By EDDIE BORGES
City Hall is playing a shell game with our children’s education.
Half of New York City public high school students test below grade level on standardized proficiency exams: They can’t read or write or do math at a level that will get them into college or into a job.
But City Hall can’t acknowledge that it has a problem because for the last six years, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s handpicked schools chancellor measured the success of our education system by how good bulletin boards looked in classrooms.
So Richard Carranza, the mayor’s new schools chancellor—and number-two choice for the job—has come up with a constant con man’s patter to distract us. He says the problem with our broken school system is equity. He says the city’s specialized high schools accept very few nonwhite students.
Apparently, having just arrived in New York, Carranza isn’t aware that de Blasio has his own, more serious, equity issues, according to the reports that City Hall files with the federal government.
De Blasio has a bias against hiring Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Mexicans. These Latinos together comprise nearly a third of the city’s population, yet account for only 20 percent of new hires in de Blasio’s administration.
Here is the crux of the problem: The underlying problem in the school system—and the city—is persistent, concentrated poverty. And the poorest people in New York City are the same people who can’t get jobs in the de Blasio administration.
These Latino children don’t live in poverty in isolation. They live in poverty in neighborhoods with the lowest income, with people with the lowest level of educational attainment and the highest rates of violent crime.
Some readers might think that I am next going to reference the report released by the New York City Independent Budget Office last week, which said exactly this, but I’m not. I am going to reference the Bronx Pilot Project, the report released by the mayor’s office in 1949, which found exactly the same thing 69 years ago.
Indeed, the Bronx Pilot Project was the study where social workers found the pocket of poverty at 138th Street and Brown Place, which has come to define the South Bronx through the second half of the 20th century and continues to do so in the 21st.
I found the last remaining copy of this report two years ago at the Municipal Archives while taking a deep dive to better understand the concentrated poverty of the South Bronx.
It helped me to understand my own family better. My parents’ families had escaped the poverty of Puerto Rico for New York in the 1930s and ’40s. They all lived within blocks of the subway stop at 138th Street and Brook Avenue in the Bronx.
But in 1949, my mother was the first to move her family out of the Bronx to Queens. My mother understands poverty. She grew up dirt poor. Literally. She was born in a house with a dirt floor.
She was salutatorian of her middle school graduating class, but my grandmother pulled her out of high school to put her to work. When my Aunt Mercy sent her the fare to come to New York in 1942, my mom was working as a bookkeeper for $5 a week and living in a room with her mother and two younger siblings.
So when the mayor’s office released the Bronx Pilot Project report in 1949, my mom knew she had to get her family out of the newly defined South Bronx before they all became trapped in the concentrated poverty that would soon overtake the area.
And Queens offered promise. For my family, and many others, Queens turned out to be the America that Rita Moreno sings about in West Side Story. It was a land of opportunity, where public schools offered a step up to anyone who was willing to work.
But poverty is contagious, and it has been spreading. And as the percentage of Latinos and African Americans, who are our poorest families, has grown, the city’s investment in our schools has not kept pace.
This is where the real equity problem lies. But that’s a heavy lift and it is going to take a lot of time to fix, so instead, stakeholders attack each other for the failures of the system.
Oh, and don’t believe that old nut that it’s the teachers’ fault that our children aren’t learning. That is totally unfair. The conditions of extreme poverty are not conditions for learning. How can anyone be expected to teach a child who hasn’t had breakfast or a good night’s sleep?
But until we elect a new mayor, the chances that anyone will work on a solution are not good. Meanwhile, de Blasio and Carranza will destroy our specialized high schools by dropping the entry standards so that they will be as bad as the rest of the schools.
This would certainly bring a twisted kind of equity to our public schools.