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Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh

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In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a 5–4 verdict in Milliken v. Bradley, thereby blocking the state of Michigan from merging the Detroit public school system with those of the surrounding suburbs. This decision effectively walled off underprivileged students in many American cities, condemning them to a system of racial and class segregation and destroying their chances of obtaining a decent education.

In Hope and Despair in the American City, Gerald Grant compares two cities—his hometown of Syracuse, New York, and Raleigh, North Carolina—in order to examine the consequences of the nation’s ongoing educational inequities. The school system in Syracuse is a slough of despair, the one in Raleigh a beacon of hope. Grant argues that the chief reason for Raleigh’s educational success is the integration by social class that occurred when the city voluntarily merged with the surrounding suburbs in 1976 to create the Wake County Public School System. By contrast, the primary cause of Syracuse’s decline has been the growing class and racial segregation of its metropolitan schools, which has left the city mired in poverty.

Hope and Despair in the American City is a compelling study of urban social policy that combines field research and historical narrative in lucid and engaging prose. The result is an ambitious portrait—sometimes disturbing, often inspiring—of two cities that exemplify our nation’s greatest educational challenges, as well as a passionate exploration of the potential for school reform that exists for our urban schools today.

240 pages, Hardcover

First published May 1, 2009

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About the author

Gerald Grant

30 books1 follower
Gerald Grant is Hannah Hammond Professor of Education and Sociology, Emeritus, at Syracuse University.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 33 reviews
Profile Image for Andy.
1,453 reviews481 followers
February 17, 2013
This is not the most entertaining book you will read this year, but it may be the most important.
Thomas Jefferson wrote that "we must dream of an aristocracy of achievement arising out of a democracy of opportunity." Quality schools are an important part of that democracy of opportunity. Unfortunately, we know that the American Dream of upward mobility is actually going backwards instead of forwards and that the chronic failure of urban schools is part of that. There's plenty of ideology and theory in books about why we have the problems we have, but this is pretty much the only thing I've been able to find about what works at the level of a whole school district, let alone a whole county.
What they did in Raleigh helps the poor kids and doesn't hurt the middle-class or rich kids. It is very popular there. It is a win-win. Why do we have endless debates about education reform and related topics without even mentioning Raleigh? ?????????????? Why can't we start discussions by looking at what works? Why aren't we trying out the 60/40 rule of thumb place by place across the country, even one school building at a time?
Profile Image for MargaretDH.
1,051 reviews17 followers
June 9, 2020
Despite the fact that this book was published 11 years ago, and that I've had it on my to read list for a year and a half, this as an extremely timely read.

Grant, a sociologist, explores the legacy of redlining, segregation, white flight and urban vs. suburban school boards. He compares Syracuse, New York with Raleigh, North Carolina. In Syracuse, the city centre is a hollowed out place, with interstates running through downtown, housing projects, and neighborhoods that were still redlined by the insurance industry in the 1980s. The city is surrounded by affluent suburbs. The Syracuse school system is underfunded and pupils are mostly low income, while the suburbs have their own well-funded systems. Test scores in Syracuse are abysmal. Raleigh, by contrast, merged their city and suburban school districts, and integrated all schools, ensuring that no school was attended by more than 40% low income students and mostly racially balanced. The district implemented a wholesale strategy to ensure that all children are high acheiving, and was able to meet their goal of having 95% of all students grades 3-8 at grade level as determined by state testing. (In Syracuse in the 90s, only 8% of eighth graders were at grade level in math.)

Grant argues persuasively that by integrating students across race and class (especially class) increases outcomes for low income students and does not decrease outcomes for middle class or affluent students. He also shows how students that attend diverse schools are better equipped adults. He concisely describes the multiple policy decisions that have led to the hollowing out of cities and the disadvantaging of black Americans, and suggests that the best way to reform neighborhoods and to alleviate poverty is to integrate schools.

Side note: every time I hear about how American public schools are funded, I just find it WILD. Funding schools with tax dollars collected in their district, rather than on a state level, just seems designed to ensure that poor areas stay poor, and wealth is further concentrated in already wealthy areas.

It's also a slim book, and quite readable. If you're interested in why American schools that are so close together have such different outcomes, or you want to know more about the polices that shaped under performing schools, this is a good book to pick up.
Profile Image for Pattie O'Donnell.
317 reviews29 followers
February 3, 2010
The author uses a comparison of the city-only school system in his native Syracuse versus the city+suburb school system in Raleigh, NC to argue that city/county or city/suburb consolidation is the only way to rescue urban schools. He believes that kids in urban areas need access to better teachers (with less turnover) as well as "social capital", which he defines as middle class peers and their middle-class values (stay in school, go to college, hard work is the key to success), norms (standard English), and connections in order to ever raise test scores and ultimately make it into that same middle class themselves. He argues that distributing good schools and good teachers throughout a city/suburban district, rather than segregating the schools and students, is the only way to do this.

