GOOD LISTENER A longtime critic of the
"racial isolation" of America's economically
disadvantaged schoolchildren, Jonathan Kozol
finds hope in his new book.
In 1985, with President Ronald Reagan boasting of "Morning in America," and no end in sight to the inequalities in America's public schools, educator, activist, and writer Jonathan Kozol traveled from his hometown of Newton, Massachusetts, to New York's South Bronx, statistically the poorest neighborhood in the country. Kozol had been a leading voice for racial equality in public schools ever since he published Death at an Early Age, his account of teaching in a Boston school, in 1967. Now he wanted to meet and get to know the African-American and Hispanic children and families barely surviving in crumbling, drug-infested tenements and attending schools in overcrowded classrooms. The resulting book, Amazing Grace, looked at schools in that neighborhood as well as other American cities.
Twenty-five years later, after losing track of many of these youngsters, Kozol returned to the "scene of the crime," the South Bronx, to find out what had become of the children he met and wrote about. His follow-up reporting has created perhaps his finest book to date, Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America (Crown).
"I believe this book is quite hopeful," Kozol told me in a recent phone interview, "because so many of the kids I got to know found a way to pull through somehow and won real victories. Sadly, there were others who were so badly battered by abysmal schooling and by the temptations of the streets that they really never could recover. One of them took his own life with a bullet to his brain, another died of an overdose of heroin, and a third teen killed himself while 'subway surfing,' or riding on top of the train under the tunnels of New York. I mourned with their mothers then, as I mourn with them today."
This powerfully moving book paints a portrait of a nation unwilling to address overcrowding and continued segregation in its public schools. In addition to condemning school officials for their failure to enact reform, Fire in the Ashes is a testament to children who overcame near-impossible odds.
"These kids had gutsy, extremely strong personalities," Kozol said. "They are my 'fire in the ashes.' But they were also beneficiaries of philanthropists who took them out of these schools and put them into some of the best prep schools in New England, the kind of schools that rich kids go to. So suddenly, instead of having 35 or more kids in the class, they would have only 15. And their teachers weren't terrorized by this national madness of obsessive standardized testing. Instead, they took time to listen to the children and excite them about learning."
Kozol still believes public school officials are out of touch with our failing schools. Yet he remains hopeful.
"I think the quality of teachers in our public schools is extremely high right now," says Kozol, "especially here in Massachusetts. But the obstacles are huge and we still have cities like Lawrence, Massachusetts, all over America, where we have virtually absolute racial isolation. And the only way it's ever going to change is if we have a national leader who has a prophetic vision. And I pray President Obama makes it a priority in a second term."