Anyone who has ever read any of Jonathan Kozol’s books, such as Death at an Early Age, Amazing Grace, Savage Inequalities, or Shame of the Nation, cannot help but be affected by the portrayal of the inhumane conditions under which students and teachers in some of the nation’s poorest schools are expected to learn. There are shootings in the streets outside, no heat or air conditioning, crumbling ceilings and walls, classes housed in closets and trailers, overcrowding, malnourished and homeless students, and every dehumanizing condition you would imagine in a Third World country — right here in the U.S. Yet every year, a few students from these schools manage to graduate and find their way to college. This can only be accomplished by the dedication of teachers who choose to work in terrible conditions, for little pay, and who often receive criticism or outright scorn for their efforts.
Mr. Kozol hasn’t written a book since 2007 — even the most dedicated activists and educators grow old — but there has been little change for the better in the poorest schools in this country since then. In fact, with the recent economic downturn, conditions are likely to have gotten worse in many of them. In keeping with the spirit of Kozol’s work to shed light on the plight of students and teachers laboring under terrible conditions, here is a look at the 10 poorest schools in the U.S.
- East St. Louis, Illinois, Tomorrow’s Builders Charter School.
Half a century ago, East St. Louis was a prospering and growing community but in the decades since, the city has been in a slow and steady decline that has left it dangerous and desperate. Its schools haven’t been left unscathed during this process, and Tomorrow’s Builders Charter School is no exception. It was ranked as the worst performing public high school in the U.S. by Neighborhood Scout and with good reason: none of the school’s 181 students were proficient in math and just 3% were proficient in reading. Located in a deeply impoverished community, the school has few resources to improve and is battling against one of the highest violent crime rates in the U.S. and rampant gang activity. Today, four in 10 residents of East St. Louis live below the poverty line, two out of five children are born to a teenager, and just under half of the city’s children drop out of school before the age of 15. Amid this environment, it’s no mystery why schools like Tomorrow’s Builders suffer, and with little tax revenue coming in from the surrounding community, reform is a long, slow, and often frustrating process.
- Albany, Georgia, Albany High School.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that an Albany-area school would rank as one of the poorest in the nation, as the community itself is one of the most deeply impoverished both within the state and in the U.S. as a whole. The city has been hit hard by unemployment due to several large businesses choosing to relocate elsewhere, and the resulting 11% unemployment rate has contributed to 27.7% of residents living below the poverty line, the fifh highest poverty level in the U.S. Schools in the area have felt the pinch of this economic turmoil as well, and Albany High School has been hit especially hard, making the Georgia State Department of Education’s list of the worst-performing schools. Just this year, the school was awarded a School Improvement Grant through the U.S. Department of Education, and with this additional funding, hopefully students at Albany High will see improvements in the coming years.
- Brownsville, Texas, Porter High School.
The Brownsville School District is one of the poorest in the nation, with 94% of students qualifying for free or reduced lunches district-wide. The city itself has the highest poverty level in the nation, with 36.3% of its residents living at or below the poverty line and a whopping 12.5% without a job. Because Brownsville is a border town, many Porter High School students are recent immigrants and 43% are still learning English. While the community might be poor and the schools may have extremely limited resources, test scores are holding steady in this community. In fact, the school district was recently awarded the $1 million dollar Broad Prize for Urban Education for making academic advances, a sum that will be divided up between the district’s seniors for college scholarships. Porter High is part of this surprising level of achievement, as its students did well on standardized tests, with proficiencies of 70% in math, 79% in reading, 77% in science, and 95% in social studies.
- Chicago, Illinois, Paul Robeson High School.
Chicago’s South Side boasts some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the United States, with gang violence claiming the lives of dozens of high school and middle school students each year. The city’s Robeson High School, located in the infamous Englewood neighborhood, ranks among the lowest performing schools in the U.S., according to data from Neighborhood Scout, with just 2% proficient in reading and 5% in math. It’s not the only school on the South Side to make the list, with Harper High School and Englewood Technical Prep also bringing in pitifully low scores. Robeson’s poor performance and budgetary issues may be due to where the school is located, as Englewood is one of the poorest Chicago neighborhoods. According to City-Data.com 43% of Englewood residents live below the poverty line and the median income is just $22,131. Making things even harder on this already struggling school? About 31% of the school’s students are coming from single-parent homes and the neighborhood led the city in homicides last year, with a large number of both the perpetrators and the victims being high school students.
- Reading, Pennsylvania, Reading Senior High School:
Reading has made headlines recently, but not in any way the struggling city would like to do so. Recent Census Bureau data revealed it as the poorest city in America, with the largest share of residents living in poverty for a city of its size, a figure that stands at a staggering 41.3%. In decline for the past decade, the city slipped into despair with the departure of the major industries that had helped to sustain it, and the education system is reflecting these struggles. At Reading Senior High School, almost 89% of students qualify for free or reduced lunches, up from just 44% in 2003. The economic woes of the community haven’t helped test scores, either, with only 27% of students performing at a proficient level in math and 43% in reading. Frustration with the school system may be part of the reason this school has such high drop-out rates, with a distressing 50% of students leaving school before getting their diplomas.
