The other day I saw a TV show about a high school glee club. It was imaginative and amusing entertainment, but as I looked at that fictional school with its full-time credentialed teachers, plentiful enrichment programs, a magnificent fully-equipped auditorium, and club rehearsal spaces replete with fine instruments and sophisticated electronics, I couldn’t help but think of a letter I received earlier this year from a parent whose children attend an all-Black, overwhelmingly-poor school. Here is a portion of what she wrote:
I started working on the Pen or Pencil Initiative at XXXX
High School in October, 2009. I usually go to the school
once a week to work with the students. What I found at XXXX
High School has been unbelievable.
First of all the facilities are some of the worst I have
ever seen. The bathrooms were filthy. I walked in to the
bathroom and had to immediately turn around and walk out.
The students told me that they did not use the bathrooms
because they were in such bad shape. A lot of the toilets
did not flush. Stalls are missing. Some of the sinks did
not work, or were leaking so badly that they had to
There was no hot water, and in some cases no water at all in
the bathroom so that the children could wash their hands. In
some cases, there was no toilet tissue. So I concluded that
the “students could not wash their hands or wash their
booties”. The students told me that they would “hold” it all
day or call their parents to come sign them out of school,
take them home to use the bathroom, and then bring them back
to the school. In my opinion, it is not an environment
conducive to learning and growing for high school youth. It
is rather a very thuggish environment.
For Martin Luther King Day of Service, the Pen or Pencil
students and myself led a volunteer effort to repair and
sanitize the bathrooms (I paid for this), and then have the
volunteers clean, scrub, and paint all the bathrooms at XXXX
High School. Although the bathrooms were cleaned and
repaired on MLK Day, I do not know if the school has been
able to maintain them. The staff has said that they do not
have cleaning supplies, and with no hot water, it is not
easy to keep them clean. Also, on MLK day, we attempted to
steam-clean the carpet. It too was and is filthy. However,
with no hot water and 200 volunteers we could not get much
Besides the facilities, I also discovered that the students
do not have textbooks. They have a few books in the
classroom, dated between 1984 and 1992 with most of them
torn and many pages missing, (not enough so that each child
can have one) and the students do not take any texbooks home
to do homework. My understanding is that they do not have
homework. (I personally have not seen a student with a
The students have complained to me that they want to learn
and get a good education, but they feel that they are not
being taught by the teachers. The students have expressed
regrets about not learning very much at school. They have
also complained that the teachers are absent from school at
lot, and they get sent to the gym to sit until the class
period is over.
Additionally, there are very few computers in the classrooms
or the library that work. Probably, between 3 and 5 in the
library, and maybe 8 to 12 in computer-discover class. Some
students were assigned to this class, who are now being sent
home during that class period because there are not ample
Lack of ample textbooks, lack of ample computers — how are
children to learn?
The students have told me that they do not have enough
teachers for their required courses so they must spend a lot
of time in the gym and/or in PE for 2 class periods a day.
(One ninth-grader told me that she has only 2 academic
classes a day; the other time she must spend in the gym
either in PE or just sitting in the gym. Many of the
students in the 11th and 12th grade go home between 12 and 2
every day because they do not have any classes to go to.
Some of these same children are not passing the state
required test, and almost half of the senior class is not
graduating because they have not passed the required test.
Nevertheless, they are scheduled to end their school day at
12 noon every school day.
No music, no art, no band, no foreign languages, (at one
time, no English 1, because of a long-term teacher vacancy).
They do not have study periods or library periods or
There is no in-school suspension, and children are being
suspended from school on a regular basis.
Yes, I do know that “Glee” is Hollywood fiction, but I also know that real-life schools in affluent, predominantly-white districts across the country DO have full-time credentialed teachers, clean toilets, adequate books and computers, libraries, music, art, and other enrichment programs. And that all too many urban and rural schools serving overwhelmingly nonwhite or non-affluent communities do NOT have adequate facilities, equipment, supplies, books, or computers. I stand by the principle that equal access to a quality education is a fundamental human right, a right that increasing numbers of American children are being denied. It is not enough to just protest budget-cuts and tuition-hikes if we are not at the same time forcefully demanding an end to educational inequalities that are crippling our democracy and dividing our population into the haves and have-nots of the future.
“The real safeguard of democracy is education.” ~FDR