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Sociologist deems high-poverty schools
Sociologist Bowen Paulle. (Photo: UCLA/Peggy McInerny.)

Sociologist deems high-poverty schools "toxic"

Bowen Paulle argues that the violence and chaos of inner-city schools creates overwhelming stress for both students and teachers. Without addressing this stress, reforms to improve education in these schools are unlikely to be effective.

Paulle dismisses education reform theories based on ethnicity and minority status, pointing instead to poverty and the lack of relationships with stable adults on the part of students in inner city schools.

by Jeanne DiNovis

International Institute, UCLA, October 7, 2013 — The violent, stressful atmosphere of high-poverty schools produce very real health risks for students and teachers alike, said Bowen Paulle. A professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at the University of Amsterdam, Paulle spoke at a public lecture organized by the Center for European and Eurasian Studies on October 2, at which he discussed his book “Toxic Schools: High-Poverty Schools in New York and Amsterdam” (Chicago Press, 2013).

The speaker taught for almost three years apiece in two inner-city schools: one in the South Bronx and one in Amsterdam. His years as a teacher began his ethnographic study of how students in such underprivileged environments cope with the stress of their school environments. When school means a highly volatile environment in which “thugs” rule the territory, education becomes the farthest thing from the minds of students.

The pedagogies and methodologies that teachers are expected to bring to the classroom are rendered irrelevant when they are unable to maintain control of their classes, says Paulle. Most are able to actually teach for only 15 minutes at a time, with real instruction time amounting to only one day a week. Even worse, teachers often last in these positions only for very limited amounts of time. Some refuse to accept assignments to such schools even when there are no other teaching jobs available.

Ethnographic research needed to devise policy recommendations

Paulle repeatedly emphasized the importance of understanding how stressful and draining these school environments are for both students and teachers. As an educator and researcher, he argues, one has to spend a significant amount of time in these schools to truly get a sense of what is going on before forming any kind of conclusions about how to reform them.

“You first have to lose yourself in that world,” he contends. “You have to be in there, as [Erving] Goffman said, taking the crap for long enough, taking the same crap they’re taking, to become empathetic. That’s the key to good field work.”

Paulle admits that he himself was overcome by the constant stresses of the schools in which he taught. “I lost it, I lost control,” he remarks, “I eventually found myself only coping with stress. . .  I didn’t have an awareness of what I was doing — I was everything except mindful.” Yet it was his complete immersion in these schools, Paulle says, that gave him insight into their real challenges.

Current reform literature misses the reality of inner-city schools

Paulle argues that much of the literature on inner-city school reform is just simply out of touch with reality. Specifically, he dismisses theories based on ethnicity and minority status, including ethnic “resistance,” and points instead to poverty and the lack of relationships with stable adults on the part of students in inner city schools.

The hierarchy of students within these schools creates an environment where belonging to a group becomes a necessity even when, in their calmer moments, many students indicate that they don’t want to be violent or get into trouble. Repeatedly, he says, students recognize the need to get serious about studying but are unable to do so — even though they, and their parents, continue to believe that education is their one way out of the ghetto.

Students in high-poverty schools, says Paulle, feel they will never be accepted outside of their neighborhood because of where they come from. They are aware that their schools are at the bottom of education system. As a result, they take pride in being recognized by a group — or even a gang (gangs were a reality in the Bronx, not in Amsterdam).

The world outside the classroom has taught them that only the strong survive, so these Darwinist theories drive their motivation within school as well, says Paulle, often resulting in violent encounters with extremely damaging outcomes.

How can these students be successful when they have no belief in themselves or the schools to liberate them from the toxic atmospheres that they have always known? According to Paulle, they have seen “pseudo-interventions” in which reform policies and regulations are enacted, only to disintegrate and leave little changed.

What should reform consist of?

The cycle of failed reforms leaves a lasting impression on students, he claims, reinforcing the idea that they are not good enough for anyone to care about. They bring this attitude with them into the schools, he observes, getting caught up in gangs and “ghetto fabulous” ideals because they don’t see any realistic alternatives.

Paulle concedes that his book raises more questions than answers about how to address the problem of high-poverty schools. However, he is adamant that the heart of the problem lies in the bodily and emotional stresses that these students face on a moment-to-moment basis. The health consequences of attending and teaching at these schools is, he believes, the most persuasive argument for rallying the investment needed for effective reform.

According to the speaker, a “wrap-around intervention” approach is needed. One component of this approach would be forging ongoing relationships between students and stable adults  —  inside and outside of school. He also insisted on the need for “embodied” or “somatic” interventions for students that can teach them self-control, hinting that yoga and meditation might be suitable.



Podcast of Bowen Paulle's presentation:

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Center for European and Eurasian Studies