He also shows how city-county separation leads to middle-class families fleeing the cities for the better schools of the suburbs, leaving the cities even more impoverished, and worsening the schools, creating a death spiral for cities.

Well worth reading no matter what your thoughts on the matter.
4 reviews
July 3, 2009
Public school resegregation is a "national horror hidden in plain view," writes former educator turned public education activist Kozol (Savage Inequalities, Amazing Grace).

Hope and Despair in the American City
Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh
Gerald Grant

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a 5–4 verdict in the case of Milliken v. Bradley, thereby blocking the state of Michigan from merging the Detroit public school system with those of the surrounding suburbs.

This decision effectively walled off underprivileged students in many American cities, condemning them to a system of racial and class segregation and destroying their chances of obtaining a decent education.

In Hope and Despair, Gerald Grant compares two cities—his hometown of Syracuse, New York, and Raleigh, North Carolina—in order to examine the consequences of the nation’s ongoing educational inequities.

The school system in Syracuse is a slough of despair, the one in Raleigh a beacon of hope. Grant argues that the chief reason for Raleigh’s educational success is the integration by social class that occurred when the city voluntarily merged with the surrounding suburbs in 1976 to create the Wake County Public School System.

By contrast, the primary cause of Syracuse’s decline has been the growing class and racial segregation of its metropolitan schools, which has left the city mired in poverty.

Hope and Despair is a compelling study of urban social policy that combines field research and historical narrative in lucid and engaging prose. The result is an ambitious portrait—sometimes disturbing, often inspiring—of two cities that exemplify our nation’s greatest educational challenges, as well as a passionate exploration of the potential for school reform that exists for our urban schools today.

Some background thought:
Who attends high poverty schools?

Income in our society is closely tied to race. Nationally, about 50 percent of all black and Latino students attend schools in which 75 percent or more of the students are low-income as measured by eligibility for free and reduced price lunch (FRPL). Only 5 percent of white students do. In fact, over half of all white students attend schools in which 25 percent or fewer of the students are eligible for FRPL.

1. To what extent does a school’s overall poverty rate affect student achievement?

Student achievement—on which the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools appropriately place a great deal of emphasis—has been clearly shown to fall as the poverty level of a school rises. A consistent, forty-year body of scientific studies confirms that children who attend high-poverty schools face considerably higher risks of lower academic performance, whatever their individual academic potential. In fact, middle-income students who attend high-poverty schools earn lower average test scores than do low-income students who attend middle class schools.2

Since the publication of the Coleman Report in 1966, social scientists have reported that the socioeconomic composition of a school makes a difference in the achievement levels of individual students.

In 1982, Professor Karl White evaluated 101 previous studies and concluded that overall, the socioeconomic composition of schools seems more predictive of future academic achievement than does a student's individual socioeconomic status.

Can compensatory measures overcome the effects of concentrated poverty?

Unfortunately, in most cases, compensatory measures do not appear readily able to counter these strong trends in high-poverty schools. The means adopted in Charlotte's Equity Plus II schools plainly have not yet succeeded, despite well-intended plans to provide safeguards to assist students in Charlotte’s high-poverty schools. Indeed, many of the finest experts agree that although educators know a great deal about how to reach individual students from disadvantaged backgrounds, far too little is currently known about what is needed to make high-poverty schools, full of disadvantaged students, really effective.12

Profile Image for Michelle.
811 reviews76 followers
July 3, 2011
I couldn't believe how well-written this book is. To be honest, I thought it would be dull and a chore to read, though the topic interested me. When I got it from the library and saw that it wasn't huge, I immediately felt better. I thought I would just read the first chapter and take it in small chunks. It ended up sucking me in and I read half of it in one sitting. The author's backstory and the way he describes the failings of Syracuse as a city and their school system reads smoothly, while still giving you facts, and I think it helps that he has lived there for a long time. You can see Grant's love for his city and his hope for reform but you can also see...well, the despair. When he gets to NC, he gives some history since Reconstruction and brings it all the way to modern day (this was published in 2009). Through his interviews with teachers, school board members, etc., he gives you just as much of a picture as he did with Syracuse. It made me happy, hopeful, proud. I kept telling my husband facts and stories (to the point where he had to tell me to really stop. When he saw I wouldn't stop, he was bullied into a full conversation.), and as soon as I finished, I tried to sneak it into his hands. I truly want every parent to read this, especially those in Wake County. But not just parents, because this is bigger than that. Anybody that wants to live in a growing, healthy city. Anybody that believes in equality in education. It makes me feel kind of cheesy saying that, but this book got me really inflamed.

