⇒ Grant speaks Thursday, May 21, at 7:30 p.m., at Quail Ridge Books and Music in Raleigh. Read the full transcript of our interview, including Grant’s views on Charlotte’s “neighborhood schools” policy.
Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh (Harvard University Press, 2009) is a tale of Northern cities, in particular author Gerald Grant’s native Syracuse, N.Y., where failing schools torpedo all attempts at urban revitalization. Against that backdrop, Grant presents Wake County’s system as the single best example of the opposite case: a few Southern cities where good schools are driving increased prosperity.
Grant, a professor emeritus at Syracuse University, points to two main factors that account for the difference. One is annexation. Northern cities don’t have the power to annex their suburbs; most Southern cities do. So the North has economically strapped inner-city school districts that are ringed by prosperous, and very separate, suburban districts in the same county. No busing across those district lines.
North Carolina’s strong annexation law gave Raleigh the chance to annex its nearest suburbs. But that only meant, following the Brown decision in 1954, that Raleigh’s newly integrated schools weren’t at quite as much of a disadvantage compared to the surrounding, and nearly all-white, Wake County system.
It was, however, the 1976 decision by Raleigh and Wake County to merge, Grant says, and then establish the policy that every school, without exception, would be racially balanced (a policy later changed to require socioeconomic balance), that made Raleigh the “hope” of other American cities.
The proof, Grant says, isn’t just in the test scores, though Raleigh’s scores are higher than most cities’ and much higher for poor and minority kids. It’s also in a culture that refuses to accept even one “bad” school.
Multiple visits here over an eight-year period, Grant says, persuade him that what’s happening here is nothing less than “a reinvention” of the American dream, a ringing tribute at a time when Wake’s policies are under political attack in an election year.
This is a highly personal book, beginning with Syracuse. Tell us about your family’s history there.
My great-grandfather came to Syracuse in the 1850s, Irish carpenter, built three houses not far from the university. I left after high school, was gone about 20 years, and came back at the time of, well, just the implosion of the city. The ’60s and ’70s were the period of the greatest decline in the city’s population. Some of that was white flight, some of it was racism at the time that schools were integrated, but most of it was the major movement on the part of the middle classthey wanted their half-acre in the suburbs.
What’s the lesson for us in Raleigh about what happened in Syracuse?
The major metaphor of the book is that, in much of the nation outside the South, and particularly in the Northeast, we built an invisible wall between the city and suburb. And the book is really about how we built that wall, and its effects on the kids who are increasingly [trapped] in cities where there are very high concentrations of poverty.
How did you come to study Raleigh’s schools and decide they’re a model?
Because of my two grandsons: Benjamin Grant, who’s now at Ligon Middle School, and his younger brother, Wyatt Grant, who’s at Washington Elementary. When I first came down to visit them, I was astonished at what I was reading about what had happened in Raleigh.
And what was so astonishing?
Essentially, the book argues that Raleigh tore down the wall when they merged the county and city school systems back in 1976. The research is very clear that having the right mix of kids socioeconomically, as Wake County does, has enormous benefits for poor kids without hurting rich kids.
Ironically, at that time in Syracuse, a school superintendent, who was our first black superintendent, suggested that we ought to do something like Boston was doingvoluntary busing of kids from city to suburb. Well, he just got hammered for it. And we’ve never yet put a single black kid from the city, or poor kid, on a bus to the suburbs, voluntarily or otherwise.
As you’re aware, there’s a growing feeling in Wake County that it’s three decades later and maybe diversity’s shown its worth, but it’s no longer necessarythat Raleigh’s pattern of success is set and we can revert to a “neighborhood schools” model. Your view?
I think in places where that’s happened, you’ve seen resegregation both by race and by income, and the kids in those schools are hurt.
Your book is replete with statistics. Is there one that underlines your thesis?
Well, test scores aren’t everything, but in the 2009 test scores for Syracuse in language arts, we have 41 percent of kids passing; in the suburbs of Syracuse, we have 85-90 percent passing. That’s almost a 50-point gap. Which is not so different from the rich and poor schools in Raleigh back in 1976it might not have been quite that bad, but the gap was huge.
It’s a gap we’ve narrowed to under 20 points, according to your book, but we haven’t eliminated it.
That’s true, but it’s a huge achievement what Raleigh has accomplished. I’m a sociologist, and I think it’s probably the most dismal science after economics, maybe more miserable because the story of urban education is misery on top of more misery.
So it was thrilling for me to do the research in Raleigh, visiting 20 schools over the years, and teaching in one of them, at Broughton, and interviewing kids as well as a lot of teachers. To me, Raleigh is the new city on the hill of the 21st century of America. It’s what we ought to be doing as a country. It’s delivering on the most fundamental promise that we make, that [to offset our great disparities in wealth and income] we’re going to provide equal educational opportunity to the poorest kids so they can climb the ladder.
And, if we don’t deliver on that promise, I think the nation of the privileged that remains is going to corrode and eventually collapse.