Embarrassing Inequality

Each week during this school year I’ve had the honor of going to a nearby inner-city school in KC, MO with a few of my colleagues. I spend 30 minutes sitting with my 2nd grade reading buddy, listening to her read, asking her questions about what she’s been reading, and getting glimpses of her life. This is truly one of the highlights of my work week.

The problem is that each time I go I am reminded, and thoroughly embarrassed, about how terribly unequal our education system is in the USA. This embarrassing inequality can easily be traced back to economic and racial inequalities that are still all too prevalent in our society.

I’m used to these types of schools; these are the sorts of schools my amazing wife Lauren has spent her teaching career working in (by choice). Familiarity, though, does not breed acceptance in this case. Rather, I am more and more frustrated and embarrassed each time I step foot in that school – a school that can easily be taken as a representative for so many other schools in KC, MO and the USA as a whole, particularly in urban and rural settings where poverty is the norm. And while surely the school could do more to improve conditions, much of this is a systemic issue that will require a major overhaul in order for conditions to change.

I won’t rant, there are others who have done that well. I’m not really the person to see on this stuff, either, but I do know that Jonathan Kozol has done some amazing work in the area of the inequality of our education system in the US. Here are simply a few things I’ve learned, and observations I’ve made, over this past school year:

  • KC, MO schools are unaccredited. That’s right, unaccredited. All of them. It’s been this way for a LONG time, too. I wonder what sort of future my little reading buddy will have as a result of this tragic reality that will place her on an uneven playing field with other kids her age when it comes time for college? I don’t understand how this is even possible. 
  • The particular school I’m reading at has a mobility rate of around 75%! That means that close to 3 out of every 4 will not finish the school year where they began.
  • Many of the parents of the kids in the school I read at are homeless.
  • The class I’m in has had three teachers this year alone! Fortunately, the young woman who is their permanent teacher has been there for more than half of the year now.
  • Last week as I was walking up to the school I noticed several used condoms lying on the sidewalk, just next to the little garden area. Used condoms. I wonder how many of the schools in Olathe, Blue Valley, or wherever, can boast of that sort of greeting to their children, parents, teachers, and guests?!
  • This week I noticed that the teacher had a desk. I heard her comment about it too – about how nice it was to finally have a desk. School will be over in about two weeks and this teacher just got a desk THIS WEEK!

This sort of thing is just not right, which means that it is wrong. This sort of inequality is sinful. Outside the  USA, I’ve walked into elementary schools in Russia, Mexico, Kenya, Jamaica, Bolivia, and the Dominican Republic – at none of these was I greeted by a used condom, and at every single one of these, the teacher had a desk. The fact that this experience happened here, at home, in the USA, is embarrassing to me. Seriously.

This sort of situation has to be done away with. These conditions must end. Democrats, Republicans, Tea Partiers, No Partiers, Christians, Muslims, Atheists, and everyone in the middle – they all should be embarrassed by this. I want my children to never go to a school like this, and I don’t want that to come true at the expense of hundreds of thousands of “those” kids, over there, who do.

Children – all of them – deserve better.

One response to “Embarrassing Inequality

  1. Many of the kids who I see and oversee at Hope Community Church in urban northeast KC show evidence of very little guidance and stability. Our church connects a few of them with education scholarships and even rides to and from a private Christian school in Johnson County. Yet, quite often the problem is so much more complex than just getting them planted into a better environment. I am not an expert in education, nor much of an educator, yet I have reasons to believe that the task of being a student is part of early childhood socialization right along with how to abide by parental authority, proper manners, conflict resolution among peers, etc. Yet, in the American urban core, these children have received minimal–if any–socialization in any of these areas. Theoretically, it is easy to see that our children are a symptom–a reflector if you will–of the broader societal ills.

    Let’s not be fatalistic, however; I am a firm believer that every child deserves a chance to have a bridge to better circumstances and grace. Yet, I am also aware that the school system cannot be “fixed” if we assume that it is an island and that once it is nurtured to health that the students and teachers within it will suddenly know how to function properly as such.

    Something different needs to be done. That is, we need creative minds to come together and consider a way of educating our children in a way that likely has not been attempted before. This might require the collaboration of people from all ends of the spectrum–all areas of the community and (as you noted) all walks of life.

    Thank you for sharing your experience, as it is valuable for those of us who are engaged with the urban core.


    Robert Nowlin

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