The Series on Cultural Interchange

Preface to the Series
Titles in the Series
About the Authors

Building School-Family Partnerships in a South Bronx Classroom

David Bensman

Between Home and School: Cultural Interchange in an Elementary Classroom

Kathe Jervis

Cultural Interchange in a Bronx High School: Three Children

Kemly A. McGregor




“It’s the Company Why Crab Don’t Have No Head” — Leo

“If I Don’t Have God, I Don’t Have Nothing in My Life” — Gisela

“I Wanna Have It All” — Benjamin

Leo, Gisela, Benjamin, and Their School


  View in PDF format

Reaching Out to Other People’s Children in an Urban Middle School: The Families’ Views

Jianzhong Xu

Grappling with Difference
14-minute video
Cultural Interchange in a Bronx High School: Three Children

Kemly A. McGregor

Leo, Gisela, Benjamin, and Their School

Leo, Gisela, and Benjamin each bring unique attitudes and expectations to school. Ostensibly, at least, they are all in pursuit of the same thing—a diploma—but each holds differing beliefs regarding the value of that goal and what it should cost them to attain it. For a great number of its students, Central Bronx Academy is a re-education in what constitutes real intellectual work, a reexamination of what it means to be “educated” and what it means to learn.

For CBA, this is the arena in which cultural interchange occurs: the place where school and student have the potential to shape each other, to leave an imprint on the way each thinks of and looks at the world. Once again, in what ways have the school and these three children changed each other? How has working together to create CBA’s intellectual culture jolted their assumptions? How, if at all, have they been disturbed?

The stories of Leo, Gisela, and Benjamin may suggest that in spite of their willingness to learn new perspectives, to experience disequilibrium, or to be “shaken up,” both schools and students enter the experience with fundamental core values and assumptions that determine the extent to which the lessons they draw from each other will effect baseline change in their worldviews. In other words, although these students and this school have undoubtedly learned a great deal from each other, there remains much in their way of thinking that has not been touched. In some instances, this may be for the better; in others, for the worse.

For example, Leo and Gisela speak extensively about what CBA has taught them about hard work and the “real world.” And, it is unlikely that Benjamin, even as he resists the school’s way of doing things, could return to the “credit school” system with a view of learning identical to the one with which he left that system years before. In defense of CBA, my discussions with and observations of teachers and administrators reveal that the school makes a serious effort to reflect on its experiences with children in a way that helps it to understand who it is as a school and what messages it communicates to its students, both overtly and subtly.

This does not mean, however, that CBA and all of its students will be able to forge a set of agreements, or to find a common space where they can together create a learning experience that is acceptable to both school and student. How is it that the learning space CBA provides can be so stimulating to students like Leo and Gisela, while at the same time leave students like Benjamin cold?

Although there are undoubtedly a number of reasons why CBA works for some students and not others, the stories of these three adolescents suggest one possible reason: whether an adolescent chooses to engage with school and pursue the things the school considers important depends largely on whether that child shares the school’s core premises or understandings. Put simply, a school that affirms a young person’s worldview and corroborates his notion of “how things ought to be” is a school where he is more likely to succeed than a school that contradicts or assaults that view. In such a setting, teachers and students form tacit agreements to act as “partners” in the students’ education. If teachers agree to teach, and students agree to learn, both can work together to prepare students for the “real world.” Since students accept the presupposition that the demands made of them are preparation for success in the world beyond school, they will seek to comply with those demands.

The stories of Leo, Gisela, and Benjamin illustrate how congruence between the student’s worldview and that of the school can contribute to the student’s willingness to comply with the school. Leo and his mother, for instance, shared with the school basic notions about what it takes to be successful: hard work, ambition, choosing the right friends, getting a good education. No less than Leo’s mother herself, Ms. Hogan is deeply committed to making college an option for her students, many of whom are only beginning to believe higher education is something to which they can aspire. “When I talk to kids here,” she said once, “it never even occurred to them to go to college. Not that they’re saying that they don’t want to go. But it never even occurred to them to go as an option.” Leo’s math/science teacher, Mr. McFadden, has also made his expectations clear to his students. In Leo’s words:

For instance, Mr. McFadden—his expectations is off the hook. He talks a lot about Harding,16 and how many people graduated. Like, that gets him mad. ‘Cause he’s like, “There’s a lot of smart students, [who aren’t] goin’ nowhere,” he’s like “Harding, 10, 15 percent go to college.” That’s nothing! [CBA] want[s] like 80, 90 percent to go to college out of this school. So their expectation’s real high.