There have been a lot of arguments and changes since this book was published, and I think we all need to get educated on the matter. I looked around online to see if Mr. Grant had any updates since the book's epilogue, but couldn't find anything. I share his hope, though, that the reforms Wake County put in place years ago catches hold in other places. Bit hard to have that faith, though, when it's falling apart here.

This is one of the first articles I found on Wake County's changed situation: http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Educatio...

Here's one of the parts that pains me the most:
"Parents and residents who spoke in favor of the new policy at Tuesday’s board meeting said busing for the purpose of economic diversity poses an unfair burden on families, in terms of costs to the district and in time that children could spend on learning rather than being transported."

I get that busing kids for long periods of time totally sucks. But if it benefits ALL kids in the LONG RUN, as Grant's book successfully argues (at least in my opinion), then why can't we all suck it up and just deal with it? It sounds so small and selfish to complain about extra time on a bus when you know some poor kid is really benefiting from being in a more economically-neutral environment, a good school, no matter what that kid's parents' situation is. As far as spending more time learning rather than being transported...oof, I can't really handle that. Yes, the amount of time spent at school as opposed to traveling to school is obviously important. But it's also the quality of the education. The quality of the teachers. And that's not going to be the same if schools are broken down more by neighborhoods. Ugh, I can't keep talking about this because it's so darn frustrating and makes me want to argue with every privileged person that has never looked at the other side of the coin.
Profile Image for Ken Rideout.
382 reviews12 followers
June 28, 2009
Local control of schools means that elite communities have elite schools and the poor communities have poor schools. I am assuming the author will end up with a plea for centralized school districts (state-wide? federally funded?)

Having read the book now, I give it a mixed review - although the author's personal story was interesting and he gave a great recap of reconstruction after the civil war as well as the reasons for Syracuse's failed attempts at urban renewal, the core of the book is chapter four which answers the subtitle: "Why there are no bad schools in Raleigh".

His answer is that the suburban and urban school districts were united into one huge school district and then, within that larger district, they created a "healthy balance of rich and poor in every classroom" by busing kids not based on race but by the number of students who qualified for subsidized lunches (they did not let any one school go over 40% subsidized lunches). "This policy established a floor of positive expectations and... student networks across class lines"

His take on successful urban charter school is equally illuminating: "These lighthouse schools... give false hope to children trapped in collapsing urban school because they are so difficult to replicate". The parents of children in charter schools may be poor but they are "highly motivated to take on the ... special demands of charter schools" leaving a system of "have and have-not" schools in communities with charter schools. Raleigh got around this by attracting middle class suburbanites to their urban school by converting 1/3 of their public schools into magnet schools.

This is his explanation of why simply pouring money into urban school never work: every school needs a core of enabled middle class kids with their social networks to succeed. The best predictor of student success WITHIN the school is the average social class of the students entering that building (obviously home life and background trumps the school every time).
Profile Image for Erin.
759 reviews
August 2, 2011
This book held dual interest for me - first, because Raleigh is one of the cities featured in the book, it's got local interest. Additionally, I used to teach before I got into libraries, so I'm always curious about what people's perspectives are on the topic of education. Grant gives a fairly thorough explanation of how the decision of Raleigh and its suburbs made to merge into a single school district combined with the decision to try to meet a standard of socioeconomic diversity in each school in the district has combined to produce some pretty stellar results. This book was written and published before the recent turnaround in school leadership led to a resurgence of interest in neighborhood schools and a loss of priority on maintaining diverse economic levels in the classroom. Since Grant holds this up as such a shining beacon of hope, I'd have loved to have seen this book reissued a year or two later with a postscript on his thoughts on the current situation.

