DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
The children in Room E4 had the same problems as many children in high poverty, racially segregated urban school districts, but these children also had Miss Luddy, a veteran teacher who treated them with equality at a time when they were just beginning to understand what real inequality means.
Susan Eaton is the author of "The Children in Room E4." Their classroom is in Hartford, Connecticut, the site of an 18-year struggle to desegregate the public schools. In a now-famous court case, Sheff v. O'Neill, the state supreme court found that even de facto segregation robs children of access to an equal education.
A remedy, however, has been slow to take shape. That leaves author Susan Eaton and the children she writes about with an enduring question. How much can one school achieve in the face of persistent poverty and segregation?
I asked Susan Eaton about the home life of her main character, a boy she calls Jeremy.
Ms. SUSAN EATON (Author, "The Children in Room E4"): His family situation was tough. His parents had been incarcerated and he was being cared for by a grandmother who is very loving, but who was extremely isolated from, you know, what you might consider mainstream society. She did not speak English.
ELLIOTT: They were Puerto Rican.
Ms. EATON: Puerto Rican. He was a second-generation. And he was also being cared for by an aunt, who had two young children of her own.
ELLIOTT: Why did you focus on Jeremy? I'm guessing that several of his classmates had similar stories, difficult lives.
Ms. EATON: Yeah, they did. They all did. I mean I was struck by his openness, because even by eight and nine years old, a lot of the children, one of the challenges that Ms. Luddy faced in her classroom was breaking kids' tough exteriors down, so that they would be willing to take risks in the classroom, so that they could be vulnerable and make mistakes, creating this community where it was safe to do that kind of thing.
She didn't have to do that with Jeremy. And she used to say, that kid is a miracle. He's a miracle. Where he lives and what he's been through in his life, and he's still so joyful and so open. I guess in the end what I was trying to do was I wanted to be in what was supposedly the best school with the best teacher and look at the best student.
And so I wanted to look at, look at, you know, okay, we've got the best possible situation in a high poverty segregated environment. And then I just wanted to sit back and look at what happened.
ELLIOTT: How did Ms. Luddy connect to these students who were so very different from her own background?
Ms. EATON: She finds something special about each one of the children, and she stays with that and makes it a theme throughout the year. There's a girl in the class who expressed interest in being a doctor, while she, from day one, would call her, Dr. Shiaza(ph) - that's what she called her.
And then she would apply every little question in a personal way. Okay, Dr. Shiaza, you're in the operating room and somebody asks you a question in this way; how would you respond? And they say, okay, so let's change the grammar around. It has a different meaning, doesn't it? And that might cause you to give them a different instrument for the surgical procedure.
And then with Jeremy, who loved science, she would say, all right, you're in the middle of a science experiment and somebody comes in and says this and this; what do you do? You know, just little things that made the children aware that she was paying attention to who they were.
ELLIOTT: Now, even given the conditions in which Ms. Luddy was working, she actually achieved remarkable success. She was Teacher of the Year. Her school got the blue ribbon from the Education Department. She had high test scores.
Ms. EATON: She did. She's an amazing person. She's also an exception, you know, and saintly geniuses are in really short supply. But I think one of the things our American culture does is that we love to focus on the exceptions, you know, the kind of hero, miracle teacher who does a few projects with the kids and gets them to achieve at levels and defies everybody's expectations.
Now, I'm not saying that those stories aren't true. Those stories are absolutely true and they're worth celebrating. But I think we often celebrate them at the expense of understanding and comprehending the true mess that's out there and the huge and vast inequalities that show up no place better than our public schools.
ELLIOTT: But the fact that you have singled out this very successful teacher in this successful school, if a school like this does show that it can achieve, isn't that enough?
Ms. EATON: It hasn't achieved. It achieved at the very small discreet task of nudging up test scores for a tiny portion of children over four or five years. A year after they won this blue ribbon award, and they were one of six models for urban education in the country, the test scores plummeted. No one can say exactly why, but the principal left. A few teachers who had been moderately successful also left.
Some people theorize that the problems in the neighborhood in terms of violence escalated. A lot of people who were at least at the working class level were fleeing this neighborhood, leaving, you know, only the poorest of the poor behind. And whether they achieved high test scores in reading and math and writing, we have to remember that it came at a price. It came at a price of, for example, no recess, and children eight and nine years old sitting on their butts from 8:30 often until 5:00 o'clock at night drilling for tests.
ELLIOTT: Are you making the case that it is not possible to have a high performing inner city school over the long haul?
Ms. EATON: Oh, no.
ELLIOTT: That the social conditions are such that that's just not attainable?
Ms. EATON: Oh, no. I don't believe that at all. I have been in, you know, these - in high poverty, extremely successful schools, and I know that it can happen. But through all the years of trying, there is no one school system that has been able to achieve any measure of equality with a predominantly middle class school system. And we're talking about a huge country here.
We focus incessantly on the exceptions. We focus incessantly on the so-called beat the odds schools. Some of these stories are true. Some of them aren't. I happened to land in a place where the story was not true, and someone has got to stand up and say it.
No one in Hartford wanted to say it. Everybody kept pushing the miracle, the miracle, the miracle school up in the North End with the high test scores, when even the principal was saying, really, this isn't a miracle, really it isn't, really I'm not sure how long this can be sustained. Really, he told me, and really he told people for years, racial isolation, economic isolation, poverty are still the central issues, and no one is doing anything about it.
No one wanted to listen to him because we want to believe in miracles.
ELLIOTT: Susan Eaton's new book is "The Children in Room E4."
Thank you for speaking with us.
Ms. EATON: Thank you for having me.
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