How the Other Half Goes to School

How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, written by Jacob Riis in 1890, is a classic study of poverty in the United States. Riis blames the greed and neglect of wealthier Americans for the desperate conditions in urban slums.

As part of their campaign to get metal detectors removed from their school, Pablo Muriel and students from Alfred E. Smith High School did a reverse how the other half lives visit in February, going from the South Bronx community where most of them live to Grace Church School, an independent school on Cooper Square in Manhattan's Greenwich Village where tuition in the high school is $41,750 a year. The student population at Grace's high school is 62% White. Thirty-eight percent 6% of the students self-identify as African-American, Caribbean-American, Latino/Hispanic, bi/multi-racial, Asian, or Asian-American. About one in five students are English language Learners; and over one-fourth have special learning needs. There are no metal detectors at Grace Church School. As one Grace student said, "if they tried to put in metal detectors our parents would be in an uproar."

The visit started with a discussion between about forty Smith and Grace students and an update on the anti-metal detector campaign. Ibrahim from Smith summarized the update, "our demands go in one ear and out the other." One thing that puzzled the Smith students was all the money that was going into putting alarms on school doors. They understood this was a response to an incident where a student with disabilities wandered out of a different high school and drowned. As one student said, "the city is putting in the alarms because it is being sued by the family. Maybe we need to sue." One possibility discussed at the meeting was a lawsuit accusing the city of causing "emotional distress" among students who were being treated as criminals when they entered school. Students also considered ways to involve parents in the anti-metal detector campaign.

Almost every student who attends Grace and Smith travels on the subway where there are no metal detectors and a much greater chance of being "cut." There have been seven subway "slashings" in the first six weeks of 2016 alone. According to a Smith student, that "shows the irrationality of putting metal detectors in schools and why it is really racist against us."

From there discussion moved to other topics that concerned students from both schools, but the central topic remained race, racism, and social justice.

Why are Black and Latino students from the south Bronx tracked into vocational programs and away from college prep? Why does Smith get extra money for vocational classes but no extra dollars to help students prepare for college? Why does a school like Grace have three faculty/staff in the College Guidance office serving approximately 140 juniors and seniors while a school like Smith has one who is assigned part-time?

Can we get more minority teachers for a school like Smith? How do we get White teachers to better understand the lives of Smith students? Will Black and Latino students who attend a school like Grace, many on scholarship, only be out for their own advancement or will they give back to their communities?

Pablo Muriel, who teaches at Smith and works with this group of students, is someone who could have gotten out, but chose to get back in. Pablo grew up in a south Bronx housing project and went to a vocational high school, but then went to college, earned a master's degree, and is now working on his PHD. He told the group that most of the people he grew up with are now either dead or in jail. He came back because it cannot let this continue to happen.

MiChelle Carpenter, a teacher and academic dean at Grace who works with the Grace students who organized the visit on their end, said it is time to recognize that we still live in an "apartheid society" and people must see the other world if we are going to make changes. Then everyone went to lunch in a spacious Grace cafeteria where they were serving cod, either fried or baked, and lots of healthy salads. It really was a different world.

After the meeting, a Grace student from a minority background who just received early acceptance to Columbia University approached MiChelle. The student asked her, "Did I just meet my counterparts in a parallel universe? Had I not been noticed by one of my teachers in elementary school and steered towards Prep for Prep, would I have ended up studying on the automotive track in a metal detector school?" MiChelle believes this student's question gets to the heart the Smith/Grace conclave. What does society believe that poor Black and Latino students deserve?