My complaint with this book is that it seems a bit oversimplified. Readers get "Raleigh = good, Syracuse = bad" hammered into their heads over and over. I felt like the author took it a bit for granted that readers would agree with him on the benefits of merging and mixing schools for socioeconomic diversity and didn't really spend a lot of time backing that assertion up. I happen to largely agree with him, but I also feel that it's a complex issue. While Raleigh's testing and other statistics look great in print, basing claims that broad on a single school district leaves his position a little shaky, in my opinion.
Profile Image for Leah Sciabarrasi.
70 reviews26 followers
March 28, 2010
Hope and Despair outlines the obstacles that stand between two school districts: Syracuse and Raleigh, and the historical moments that have developed to create the differences. There were two things I really took away from the book that resound in me:

1.The theory of the doughnut hole. Once thriving cities like Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo have had their wealth and populations redistributed to the outskirts, leaving low-income residents that do nothing to maintain or contribute to the cities. Am I generally speaking? Yes, but I also believe the fault falls partially to the cities who cannot seem to organize enough efforts to train the left over population, and drive out the cancers that seem to fill it. Grant claims that socio-economically balanced schools would, and have, cured such cancers.

2.Socio-economically balanced schools vs. racially balanced schools. This just makes sense. From having grown up in a low-income neighborhood, and school district, I know that it was not the color of the skin that held some students back.

Overall, it was a short book with a great comparison worth reading about. I enjoyed it also because it hit close to home.

112 reviews2 followers
October 18, 2009
Excellent read for any parent or person interested in public school reform. The author, a former professor of Education & Sociology at Syracuse University provides excellent analysis of the state of the US public educational system by providing examples of his own experiences as a student, parent, educator and researcher as well as drawing on historical narrative and landmark legal cases. What I found most interesting how the housing policies in the years following WWII really set the stage for the inequality of schools in the decades down the road even with Civil Rights wins. The author makes a strong and persuasive argument to create more regional school districts that incorporate both inner-city and suburban towns to provide the ample tax base and socio-economic mix needed to create balanced schools.
Profile Image for Elizabeth  Fuller.
122 reviews8 followers
August 13, 2016
This should be required reading for anyone with kids in school, anyone who works in or with schools, anyone who works in city government or urban planning, or just about anyone who ever attended American schools. The book is short, but very readable, and tracks how bad urban planning decisions have just about ruined a great number of urban school districts, how segregation in many cases now outpaces its levels before the momentous Brown vs. Board of Education decision, how one district that bucked common districting practices came out a big winner, and how dumping money into segregated, impoverished schools never works as well as true racial and economic integration at improving student learning...across the board, among all groups of students. Los Angeles, are you listening? You should be.
Profile Image for Laura.
631 reviews
March 23, 2010
Highly recommended for those of you interested in school reform. This book is much more pragmatic and data-driven than I expected and gave a ton of fascinating background to the history of the downturn of city centers in the 60s and 70s (redlining by the govt/ mortgage/ insurance companies/ etc.). I felt like I learned a ton reading this book and have even more appreciation for the public school system in our city (Charlotte) which has a lot more in common with Raleigh than Syracuse (the two main school systems compared in this book).
Profile Image for Wendy Wolpert-DeWitt.
92 reviews3 followers
September 2, 2016
Haughty and self-righteous in tone, technically incorrect in several characterizations, and prone to oversimplification; the author arrives at a questionable conclusion through an argument rife with fallacy. Still, any educator with critical thinking skills could benefit from hearing him spell out his argument -- it does a fairly good job of addressing the history of race relations in public schools from the sixties to the nineties.
Profile Image for Steve.
164 reviews7 followers
August 6, 2009
This is a fascinating, well-written book that should interest all residents of urban and suburban areas. The story of Raleigh schools has many lessons for other cities. You'll also learn a lot about urban/suburban housing over the decades, court decisions, and studies of student achievement, all in a readable, concise book that I couldn't put down.
Profile Image for Gina.
173 reviews4 followers
August 22, 2019
Someone recommended this book to me because I am interested in equitable school funding, and it was an interesting, enlightening read. Though his book was data-driven, Grant's prose is readable, and I especially enjoyed reading about the Syracuse City School District in contrast to the Wake County Public School System. This book should be required reading for parents and educators.
Profile Image for William Lawrence.
297 reviews
December 20, 2010
Decent narrative and good facts about Raleigh schools in comparison to Syracuse. Grant ties in a secondary social examination of suburbs and communities that needs more attention.
22 reviews36 followers
June 4, 2022
As someone who works in education and has lived in the Triangle, it was very interesting to learn about the history of the Raleigh school system. However, Grant presents the consolidation of city and metro school systems as a silver bullet of sorts without much evidence beyond the case study comparison of two very different school systems. Many other cities have also consolidated their city and metro school systems, including Durham, Nashville, and Memphis, to name a few. A more interesting book, I think, would examine the process and outcomes of these governance changes to understand why some of these efforts were more successful than others and the impact that charters have today on this fragile dynamic in cities like Raleigh, where the consolidation was, at least initially, largely successful.
1,272 reviews11 followers
December 28, 2021
I give this a 4.5. Living in central NY and having experience with the city explored, I had a particular interest/bias. The book is surprisingly readable and has some general and specific tips that school districts can consider. (Page 163 regarding integrating early--before high school; page 172 pointing our integrating by economic status may be preferable to integrating by race) I can see how this book would not have been popular or well-received in many circles, but even if existing bureaucracy, egos, and parochialism can't be overcome, it seems that some of the concepts can still be applied to benefit a school district. Lots to think about in this one!
August 11, 2020
Read this book for a class. After each chapter, I would discuss it with a group. It was interesting, especially trying to talk through and implement how we would use their methods within our own school districts!
Profile Image for Elizabeth  Preston.
183 reviews1 follower
March 7, 2021
I happened to have attended schools in the school district this book focuses on, so I might have been predisposed to enjoying this small look into how the district came about.