The messages about success that Leo receives from his school are in harmony with those received at home, and his experiences at Jackson-Whaley also reaffirm them. Although his actions in school do not always exemplify this ethic—teachers have told me that at times he still slacks off badly—it is clear that Leo believes that if he does the “right” things, the things his school and his home encourage him to do, success is within his reach.

In Gisela’s case, Fillmore’s ethos and atmosphere had left her grievously alienated—it had clashed with her notions of what the “real” world was like and what was needed to succeed there. In her view, the fundamental values learned at home and at church were largely irrelevant there. In a manner of speaking, CBA provided a more comfortable ideological “home” for Gisela; it was a place that affirmed, rather than offended, her view of the world: the world as a place where the work you do is not separate from the person you are; where the work you do must draw on, and reflect, your self. A place where you have to take responsibility. A place where you have to pay consequences. Indeed, it was not so much that the school had made room for her values, but that her belief system accommodated the values of the school.

Benjamin, however, has failed to acknowledge the extent of the mismatch between his own aims and those of CBA. His statements suggest that he believes there is some halfway point, some meeting place in the middle where he and the school can negotiate an agreement that makes sense to both of them. To me, at least, Benjamin has said little to imply that he rejects the concept of school, that he challenges the right of adults to demand six or more hours of his time every day both in and out of class. Even if he wanted to become “a Tony Montana,” he conceded that what school offered could be useful:

KMG: You don’t have to go to school [to become like Tony Montana].

BD: Yeah, but I gotta learn how to—mess with money a lot, you know?

KMG: You don’t have to go to school for that, either.

BD: Yeah, but I wanna—I wanna be smart, so like, when I’m doing a buy, or something, they won’t jerk me—tell me a million, and let’s say they got $199,990 [sic]. Ten dollars is a lot of money.

KMG: But you just have to count for that. All you’ve got to know how to do is count. You know how to count already, yeah?

RG: Yeah.

KMG: So what do you need—

RG: I don’t know. I’m just buggin’, I don’t know....

Benjamin appeared to view school somewhat as a rite of passage, one of the hoops that grownups made you jump through before they let you become one of them. What he didn’t like, however, was that CBA made the hoop just a little higher and a little narrower than it absolutely had to be. A credit school, he felt, would offer the same credentials as CBA, while making far fewer demands on him:

KMG: Now, I talked to you before. You said that if you don’t pass this year, that you would drop out.

BD: Yeah, I would drop out, I know, but—I dunno, sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. Right now I can’t, because I’m on probation.17...But once I’m off of that, I can do whatever I want.

KMG: So once you’re off probation, you’re going to drop out.

BD: Nah, I’ll probably stay [in school], but I wanna go to another school. I can’t take that portfolio thing, too, man; I’m getting tired of that. I wanna go to a school with credits. Shorter classes.

Benjamin’s more flamboyant dreams—“I want to be a Tony Montana...I wanna own the world,” his idolization of his “cousin” in Puerto Rico,18 or of being a “fed” like his older brother—perhaps may be ascribed to an adolescent pursuit of an identity, an identity standing in stark contrast to his rather modest reality as a failing high school student whose classmates probably consider him less “cool” or tough than he would like. Most likely, such fantasies are somewhat common among young people attempting for the first time to define a self-image separate from that formed in the shadow of parents and family members. It is Benjamin’s more mundane fictions, however—that things will be completely different for him if he gets to go to a “credit school”; that “tomorrow” he will choose not to hang out with his friends on the corner and will stay inside and go to class; that in spite of the academic choices he has made and continues to make, he will be accepted into, and succeed at, a competitive college; that being someplace other than New York will spell a new life—that emphasize the chasm between his assumptions and CBA’s. That his parents support his fixation on a credit school makes it unlikely that such a chasm can be breached. The Duartes suspect that in some way CBA, a school so different from the schools they themselves have known, has failed their child. They are willing to believe that credit school may be just what Benjamin needs to once again become the “number one, focused” student that they say he once was.

