Can schools lift children out of poverty?
That’s the question at the core of a new documentary by WBEZ education reporter Linda Lutton. “The View From Room 205” follows a class of 30 fourth graders at William Penn Elementary in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood, one of the poorest in the country.
Lutton joined Morning Shift to talk about the process of making the piece and to dig into some of the questions the story poses.
On getting access to Penn Elementary
Linda Lutton: Penn’s principal, Dr. Sherryl Moore Ollie was really, very, very brave in letting me in, but I think it shows how desperate schools are to have their stories told and how hidden away we really keep high poverty schools.
At the end of the year, Lutton asked Ollie why she let her spend the year at Penn. Here's what she said.
“It’s a miracle really, that some of these children get here everyday,” Ollie said. “I think that story needs to be told, and you can’t tell that story unless you’re on the inside seeing it. It’s not a moment. You have to see the many moments to capture, you know, a true picture of what happens in these schools.”
On the consequences of “No Excuses” style school reform
Lutton: I came to see it as sort of an amped up version of what we all really, deeply believe: that schools should be able to overcome poverty. But it’s sort of amped up, so it says: schools should be able to overcome poverty, but if they can’t, then something drastic needs to change.
This “No Excuses” sort of thinking has led to school closings. It’s led to school re-staffings. It’s led to the most dramatic reforms we’ve seen. We’ve seen entire school districts dismantled. There’s very few publicly run schools in New Orleans. In Detroit, we’re seeing school closures and the expansion of charter schools. That’s this notion that if schools can’t overcome poverty, then something dramatic needs to happen.
On the belief that children can overcome adversity through education and hard work
Lutton: That very idea keeps the country from looking harder at a more direct attack on poverty, because we do put so much on the schools.
Most of the evidence doesn’t really support our notion that if you work hard, you can make it . We have a growing achievement gap in this country between rich and poor.
You sort of have two dynamics going at once: family income has become so much more predictive of how well kids will do and well in school has become more important to doing well in life. As one of the big researchers in this field, Sean Reardon, writes, "As the children of the rich do better in school, and those who do better in school are more likely to become rich, we risk producing an even more unequal and economically polarized society."
Those are really the stakes here.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Hear the whole interview above and listen to ‘The View From Room 205’ here.