- Beecher, Michigan, Beecher High School:
If you’ve ever seen Michael Moore’s film Roger & Me, you have a pretty good idea of the havoc unemployment and poverty have wrecked on the once-prosperous industrial city of Flint, Mich. Beecher, a small township on the edges of the city, has been hit even harder, which may be hard to do as the poverty rate in Flint is currently at 21% with unemployment at 18.1% as of January 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Beecher, by comparison, has a staggering 45% of its residents living in poverty. The overall economic sluggishness of Flint and the surrounding areas has made it hard for schools to bring in much revenue, and many, like Beecher High School, are struggling. The school was recently ranked among the worst performing schools in the state, a fact that may be largely related to money: 82% of the school district’s students live below the poverty line.
- Detroit, Michigan, Central High School:
Detroit has been a city in turmoil for decades, struggling with high unemployment (currently just over 11%) and rampant crime. Schools have been deeply affected as well, and in 2008, Detroit was reported as having the worst high school graduation rate of any city, just under 25%. Central High School has been one of the most strongly affected by the general economic decline of Detroit, with more than 74% of students living below the poverty line. Over the past decade, Central has produced some of the worst test scores anywhere in the city, though Ford, Denby, Mumford, and Pershing high schools aren’t far behind. Just this year, the city announced plans to place these schools under the Educational Achievement Authority, which would regulate instruction, lengthen the school year, and work to improve teacher development. This infusion of cash and resources may be just what this impoverished school needs to get back on track.
- Batesland, South Dakota, Shannon County Virtual High School:
According to census data, Batesland is located in the second poorest county in the nation, with most of its residents living on nearby reservations that have extraordinarily high rates of poverty. How high? 45.8% of families and 39.2% of the population as a whole live below the poverty line, including 39.4% of children and 100% of seniors. The South Dakota community has no traditional high school, instead opting for a virtual school, which has much less overhead and does not require students to travel to attend classes. Unfortunately, the poor quality of schools (perhaps giving students little hope of getting ahead) and the general poverty of the community has taken a toll on students, and during the 2009-2010 school year nine students committed suicide, promoting the USDE to give an emergency grant of $50,000 to the country to help improve conditions.
- New Orleans, LA, The Alternative Learning Institute:
While the economy of New Orleans is finally starting to pick up after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, many communities within the city are still struggling to get by, facing high crime rates, poverty, and unemployment. These factors all trickle down into the local school system and in 2011 a whopping 91 of the 103 public schools in the city were in the failing category according to No Child Left Behind standards, making it the lowest performing school district in the state. These poor scores are undoubtedly related to the economic despair of the community at large, with more than 40% of kids in New Orleans living under the poverty line, lacking basic school supplies, educational resources, and even food at home. The Alternative Learning Institute serves some of the poorest communities in New Orleans, with 95.7% of its students living close to or below the poverty line. With few resources and beleaguered by larger community issues, test scores in the school are about as low as they could be, with only 4% of students being proficient in math and reading.
- Baltimore, MD, Frederick Douglass High:
Many schools in Baltimore, particularly those in the most poverty-stricken areas, are feeling the pain of statewide budget issues. Recent changes in a school-improvement grants program that allows funds to go to any school in the state rather than straight to those that are neediest have made things even worse. At Frederick Douglass High, 80.7% of students receive free or reduced-cost lunches and citywide more than 83% of schools have half their students or more qualifying for these benefits. That’s a pretty high rate of poverty, and as you might imagine it has a direct impact on the quality and performance of schools in the city, including Frederick Douglass, one of the lowest performing schools in the state. The school was the subject of a recent documentary called Hard Times at Douglass High: A No Child Left Behind Report Card, which documented the academic and financial struggles of the school.
Only the efforts of outstanding teachers and administrators are able to keep these schools functioning at all. Legislation such as No Child Left Behind, the educational reforms proposed by a recent Council on Foreign Relations taskforce headed by Joel Klein and Condoleezza Rice, and even President Obama’s threat to penalize schools with high drop-out rates in his 2012 State of the Union Address, only serve to further weaken these schools by punishing them for "failing" to teach their students. How can even the best teachers reach all of the students who live under the circumstances described here?
In areas where the tax revenue funding system has failed because of urban flight and de-industrialization, or exorbitant tax breaks given to corporations in these impoverished areas, societal and governmental responsibility for providing the support and funding for these schools is needed to help the schools and their neighborhoods crawl out of poverty. The argument that hard work will allow any individual to escape the circumstances of their birth is a myth; you can only pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you have boots to begin with.