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The New York Sun


A New Alphabet

June 28, 2007

By John H. McWhorter

My favorite thing always seems to be the one nobody else cares about: Betty Rubble. Peach, not lime, JELLO. Even when it comes to Dr. Seuss books, "On Beyond Zebra." Everybody else seems to like other ones like "The Lorax," but I always liked the one that introduced us to a fantasy alphabet beyond Z.

It turns out I'm not alone in loving that book. This weekend I had the pleasure of watching the ninth grade graduation ceremony at the KIPP charter school in the Bronx. There are 52 KIPP "Knowledge Is Power Program" schools nationwide.

One of KIPP's founders is David Levin, a hip 30-something on fire with a mission to prove that poor kids can learn. He based his speech during the ceremony on, of all things, "On Beyond Zebra."

"In the places I go there are things that I see / That I NEVER could spell if I stopped with the Z / I'm telling you this "cause you"re one of my friends / MY alphabet starts where YOUR alphabet ends!"

That's a key lesson for the students who graduated on Saturday. Almost all of them come from humble circumstances. In their neighborhoods, more often than not, the alphabet certainly ends at Z, if they even get that far.

But what this also means is that this school was, heavens, segregated. KIPP in the Bronx is a school of brown children. If there were any white ones graduating, they escaped my eye. Yet it would be hard to say that things would be going better for them if New York bussed some white students in from the Upper East Side.

The Supreme Court will soon be deciding whether Seattle, Wash., and Louisville, Ky., will be allowed to use bussing to make sure that their public schools aren't segregated. In Louisville, for example, the mandate under attack stipulates that no school can be more than 50% black.

The idea is that a school like that must certainly be a disaster, and that this means we haven't gotten as far as we thought beyond the days before Brown v.

Board of Education as we'd like to think.

That's why it was worth seeing a KIPP graduation. The Bronx branch shares a building with another inner city public school. It was no accident that there were several police officers stationed in the lobby.

Though both schools have students from the same demographic, the KIPP ones have been rocking, academically, for nine years while the kids in the same building at the other school are dealing with the usual problems with sub-par reading skills, discipline problems, poor teaching, and the like.

Scratch the surface of the problem with educating poor kids in America, and anyone can see that the main problem in so many public schools is not that everybody is brown, but that nobody is teaching the kids much of anything. It's partly parenting, partly the teachers, partly the distractions of modern technology.

Some think that we just need to give schools like this as much money as suburban schools get. But many of them do get that much money. And we don"t hear about the fact that when they do, nothing changes. Lousy schools in inner cities in New Jersey have been funded as lavishly as suburban ones since 1998. Nothing is different.

What makes the difference is what the teachers do. The KIPP school has a longer school day. There is a culture that puts a high value on students' paying attention. Plus, KIPP teachers are trained to see their students not as casualties of society who we can't expect much of, but as fresh young minds ready to be challenged.

All of this works. I watched valedictorians and awardees standing up, all with names like Diaz and Jackson rather than Cahill, Chang, or Silverstein. And get this every graduate is required to play the violin in a rousing ensemble victory piece. And not just sawing through the piece any which way, but actually bowing and playing together. I remember how tricky this was from my younger days when I grappled with the cello. But not one of the students ever slipped.

There were no white kids around, which makes one think about how we perceive this word segregation. No one has any problem with black undergraduates going to all black colleges. But if students are just a few years younger, it automatically becomes a sociological injustice that they go to a school where everybody looks like them?

KIPP is showing us the weakness of the idea that brown children can only learn together if they are middle class or in a classroom with white students. That idea is a little 1975. Here, in the 21st century, KIPP is teaching children from the hood how to fashion their own new alphabet instead of stopping at Z.

Dr. Seuss should have the last word, "Because, finally, he said: / This is really great stuff! / And I guess the old alphabet / ISN'T enough."

Original Source:



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