By Mark Naison
In urban America, self-proclaimed school reformers, politicians and billionaire philanthropists plan to eliminate traditional public schools and replace them with charter schools. This initiative — unveiled in New Orleans — took hold in Newark, Buffalo, Los Angeles, Hartford, Chicago and a score of other cities. I neither celebrate nor endorse this transformation.
I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, Crown Heights — largely Jewish and Italian — with a handful of Black and Irish families. Few of the people who lived there — other than my parents — went to college. The grandparents didn’t go beyond the eighth grade.
The public schools in our neighborhood — among the tallest and most imposing structures –represented a shot at a better life than that of our parents and grandparents. Some of us succeeded academically. Others made their mark through a combination of academics, sports and arts. My cousin Stephen played basketball at Columbia after graduating from Brooklyn Technical HS. His father worked as a truck dispatcher and he attended one of the most prestigious colleges in the nation because of the basketball skills he honed in Brooklyn schoolyards and gymnasiums
I went to schools that offered daily gym classes, recess, and great athletic programs and I learned to play tennis in a nearby public park. My high school’s tennis team sent at least 20 players a year to outstanding colleges and universities. I followed my cousin Stephen to Columbia, where I tried out for — and made — the tennis team
At Columbia, I discovered that the vast majority of the top science and math students graduated from New York City public schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, as did many of the athletes. When I graduated from Columbia as captain of the tennis team, the captains of the football, and baseball both hailed from New York public high schools.
Why do so many dismiss public education in urban America as a failure. For my generation, the public schools of New York provided hope for young people. If they no longer do, let’s place the blame on those who cut their budgets dramatically in ensuing decades, eliminating sports and the arts.
Will charter schools fill the void for urban youth? No scientific studies indicate that they will, especially if they put test prep above sports, arts, science and anything that allows young people to explore their multiple talents.