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Dispatches from an Inner-City School That Works

by Mark Gerson

Pub Date: Jan. 7th, 1997
ISBN: 0-684-82756-5
Publisher: Free Press

 The first-person account of a neophyte history teacher in an inner-city high school: White, Republican, Ivy League, he epitomizes The Man to his mostly black and Hispanic students. What 23-year-old Gerson had going for him in September 1994 was his youth, his straightforward attitude, his skill at and knowledge of basketball, and a sense of humor. For instance, when his students pulled detention for classroom infractions, he kept them after school to listen to Frank Sinatra recordings in an unsuccessful effort to wean them from rap. The kids came to call it getting a Frank. As a teacher, Gerson labored to engage the students by embedding facts in dramatic stories of historical figures--a favorite with the students was the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. In current events, the O.J. Simpson trial was used as a springboard for discussions about constitutional rights. The school was a Roman Catholic institution in the heart of Jersey City, an enclave of civility, although it had its share of teenage pregnancies and family crises. The children came from neighborhoods rife with drug dealers and street shootings, and many had friends and relatives in prison. But their parents backed the school and the teachers and demanded hard work from their children, having made considerable sacrifices to pay tuition--conditions that are a barometer for school success, according to the latest studies. Nonetheless, what Gerson learned is that there are still two Americas, one rich and one poor, living side by side in suburb and city, respectively, yet each with its own social system and goals. Reconciling the two, Gerson suggests, takes more than tweaking educational practices. Among his suggestions: Personal contact between social classes, perhaps through a national service plan. Engaging anecdotes of a school year, leading to a thoughtful exploration of what urban and suburban cultures can learn from each other.