Roldo: The Making of a Schools Crisis

By Roldo Bartimole

The problem with school reform is that the real solution doesn’t lie in the school but outside the school – in the home, on the street, in our social life, in our justice system, in our politics, in its financing and in the poor conditions many of our children – and adults – must exist. And the history.

The times are not good. The times have not been good. For many.

As someone who has been writing for more than 50 years, few articles stand out in my mind.

One, actually two, I wrote when I was the Cleveland Plain Dealer welfare writer do stand out. Because they said – still say – so much about who we are. And why we’re in the trouble we are in now.

It was written at a time when – unlike now – the newspaper had to pay attention to what was happening in our poverty community. It was a time when people were actually working to try to better conditions.

The times screamed for notice. They still do.

Because someone – a social worker – called my attention to a specific building in Hough, I wrote about a boy I called Eddie Brown.

He was young. Pre-school.

He lived deep in poverty.

I wrote: “Funny thing about Eddie Brown. If he were lost in the woods there would be 300 men ready to search. If he were caught in a cave, newspapers around the world would tell his story.

But Eddie’s problem is he’s not lost, just expendable.”

So many Eddie Browns. Waiting to be rescued.

Both parents were unemployed. From his apartment window he looked out at garbage strewn backyard with pools of stagnant water. His parents were poorly educated.

This wasn’t unusual. In my previous job in Bridgeport, Ct., I visited many such places. One where I reported of an apartment with a badly positioned space heater five young children burned to death. In others I found children drugged by poorly vented space heaters by their beds. These situations were not unusual if you went to poverty areas.

There were some 200 other Eddie Browns in Eddie’s tenement at Addison and Wade Park Ave., members of 40 families. The social worker called it a concentration camp with residents fearful of the landlord.

The conditions aren’t as anyone would want. A decomposing rodent on the steps; a watery backyard with garbage on the ground; live rodents scratching in the walls at night.

Not somewhere you’d want to raise a child.

I did a second story the next day. I talked with the owner and manager of Eddie’s building.

“The owner of Eddie Brown’s tenement,” I wrote, “slips his hand into his coat pocket and fingers his revolver.” His open jacket revealed a pearl-handled revolver in a holster strapped to his chest.

When he collected rents he was accompanied by another who “walks shotgun,” he said.

Despite these weapons, the manager tells me, “The people here like me. I do little things for them.”

Why the pearl-handled pistol and shotgun then?

I suspect there are many Eddie Browns in our city today. Indeed, that Eddie Brown would be about 45 years old now. Likely he is the father of Eddie Brown, Jr., a student in the Cleveland school system.

Why am I telling you this story now?

Our problems aren’t simply the problems of today. Mostly of yesterday. And the yesterdays before yesterday.

Because we all live short lives we tend to make the same mistakes repeatedly. It’s hard for us not to because we experience life and events without a proper connection to the past. It’s a human failure.

Problems have their origins.

Some 35 years ago I also wrote about the school desegregation decision by Judge Frank Battisti. We cannot divorce today from that decision and what it told us about the previous 35 years of decisions at Cleveland schools. It goes on and on.

“The full, ripping sweep of Judge Frank Battisti’s desegregation ruling cannot be felt without reading the text of his decision,” I wrote in Point of View, my newsletter in 1996.

“It is devastating,” I continued, “It clearly cuts through any pleas of blamelessness on the part of the school authorities. He has stripped them bare

“One simply has to read the document to appreciate how tight a case the NAACP has against the Cleveland school boards and administration of at least the past 35 years,” I wrote.

Here we have 35 year periods that continue the inability of the city to address this most basic and serious problem.

The report was replete with example after example of purposeful segregation and thus unequal education. Blacks kept in their place.

“He cites the example of board action between 1952-57 and that the pattern of boundary changes, portable classroom use and rented space (all not conducive to good education): ‘What emerges from this pattern of activity is an implosion of black students into Hough and Wade Park. At least three elementary schools, Hodge (4,800 feet from overcrowded schools) East Madison (3,800 feet) and Sowinski (3,800 feet) were within a reasonably walking distance, particularly for upper elementary students. That they were available to remedy some overcrowding is already evidence by the following figures, which showed Hodge with declining black attendance of 2% and as many as 331 empty seats; Sowinski with as many as 456 and E. Madison with as many as 74 available seats, 1953-57, but with low black attendance…”

Battisti wrote: “It was patently absurd for the board to attempt to relieve the overcrowding at Hough by the 1953 and 1954 boundary changes with the equally overcrowded Wade Park.”

He went on: “The fact that they partook of such folly is evidence of the zeal with which they sought to contain the black student population.”

That was the order of the day into the 1960s and 1970s too. Supt. Paul Briggs, the darling of the Cleveland business community, was building schools that were doomed to be segregated. And everyone knew it.

Busing, of course, became one solution. It was decried by almost everyone.

But in the past busing was used to transport black students to segregated schools rather than to nearby white schools.

“From the above (citing school segregated by the board), it is clear that the cluster of predominately black schools were vastly overcrowded and yet the board continued to adhere to a ‘neighborhood school policy’ that resulted in children (particularly black) being educated in churches and storefronts… There is no justification for black schools to be at 130.9% capacity while nearby white schools were only at 81.4% capacity… this had the effect of creating or perpetrating racial segregation… Under these circumstances the schools were not only separate but unequal,” Battisti ruled.

He noted one school with 313 students but a capacity of 1,085 ignored while the school administrators built a new one to accommodate nearby black students.

Cost didn’t matter.

Battisti showed, “The end result was racial impaction, racial isolation, and blatant containment of black pupils. Such action can only be deemed deliberate.”

Even years after the NAACP lawsuit was filed the policies continued.

Battisti wrote: “It is noteworthy that in 1975, two years after the filing of this lawsuit, these three schools are still being preserved as identifiably “white” and protected from incursions by black students.”

He showed that black students in 1975 were being assigned to schools further away and in a “less safe route” to avoid an obvious integrative alternative.” There was “persistence” by school bosses to keep blacks in overcrowded schools rather than integrate into available unfilled white schools.

We always pay for our bad decisions. We’ve wasted so many people. So much time.

Now the Cleveland schools are predominately black, some will say.

The past, however, still haunts us. Still counts.

The obvious solution isn’t imaginary school reforms or kicking teachers now faced with the problems we all created.

We need massive Marshall Plan-type attention to our youngest children. If it takes two teachers for one student, so be it. That’s the bill we owe. That’s the price we must pay.

But the foundations and Mayor Frank Jackson and City Council and the Plain Dealer will tell you “Pass the tax, Reform the schools.”

That’s just more of the same: Cover our asses and pass the problem down another 35 years. Habit conditions such bad decisions.

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