Hard Times in Schools

by Bernard McCormick Wednesday, April 06, 2011 No Comment(s)

With Florida schools so much in the news, it is useful to compare our educational condition with conditions elsewhere. Take Philadelphia, where this is being written. Now, there are many nice things about Philadelphia, including cheese steaks, Boathouse Row and colonial history. Where I sit is two blocks from what was once known as the King’s Road. It runs from Chestnut Hill, on the northwest border of the city, down through Germantown and into the heart of the city.

At one time it was the path wealthy people took to escape to what was then country and a safe distance from the Yellow Fever epidemics which invaded the city in the summer. It was also the route that George Washington’s army took to engage the British at the 1777 battle of Germantown. It was an ambitious attack, designed to hold the British in place while other forces surrounded the redcoats. A rare fog helped foil the plan. The enveloping forces got lost and the British fought off the main body.

Although Germantown was a victory for the British, it was encouraging to the revolutionary movement that the Continental Army, still largely untrained and inexperienced, was able to stand up to the enemy in a large-scale engagement. Washington’s forces retreated intact back up what is now Germantown Avenue to spend the historic winter at Valley Forge. And just before Germantown, at distant Saratoga, another part of the Continental army soundly whipped a British force. The combined events had a great impact in Europe, especially France, which would soon come to the aid of the American Revolution. The trumpets of success began to echo throughout the colonies.

The neighborhood, in the beginning named after German immigrants who settled there in the 1700s, prospered over two centuries, a mix of upper and middle class. But decay set in. As a kid I could have walked to three Catholic schools. All have closed. Whereas the old neighborhoods closer to Center City are enjoying gentrification, with professionals reclaiming what were once near slums, Germantown is still on the way down.

Unlike Valley Forge, which is a famous national park, the Battle of Germantown is not noted by pleasant highlands or monuments. Some buildings that got shot up are still standing, but the city grew around the place. It prospered for two centuries and then decay set in. It is said you were safer between the Continental and British lines than you are walking the streets of Germantown today. But you may be safer on the streets than inside the schools of Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, formerly affiliated with The Miami Herald, spent a year looking at violence in the schools, and the results are stunning. Look for the Inky, as ex-patriots call it, to be nominated for the big prize on this series. The numbers: In the last school year, 690 teachers were assaulted. In the last five years, the number is 4,000. That’s teachers. The paper has also reported student-to-student violence, including sexual assaults. Some schools have several events a day, and cynics think a lot of this stuff is not even reported.

It is not just the frequency of the violence, it is the breadth of the problem. Students as young as 5 have been accused of assaults. Some of the assaults are racist. Asian students in south Philadelphia, once “Rocky” turf, have been targets where they are minorities in mostly black environments.

Black kids are often victims. One mother whose son got jumped by a gang refused to send him back to the school. Fortunately, he got transferred to a safer environment. A teacher summed up the problem, pointing out that one of the most badly behaved kids saw his mother murdered, with a baby on her lap, when he was very young. They grow up in a life of violence, she lamented, so why should school be different?

Pennsylvania, like Florida, has an ongoing debate about vouchers or other programs which help students escape troubled schools in favor of environments in which they can actually learn something. Ironically, many of those schools to which they can flee are barely hanging on.

The kids who need them most can’t afford them.

What would a smart fellow like Washington do today? Back when he worked for the British in the French and Indian War he was known to hang troublemakers. Today that would be politically unacceptable, and he might even get beat up for his trouble.


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