Education — April 8, 2017 at 1:25 pm

A tale of two schools…

Recently, I spent the day observing two student teachers. Both were teaching instrumental music in middle and high schools, and each was assigned to an experienced, master teacher. But that’s where the similarities end…

One of the student teachers was placed in an urban school and the other in a rural school. The differences between these two schools were stark, and illustrative of the disparities in how our society treats children based on their socioeconomic status.

Upon entering the urban school, I was immediately struck by how quiet it was. The hallways were eerily empty, with none of the typical hallway chatter and vibrancy of excited students making their way from class to class. The corridors were dark and gloomy, with the walls and lockers looking badly beat up and in need of a fresh coat or two of paint. A quick trip to the men’s restroom revealed a dirty, broken mirror, no soap, and a single roll of paper towels propped up on the edge of a cracked porcelain sink with a leaky faucet. The restroom, like the halls and classrooms, hadn’t been cleaned in a long time.

Less than an hour later I found myself 20 miles away in a bustling school with busy hallways flooded with natural light, brightly painted walls and lockers, and large classrooms with freshly vacuumed, plush carpeting. The restroom was spotlessly clean, and fully stocked with soap dispensers, paper towels and hot air hand dryers.

While the contrasts between these schools could not have been more clear, the students in each building were amazingly similar. Both bands were beautifully behaved, engaged and enthusiastic. Each group of musicians entered their respective band room, got their instruments out of their cases, and began warming up for rehearsal. It was only upon closer examination and discussion that the differences between these two settings became more readily apparent:

  • In the rural school, every child had their own instrument, and kids who played large instruments like the tuba had one school-owned instrument to play at school, and another instrument for home practice; in the urban school, some instruments were shared among multiple students during the day, and no students had school-owned instruments at home.
  • All of the instruments in the rural school were in good playing condition, and when repairs are required there is a school budget and an established repair procedure in place; the teacher in the urban school was busy re-padding a clarinet when I entered the band room, and shared that she spends over $1000–out of her own pocket–per year on instrument repairs and equipment replacement. There is virtually no school budget for these things.
  • Most of the students in the rural school’s high school band had been playing their instruments since 5th grade, and had lived in that community their entire lives. The 112-piece band played advanced repertoire, had a full instrumentation, and many of the band’s alumni went on to participate in music ensembles in college after graduation; the urban school’s band program had been decimated by the elimination of the district’s elementary music program the previous year, and as a result there were only 15 students in the ensemble. Due to the transient nature of the school’s population, students who had been playing their instruments for several years were sitting next to kids who had just started playing two weeks previously, making for a very challenging learning environment for students and teachers alike.
  • Driving home at the end of the day, I couldn’t help but wonder how different things would be if all of these children, both rural and urban, had the same advantages at school–clean, safe and adequate facilities; high-quality instruments in good working condition; vibrant, attractive surroundings conducive to learning.

    I wondered what a student from the urban school would think if she spent a day at the rural school, in a bright, spacious and well-maintained environment. Would she feel angry, knowing that her peers in the rural school district had advantages that were denied her?

    And I wondered what it says about us as a society that we allow some of our children to spend their school days in squalid conditions that make learning more difficult, while their peers in more affluent communities enjoy advantages that help prepare them for success.

    Mushrooms growing on the wall of a Detroit classroom.

    • Ciedie Aech

      EXACTLY what so many teachers who have been harassed and blamed and viciously forced out of teaching by the test-score reformer “fixes” pushed into our nation’s lowest-income schools wonder as well: “I couldn’t help but wonder how
      different things would be if all of these children, both rural and
      urban, had the same advantages….”

    • Gina Verdibello
    • Cathy LaPointe

      This makes me profoundly sad and at the same time hopeful that people will wake up and see what we’re doing to our kids. These are our kids, our future. It would be so easy to treat all of them, and us, alike. Such a simple baseline. Health, education, living wage, family planning– not rocket science. Thanks so much for this moving piece.

    • Lynn Ochberg

      Profound article! But even in a rich suburban middle school in Middleton, WI, my grandsons, who have played violins since age 4, are forced to be in music classes with novices. The rationale for prohibiting them from joining the ensembles at the high school next door is that they are needed as teachers for the novices.

    • Opa Karl

      Not surprised! My grandson plays in the White Lake High School band. District enrollment is declining, as a maintenance millage in 2014 was turned down by voters, but the band seems to be at least taken care of by private donations, and the local sponsorship of a car dealer. Seeing the pictures of the Detroit schools makes me want to cry!

    • MIAtheistGal

      What is a possible solution for this? Could it be in the way property taxes are divvied up to schools? I’m not sure, and I’m no expert in this area. Seems there has to be a better way than giving rich kids all the advantages while pushing the already disadvantaged down.

      • run75441

        You can pull up the tax rolls for each district as they are published. Once you do, I believe you will see which districts are well funded and which receive the average distribution. Some taxes were grandfathered in for districts which gives them more funds.

    • Butch

      I’m a little confused over what the author means by “rural school.” The author certainly isn’t describing any of the “rural” schools here in the UP.

      • Mitchell Robinson

        the “rural” community described in this article has a population of around 2180 persons, has a land area of about 3 square miles, and is located roughly 25 miles from the nearest major city. according to published stats, this compares favorably with many of the rural communities in the UP. I’m sure there are “more” rural schools than the one described in this article as well as “urban” schools with excellent facilities. my goal here was not to attempt to generalize about all urban and/or rural schools, just to offer a comparison between these 2 schools.

      • judyms9

        The schools (and churches) rural areas tend to be central to community life, whereas, urban schools are a less unifying factor due to other venues that draw in families. When parents are actually inside the schools a lot they tend to be intolerant of mushroom growth and other poor conditions.

    • TeacherPattiS

      Come to my job with me any day to see the difference! We’ll go along in western Wayne County seeing the well funded and relatively calm schools in Livonia to the schools in chaos because they had to take kids after Inkster shut its schools to adorable elementary schools in Dearborn to a school in Redford that has a class for two students because they are both so emotionally impaired/violent.