12/09/2013 04:42 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2014

'School Reform': They Wouldn't Do This to White Kids

Halfway through the school year in the suburban New York community where I live, the kids are somehow getting by without field trips, a cut in before- and after-school activities, as well as other nips and tucks in staffing and programs.

But it's not as bad as it could have been. In the spring, when voters rejected a school district budget that was $3 million richer than the current spending plan, it was a shock on the order of a massive meteorite wiping out our prestigious zip code.

Letters flooded into the weekly newspaper. Email blasts and robocalls surged through the wires.

Mailings from community groups arrived daily.

If the trimmed budget failed in a revote, it would be "a disaster," "a crime" and "the end of education as we know it." After all, our schools would lose their varsity, junior varsity and intramural teams in tennis, crew, swimming, football, badminton and everything else, including (God forbid!) lacrosse.

Marching band would disappear. So would the chamber orchestra and jazz band, as well as sculpture, painting and theater, along with the school newspaper and literary magazine.

Faced with what amounted to the nuclear meltdown of our local public schools, the community swallowed a tax increase and, on the revote, approved the budget.

There were some cutbacks, but this was, everyone agreed, a brush with death.

Yet, "died and gone to Heaven" would have been the reaction of the kids in the South Bronx public school where I taught, had they been dropped into even the stripped-down, lacrosse- and crew-bereft school district.

The South Bronx middle/high school I call Latinate Institute is not unique. There are thousands of public schools like this across the country, and hundreds in New York City alone. Unlike the large public high schools that once were the norm in cities and still are in the suburbs, Latinate and the various other "academies," "institutes" and "centers" that have opened in recent years under the banner of school reform, are relatively small. Latinate had 350 kids in grades eight through 12.

With the students required to wear Catholic-school-style uniforms, and classrooms punctuated with crests, inspirational quotes and lists of "Core Values," it's hard to miss the message of an intense, concentrated effort toward academic excellence. There's a strong whiff of "charter school" in these schools, as though a "charter" spelling out a no-nonsense mission is the abracadabra of education.

That this middle/high school consisted of nothing more than a bunch of classrooms on the third floor of an old elementary school, set between a hospital and a jail, only underscored its single-minded, academic focus. In a political environment where "academics" and "education" are defined as "test scores," places like Latinate have strong appeal.

There's no "fat" in these schools, and the poor Black, Hispanic and African-immigrant kids in my classes were, the principal insisted, "scholars," required to spend the day in a quiet, "cathedral of learning," mastering skills to make them "college ready."

We teachers sent home syllabi brimming with literary brand names such as Shakespeare, Homer and Langston Hughes. (The words "snippets of each accompanied by videos" were not included.) The principal barraged the parents with newsletters so dense with multisyllabic buzzwords and self-congratulatory excitement that it was easy to believe Latinate provided a one-way ticket to success.

Officially, little to nothing was made of the fact that numerous students couldn't read, many couldn't perform schoolwork beyond copying stuff from the board and dozens faced learning and behavioral issues so profound that it was impossible for them to sit still for any longer than it took to draw a penis on the desk.

Yet virtually all of these students would pass the state and city standardized tests and move on to the next grade. That's the real magic of these schools.

While the kids weren't getting much of an education, they got virtually none of what for generations has been considered the American public school experience.

Library? No.

Art? No.

Theater? No.

Chorus? No.

Band? No. Latinate did, however, have a music department that consisted of a boom box and a variety of drums and beaded African gourds that were locked in a basement closet next to the teachers' restroom.

Sports? Basketball in season and spring baseball in a nearby park. Quite improbably, a teacher applied for a grant and received funding to buy bows, arrows and targets for an after-school archery program in the cafeteria.

But with other grants slow in coming, such "fat" was out of the students' reach. So, each afternoon at 2:50, a team of adults led by Latinate's dean herded the students down the stairs and out onto the sidewalk like a tsunami of adolescents. The dean and her posse followed the kids to the sidewalk and scattered the scholars to keep them from bunching up and fighting.

"Good night. See you tomorrow."

What's surprising is not that schools like Latinate exist, but that they are considered good (Latinate received a B from the Department of Education when I was there). Yet, considering the strum und drang accompanying the school budget votes in the community where I live, Latinate and its bare-bones, school-reform ilk would be sorely insufficient in the suburbs. Though for Black, Hispanic and African-immigrant kids who have the misfortune of living in the wrong Zip Code, they're deemed plenty good enough.

John Owens is a writer, editor and former teacher. His book, Confessions of a Bad Teacher: The Shocking Truth From the Front Lines of American Public Education, is published by Sourcebooks. It is available at and booksellers everywhere.