Because of its longer class periods, its use of portfolios rather than credits, and other features that Benjamin dislikes are so definitive to CBA’s philosophy, it is difficult to see where Benjamin and his school can come to share an intellectual culture. This is not to say (as many schools have implied through the choices they make) that children must fit themselves to schools and schools need do nothing to fit themselves to children. CBA itself acknowledges that the forms it chooses to enact its philosophy—advisories, or two-hour classes, for example—are not inherently unassailable. As the school gains maturity and experience, it is likely that some of the forms they have adopted will change.

What probably will not change, however, are the core values that are reflected in its policies—those that students like Gisela and Leo have connected with and that heighten their respect for the school. Although both have complained about requirements such as portfolios (Leo has said they “make his head hurt”; and more than one portfolio defense season has left Gisela frustrated, threatening to transfer out), they believe in the underlying value of such requirements. They recognize that demanding experiences such as longer class periods and portfolios “prepare you for college.” In the adult world, they believe, you are asked to do hard things, and school is just getting you ready for that. When it comes down to it, neither really longs to return to “credit school,” and they even compare such schools unfavorably to CBA.

Benjamin, however, does not seem to feel that meeting CBA’s standards is a necessary prerequisite for success. Perhaps his own school experiences, or those of older siblings and friends, have led Benjamin to believe quite firmly that CBA’s demands are excessive. Credit schools, he thinks, will give him a diploma at a far lower cost: they will not demand that he engage with, or reflect on, his work, only that he churn it out and turn it in.

By not permitting students to give birth to and quickly disown the work they do and by creating time structures that permit deeper-than-average study and investigation of a subject, CBA has become a place where a student will find it difficult to “hide” and still succeed. This is not to say that in order to create a truly effective educational experience, the boundaries between a child’s life inside and outside of school must be trampled down (to become what some educators rapturously describe as “a home away from home”). Yet CBA believes that blurring those lines of delineation makes for what it considers a more powerful form of schooling.

But what is powerful to students like Gisela and Leo may be intrusive or superfluous to students like Benjamin. Although some students at Central Bronx Academy have found their experience at the school transformative and describe with awe “how hard they make you work,” there are others, like Benjamin, who have found that things go farther than necessary. Gisela may find it inspiring that “you have to show you to the teachers” at CBA; Benjamin, however, wants no part of this. As his choices and words reflect, he does not buy CBA’s fundamental premise that getting an education involves intense investments of time and self rather than just “seat time” in a classroom. If a credit school will reward him with a diploma for showing up and turning in paper, why won’t CBA? This is the impasse at which CBA and Benjamin find themselves.

The world that CBA is preparing him for is not (for now at least) the world as Benjamin sees it. As Sedlak (1986) notes:

Like adults, adolescents sensitively assess the potential value of alternatives for investing their time and effort. They constantly attempt to determine the potential contribution to their lives of opportunities that compete for their attention and loyalty. The meaning of diplomas or other educational credentials, for example, affects adolescents’ assessment of the potential payoff for investing their energy in academic pursuits. Although they probably cannot articulate it, youth are aware that historically this nation has pretended that the possession of a high school diploma represented the possession of a certain body of knowledge, when in fact it has symbolized no such thing—at least in the twentieth century—for the vast majority of graduates. They have responded to this unarticulated awareness by offering their educational loyalty in order to acquire the diploma through minimal compliance with whatever was needed to earn the credential (p. 15).

To successfully educate students—whether those like Gisela and Leo, or others like Benjamin—it is imperative that, first of all, schools be very explicit about the worldview that their own structures and systems convey. As young as CBA is, it has already arrived at some basic philosophies of where children need to go and what they need to do to get there. A clear view of its own position may help a school to understand where children enter.

At the same time, however, teachers need to get to the heart of the premises that the students themselves bring to school. Although schools are places where children and teachers should learn new assumptions, or at least develop a willingness to question those most central to them, it is the core values that students bring from home and community that act as their entering wedge into the world. Understanding what these values are—attitudes about other people, about work, about the things you can expect to encounter in life—is the first step to negotiating the terms around which teachers and students can meet.

16Warren G. Harding is the high school replaced by CBA and three other schools. return to text

17About two years before, Benjamin had spent nearly two months in a youth offenders’ facility for his role in assaulting and robbing another boy. return to text

18When I mentioned to Mrs. Duarte that Benjamin had claimed a connection to “killer” Mario Orejas, she was taken aback. Orejas did exist, she told me, but Benjamin has made up the part about being related to him. return to text

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