Esteem Heat

In Richard Price’s insightful novel Freedomland, a herd of reporters descends on a forlorn and forgotten housing project when word leaks out that a black thug has driven off with a white toddler in a carjacking. In their frenzy to cover a crime with the infallible formula of victim, villain, and race – a tale that, in the end, turns out to be hoax – these journalists miss the genuine story: Two of the community’s grandparents have been murdered by a drug addict, and the score of residents who can identify the killer are too fearful of reprisal to tell the police. The grinding, grating indignities of life at the bottom of the social pyramid, where the enemies are frequently of one’s own color, didn’t even register as newsworthy.

A real-life version of this same pageant of obsession and ignorance has unfolded in the weeks since a few dozen Brooklyn parents denounced and threatened a young white teacher in Bushwick for having taught her third-graders a book entitled Nappy Hair, leading school officials to transfer her to a distant section of Queens. Since the story first broke in late November, the saga of Nappy Hair has appeared in newspapers from Buffalo to Phoenix to Chattanooga, in national magazines like Time and U.S. News & World Report, even on the Montel tabloid talk show. And, of course, it has been a staple of the New York press.

Ah, how satisfying are the contours of the story. In one corner is the teacher, 27-year-old Ruth Sherman, who naïvely believed the book would boost her minority students’ self-esteem. In the other are the parents who revile her as a “cracker” they are “going to get.” While Sherman may not have paid for her idealism with her life, she is this year’s Jonathan Levin: the white martyr persecuted by ungrateful blacks.

But for a decade before Nappy Hair became the best-known book this side of A Man in Full, the public schools of Bushwick have been the scene of an educational disaster that has received a tiny fraction of the attention. The disparity can be demonstrated even statistically. A search of the Nexis database brings up 170 articles containing the terms Nappy Hair and Ruth Sherman over the past six weeks. In the past decade, a mere 30 articles have mentioned the Bushwick Parents Organization, the neighborhood group that has been battling a miserable school district on issues infinitely more substantial than whether Nappy Hair does or does not raise black children’s self-esteem.

“The press is so out of touch with neighborhoods like this in general that Nappy Hair sounds like a juicy story,” says Monsignor John Powis of St. Barbara’s Catholic Church in Bushwick, who has been actively involved in school issues in minority neighborhoods for 40 years. “It plays into the black-vs.-white thing. Gimme a break. That’s not the issue here. The issue is our kids can’t read or write.”

Of the eighteen elementary and intermediate schools in Community School District 32, which covers Bushwick, five are on the New York State Education Department’s list of failing schools. (The roster is known as the SURR list, an acronym for “schools under registration review.”) Put another way, a single district that enrolls about one-half percent of the state’s 2.9 million public-school pupils operates 5 of the 100 worst schools. P.S. 75, where Sherman taught, has languished on the SURR list since 1996. The students who survive it generally go on to I.S. 291, which has been on the list since 1994. From there, most proceed to Bushwick High School, which just last fall was removed from the list – despite the fact that its four-year graduation rate remains below 40 percent. Thousands of Bushwick students, then, have spent the bulk of their academic careers in chronically failing schools. Theirs is an educational death sentence.

Yet of those 170 articles about the Nappy Hair controversy, just one, an editorial in the Daily News, mentioned P.S. 75’s SURR status. Few if any noted that District 32, that purported cauldron of black-white conflict, is overwhelmingly Hispanic. None of the reporters and columnists who exercised adjectives and indignation in defending Ruth Sherman bothered to discover that in 1998, 70 percent of P.S. 75’s students read below grade level – 6 percent more than in 1997 – much less to investigate why. Even when compared in Board ofEducation documents with schools that have a similar concentration of impoverished immigrant children, P.S. 75 falters. But, of course, to probe this dismal history would have required original reporting, not just keeping step with the herd.

The man who presides over thewreckage that is public education in Bushwick is Community District 32’s superintendent, Felix Vazquez. Chancellor Rudy Crew, vested under a new state law with the power to rid the community school districts of incompetents, last year approved a three-year reappointment for Vazquez, despite letters from 600 parents calling for his removal. “The first year after I took the chance on him and reappointed him,” Crewe says, “District 32 citywide reading scores jumped by a greater percentage than any other district’s,”

though he concedes that the district “has very, very far to go.”

That is an understatement. With 45.9 percent of its pupils at or above grade level, Bushwick still falls below even the mediocre citywide average of 49.6 percent. And the district’s scores on a state reading exam plummeted last year by almost double digits. You don’t have to ascribe Delphic powers to standardized-test results to find proof of educational meltdown in Bushwick.

Since the eighties, a group of parents organized by East Brooklyn Congregations, the grassroots group best known for having built the Nehemiah Homes, has been struggling for what ought to be the rudiments – bathrooms with working toilets; regular meetings with principals; the use of a substitute when a regular teacher calls in sick. Most significantly, the Bushwick parents attacked District 32’s bilingual program in both a lawsuit in State Supreme Court and a direct appeal to state education commissioner Richard Mills. They objected to the district’s practice of routinely placing American-born children in bilingual classes on the basis of their Hispanic surnames. One mother told me an emblematic story about her daughter. Born in the United States, accustomed to speaking English when she entered a Bushwick school, the girl was nonetheless shunted into the bilingual program. There she remained for six years, despite the mother’s pleas to school officials to transfer her out.

As with many of the parents’ campaigns, the challenge to the bilingual program defied the way journalists prefer to look at issues – left vs. right, conservative vs. liberal, black vs. white. The parents did not want to kill bilingual education; they wanted to make bilingualism do what it was supposed to do: provide a gateway to English fluency. Their enemies were not whites; if anything, the battle pitted Dominican immigrant parents who wanted their children to enter the American mainstream against Nuyorican bilingual educators whose own niche in the middle class depended on protecting their jobs by maintaining class size. In the end, the parents lost in court but won a change in the assignment process.

Through the years of discord in Bushwick, there has occasionally come a reporter ready to tell the real story. But those brief cries for attention to be paid – from Jim Dwyer of the News, David Gonzalez of the Times, Paul Moses of Newsday – have been swallowed by the larger silence. Meanwhile, the students of Bushwick are condemned to endure not only maleducation but invisibility.

Esteem Heat