Growing up on the “wrong side” of the opportunity gap

Ride your bicycle down to the end of Bay Road, past the houses, the abandoned supermarket and the metal recycling yards, and you end up at the bay, of course. It’s a place of muck, trash and soggy timbers washed up by the tide. That’s where we used to float a raft like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. And if we fell in, we had to walk home smelling like you-know-what. But that’s what we did when we were kids growing up during the 1950s and 60s in East Palo Alto, on the “wrong side” of U.S. 101.

Frankly, it was a segregated neighborhood. The small, moderately priced houses gave minority families the opportunity to buy a stake in the American dream. In my case, it was one of the few neighborhoods where my parents could rebuild their lives after emerging from the internment camps that held Japanese Americans during World War II. And as more families of color moved into East Palo Alto, white families moved out. That’s why my high school was overwhelmingly minority — African Americans being the largest group, followed by Latinos, Asians and whites. Ravenswood High School offered a no-frills education that was reflected in its modest, cinder block buildings built hard against U.S. 101.

If you pointed your bicycle due west, the entire picture changed once you crossed U.S. 101. Suddenly the homes looked like mansions, and there were shops, movie theaters, banks and big-name department stores. The high schools were bigger, fancier and offered more kinds of classes. I learned this in my senior year. Ravenswood didn’t have all the classes I needed, so I got permission to take advanced math and science at Sequoia High School in Redwood City. Each morning, I drove eight miles to Sequoia in my mother’s used VW and returned to Ravenswood by lunchtime.

I’m recalling this experience now because of the insights offered by Professors Prudence Carter and Sean Reardon of Stanford University and a bevy of other experts during a recent conference for the dozen West Coast journalists selected to be the first fellows in our Educational Opportunity Reporting Project. What they had to tell the reporters turns conventional thinking about what’s wrong with the nation’s educational system upside down and inside out.

Most importantly, we’re fixated on the “achievement gap,” which is often measured by grades, graduation rates and standardized test scores. This extreme focus on the “outputs” of schooling causes us to pour costly resources into ways to jack up test scores as a way to improve education. Instead, we should be looking at all the “inputs” that contribute to a child’s education. If you do this, you quickly discover the inequities that exist in our society — inequities that separate “the have’s” from the “have-nots” and that cannot be overcome with existing strategies.

The dimensions and effects of this opportunity gap are wide-ranging and profound, according to the experts. Schools with high concentrations of students of color and impoverished students often have trouble attracting and keeping top teachers, have poorly equipped facilities and offer less vibrant course offerings. Moreover, experts like Richard Rothstein showed that housing segregation is getting worse, not better — a legacy of racist government policies.

Large numbers of students face huge challenges because they must learn English as they also attempt to master their other courses, but schools and teachers have been slow to adapt their teaching to this reality. The net effect is that many kids can start to lose their home language abilities while struggling to master English. This seems out of whack in a day in which many employers value bilingual skills.

The growing movement toward charter schools, home schooling and other alternatives can contribute to the opportunity gap if families have unequal access to these kinds of choices. And as most schools are forced to cut budgets, the role of private money — contributed by parents, businesses and foundations — can have a huge impact on what a school can offer, whether it is in the classroom or in terms of extracurricular activities such as field trips or art classes.

The growing gap between rich and poor in the United States is exacerbating the advantages parlayed by affluent families who can pour their money, time and resources into their own children’s education. In fact, Reardon presented dramatic evidence that shows that the children of America’s most affluent families are pulling far ahead of their middle-class counterparts, not to mention the poor.

“A lot of the discussion has focused on the bottom — those in poverty — but where the gap is growing is at the top,” said Reardon. “This leads to a different conversation, different problems and different solutions.” He called this phenomenon “upper-tail inequality.”

Carter said that three very different educational systems exist in the U.S. today. One acts like a “speedy elevator” that makes it possible for students to race to the top. Another behaves like a “smooth-riding escalator”—fine, though not quite as swift as the elevator. And finally, there’s the “broken stairwell” that is littered with obstacles and hazards. The net effect is that millions of children are being shortchanged of their futures.

The big question is whether we as a nation are willing to address the inequities that not only exist, but are growing. Through our new project, we believe that that the participating journalists will shed a much-needed spotlight on this dire situation, discover some workable solutions and help promote change. “Dream big,” I suggested. As the Renaissance Journalism initiative unfolds, we will be adding more journalists representing the Midwest, the South and the East Coast.

Looking back, I would never classify the Ravenswood High of my youth as a “broken stairwell.” In fact, I enjoyed the school and my classmates. Many of the teachers strived to motivate us in classes and gave us valuable life lessons. Mrs. Glenn taught me to respect writing. Mr. Gradiska taught me the meaning of civil rights. Mr. Costello taught me to hate the swimming pool. However, there’s no doubt that the school, its families and the community of East Palo Alto lacked the resources and enrichments that were available elsewhere. Over time, the lack of businesses and jobs and growing “white flight” threw East Palo Alto into a downward spiral. I remember newspaper stories described East Palo Alto euphemistically as “culturally deprived.” Many students began to escape to other schools by using false addresses, a tactic that came to be known as the “sneak out” program.

Thinking about what we learned at the journalists’ conference, I can now understand how my four years coincided with the “beginning of the end” of Ravenswood. On a hunch, I pulled out my old yearbooks to see how the composition of my class changed between the freshman and senior years. There were about 368 students in my freshman class based on my headcount of the photos. By my senior year, the number fell nearly half to 181. More telling was the dramatic change in the racial composition. In my freshman year, the class was about 52 percent African American and 38 percent white. By my senior year, African Americans accounted for 64 percent of the class, and whites, 24 percent. Asians, Latinos and others filled in the rest of the class. Of course, I realize that a census based on yearbook photos offers only a rough gauge of the change at the school. But the results are consistent with what was going on in the community.

Eventually — long after I graduated — enrollments dwindled and complaints against the school mounted. The school became such a problem that the district decided to close it, forcing all East Palo Alto students to be bused elsewhere. Eventually, the buildings were razed and the land sold to developers who turned it into a shopping mall. It was kind of a Hobson’s choice. The community finally got some large businesses, but it lost its only high school.

Today, when I drive along U.S. 101 with friends, I like to point out East Palo Alto’s now-bustling Home Depot. “That’s my high school,” I say. “I’m a graduate of Home Depot High.”

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.