In Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol documents the devastating inequalities in American schools, focusing on public education’s “savage inequalities” between affluent districts and poor districts. From 1988 till 1990, Kozol visited schools in over thirty neighborhoods, including East St. Louis, the Bronx, Chicago, Harlem, Jersey City, and San Antonio. Kozol describes horrifying conditions in these schools. He spends a chapter on each area, and provides a description of the city and a historical basis for the impoverished state of its school. These schools, usually in high crime areas, lack the most basic needs. Kozol creates a scene of rooms without heat, few supplies or text, labs with no equipment, sewer backups, and toxic fumes. Schools from New York to California where not only are books rationed, but also toilet paper and crayons. Many school buildings turn into swamps when it rains and must be closed because sewage often backs up into kitchens and cafeterias.
Kozol’s descriptions of the schools help to instill the feeling of hopelessness and destitution that the children in these areas not only feel in their education but in their everyday lives as well. By describing the deteriorating conditions of the schools in the selected areas against those in the more affluent districts, he implies that money is the short-term fix to the problem. Money may fix the roof or the walls but more then just money needs to be put into these schools. Kozol writes with the intention to shock his readers with graphic details, and push them towards change.
Kozol describes the enormous differences between poor schools, and affluent schools, usually located just minutes apart. When speaking of a North Lawndale kindergarten class of twenty three, he states that in twelve years fourteen will have dropped out of school, only four will go to college, and three of the twelve boys will have spent time in prison. A school in the South Bronx is set in a windowless skating rink next to a mortuary with class size up to thirty-five. The school contains a library of only seven hundred books and no playground. This school is ninety- percent black and Hispanic. Only a few minutes north of that school Kozol visits another school in a more affluent part of the Bronx with an overwhelmingly white and Asian population. Flowering trees, two playing fields, and a playground surround this public school. The school has a planetarium and a library with over eight thousand books. Kozol comments that, “nearly forty years after Brown vs. the Board of Education many of are schools are still separate but no longer even remotely equal.”
Kozol’s main argument is that public education should be free and equal to people of all economic classes. Kozol believes that children from poor families are cheated out of a future by unequipped, understaffed and under funded schools in the United State’s inner cities and less affluent suburbs. The majority of these children are non-white, and living amongst poverty and crime. Kozol argues about the unfair standards we expect these underprivileged children to rise to. Children in these poor areas are being compared to children in affluent areas where the quality of their education is much higher. Kozol asks how these children will succeed in today’s world if they are not given the same opportunities as affluent schools give their children. Kozol believes that by depriving our poorer children of their basic needs we are forcing them into lives of crime, poverty and a never-ending cycle of inequalities in education. Kozol stresses that these students must be taught that “savage inequalities” do not have to exist between them and students in more affluent schools, and that all children are entitled to an equal education.
I had many different reactions to this book. At first, I was horrified and shocked to learn about the conditions of these poor schools. Growing up in an affluent suburb and attending private schools, I took my education for granted. While reading the book my reaction changed to anger. I cannot believe that in this day and age, children have to attend schools in these conditions. It disgusts me to imagine schools with toxic fumes, and holes in the ceilings, when we complain about unimportant things like a bookstore not being large enough. It does seem unfair to these children tat they have to receive such an unequal education when only a few minutes away children are receiving so much more.
Shock and anger turned to sadness. While reading the accounts told by the children, I often had tears in my eyes. These children know that they are not receiving an equal education, and many end up feeling like they do not deserve one. These children have dreams and aspirations that most will never achieve due to the lack of opportunities made available to them. The part of the book that shocked me the most was when Kozol reported on the schools in Camden, New Jersey. Camden is so close to my home and my schools, that it is almost unbelievable that the conditions could be so horrid. Of course you would come to expect these inequalities in New York or Chicago, but never this close to home. After finishing this book, the ways in which I view education has changed. I hope now that I can become more involved politically, to advocate for these types of schools. Conditions in these schools have to change, and the public needs to become more aware of the situation.
Many problems were discussed throughout this book that caught my attention. Education in the inner cities seemed to be one of the worst problems in our public schools. Education in the inner cities needs money, support, dedication of administrators and faculty, and family involvement. A key consideration in rebuilding our schools is linking the schools to the community. Considering the impact on our society, it mould make more sense to spend money on preparing our children for the future instead of spending a great deal more money in the future on public assistance and prisons to support them.
Educational funding is not the only issue, it is however certainly central to the problem. Additional funds could be the beginning of change in the inner city schools. Repairing existing buildings or constructing of new schools, updating lab equipment, technology, and texts, and hiring qualified staff members would help to improve the education these students receive. Improving the learning environment is the first step to rebuilding our inner city schools. More importantly, programs for the students and families will improve their future.
Studies have shown many benefits for poor urban students who engage in planned after-school activities. A large number of such programs have been implemented in cities around the country. One study reported that over three million children participated in some type of program in the nineties. One such program is the Brotherhood/SisterSol program serving young Black and Latino men and women, age twelve to twenty-one. In this program members can find a safe place where they can vent their fears, anger, and pain. These children have a space where they and their elders can come together to share knowledge, history and culture.
Other programs have also been started to help these underprivileged children stay on the right track. The International Youth Leadership Institute (IYLI) conducts academic, cultural, and leadership development programs that focus on local and international issues. It helps African American and Latino high school students to contribute to their community and the broader society.
Head Start is one national program that is helping inner city, or underprivileged children. Head Star is an U.S. federally funded, educational program for disadvantaged pre-school children. It was established under the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. The program is aimed at preparing poor children for elementary school. The Head Start program is set up to meet the individual needs of every child in the classroom. Head Start provides medical services to low-income families, to prevent health problems to go on undiagnosed. Head Start encourages parent involvement inside and outside of the classroom. Head Start also provides services that assist families in need. Activities included are community outreach, referrals, and emergency assistance and intervention.
These programs as well as the many after-school and enrichment programs offer some desperately needed assistance. Although this is a good beginning, a lot more needs to be done before real improvement is made. The educational systems in America have many faults, but if more people become aware, things can only improve. I believe that we can change things, and with time maybe equal education for everyone won’t be just a far away dream.