Black kids, white kids, Hispanic kids seemed to be energetically engaged in friendship ties.
They cheered their champions when they spelled words right, encouraged them when they missed a word and had to return to their seats with their classes. Up on the stage, a rainbow coalition of spellers was reduced to a final four, helped along by a teacher-moderator with an endless supply of “bee” puns.
Here’s how it ended up:
Fourth place: An adorable second-grade girl with a twin sister and two mommies.If you’re counting—and who isn’t?—the finalists included two whites, one black and one who likely gets listed as Hispanic. Both of the mommies looked white!
Third place: A hulking fifth-grade boy whose parents were right behind us.
Second place: Our relative, a third-grade girl, who was later praised through the neighborhood for her calm, relaxed style.
The champion: A fourth-grade girl from a family of professional contestants. (Her older brother has competed in the national spelling bee.) After her triumph, a rumor held that she had perhaps been funded by the Koch Brothers. As usual in these ugly affairs, no one knew how it got started.
The atmosphere in the school was truly superb. After school let out, we found ourselves with a group of parents and the principal in the curriculum room.
At one point, the principal explained the reams of materials which filled the shelves on all four walls of the room. We won’t take you through the details, but we were blown away by the work that had been done to identify reading materials for all kids on every possible subject, no matter the child’s reading level.
We taught fifth grade in the Baltimore City Schools for nine years, mainly in the 1970s. We taught the greatest kids in the world, but low-income schools of that era were poorly organized.
To us, the atmosphere in that Durham school was absolutely amazing. Simply put, a person would never have dreamed he was in a low-income school.
We drove home the next day, but not before we visited the very cheerful day care center where a certain two-year old had spent the day. The young lady in question hugged half of Durham before we got out of that place.
We returned to a neighborhood that was buzzing about the spelling bee. The next morning, a celebratory trip to the local donut shop was interrupted, five times, by people complimenting our relative on her startling sang froid and on her second-place finish.
We don’t think we’ve ever seen so much happiness in any one place. And this is the best part of the story:
When we returned home, we looked up this school’s formal “report card.” Here’s the good news:
By North Carolina standards, we had been in a low-scoring school! The school’s white students outperform their peers across the state, but that group is leavened with some professors’ kids and the like. As would likely be predicted by the school’s economic data, black and Hispanic kids at the school actually underperform their peers around the state.
We would have imagined that we had been in one of the “best schools” in the state. Even allowing for income data, we were amazed to think that this lively, vibrant, happy place could possibly be underperforming the rest of North Carolina.
(North Carolina is a relatively high-scoring state on the NAEP. Example: In Grade 4 math, North Carolina’s black kids ranked seventh among the fifty states in 2013.)
We thought about all the work we’ve seen that school’s teachers perform. We thought about the atmosphere they’ve helped create within its walls.
We also thought about the way NAEP scores have been rising. It’s our impression that a lot of people around the country have been trying hard to create better schools, just as those teachers and that principal have done. We wondered if we were seeing the fruits of those efforts in that happy, buzzing place—a happy, vibrant, lively place which is actually underperforming its state.
It’s our impression that lots of people, all over the country, have made these efforts in the decades since we taught in Baltimore. Different people have tried different things, but a lot of people have tried.
We can only assume that this has helped create those rising test scores.
Then you see the Professor Guiniers with their scripted gloom and doom about the way we’re destroying another generation of kids through our lack of interest. We really have some world-class slackers providing the “intellectual leadership” within our liberal world.
One vibrant school is anecdotal. Those NAEP scores measure the nation.
NAEP scores are way, way up for the nation’s black and Hispanic kids. You’d think that would seem like fabulous news to our leading liberals.
No such luck! We prefer to repeat that dumb-assed script about the wonders of Finland.
Black kids’ test scores are way up. Every day, we see the superlative kids in Baltimore who are producing those scores.
Black kids’ test scores are way up. Thanks to our professors and our TV stars, the public has never been told!