Great look into the interplay of social, economic and racial divides can come together to greater the sum of its parts
Profile Image for Beth Bennett.
1 review
May 18, 2022
I looked it up in 2022. There are definitely bad schools in Raleigh. Maybe, maybe not, at the time this book was written but there are now. Here are a few I found that are bad: Rogers Lake Elementary, Southeast Raleigh Elementary, Phillips High School.
36 reviews
February 1, 2023
A Tale of Two Cities

An excellent description and analysis of two cities’ approaches to education, the one ending in dismal failure and the other in bright success. This should be required reading for everyone interested in education in America.
Profile Image for Alex Fitzgerald.
76 reviews1 follower
March 19, 2018
“The United States has been shaped by the twin values of liberty and equality. But for the most part liberty has trumped.”
Profile Image for Matt.
806 reviews6 followers
October 2, 2009
This book read really smoothly (I was impressed with the quality of Grant's prose) and had lots of interesting ideas. I didn't know much at all about the history of desegregation in Raleigh, and Grant convinced me that they really are doing great stuff in the schools down there. It's interesting to try to disentangle the laudable desegregation (racial and socioeconomic) occurring there from the district's also-laudable emphasis on wise allocation of resources, data-driven instruction, and making sure that all students actually learn.
I also learned a lot about Syracuse (Grant's hometown, and the city he contrasts with Raleigh) and the book is an engaging and thoughtful survey of some of the struggles of urban cores in the second half of the twentieth century (and beyond), with interesting particularity stemming from Grant's own story of growing up in urban Syracuse, moving out to the suburbs, and then moving back to a decaying city.
Yet there were still some flaws. It's hard to particularize my objections, but it seemed like Grant sometimes relied too much on somewhat-stereotypical, broad descriptions of the difference between urban and suburban schools (and students). These descriptions may be largely accurate, and to his credit Grant has spent a lot of time in schools, but something about them still rankled or at least seemed cursory. I also would have liked more exploration of how Raleigh is currently focusing on the continued influx of ELL students that has made it more challenging to maintain the remarkable progress the district has made (but which seems to be, perhaps, slipping a little).
Overall, though, this book was fascinating and definitely contributed to my knowledge of schools and education policy. Grant's right -- schools are better when they're racially and socioeconomically diverse. The trick (as Grant realizes) is to figure out how best to bring about this integration and how best to ensure that all students are receiving outstanding educational opportunity.
253 reviews16 followers
June 29, 2015
Provocative reading. We continue in the early 21st century to struggle with the same issues of the impact of concentrated poverty in education that were recognized in federal education legislation of the mid-1960's. Grant's comparison of the histories of regional planning and educational districting that prevailed in his hometown of Syracuse, NY, and those of Raleigh/Wake County, NC, suggest that we think deeply about re-shaping the (political) boxes within which we live and educate. Of key interest in my own small city context (York, PA), is the merging of educational delivery and school assignments across Raleigh's urban and surrounding suburban schools - the creation of the Wake County Public School System in 1976. WCPSS made explicit a student-school assignment system that would ensure that no school would have a student body with more than 40% of 'students living in poverty.' This school-assignment strategy was combined with a second phase of reform targeting universal (95%) success on state assessments accompanied with the now-familiar processes of standards-based education, curriculum alignment, monitoring of student growth using assessment data, and continuous improvement processes. And - students succeeded - all students, all schools...
Profile Image for Khloe.
6 reviews23 followers
March 9, 2020
Really interesting deep-dive into one city's solution to the problems of school segregation and the education/opportunity debt that CONTINUE to arise post-Brown -- while in conversation with other (segregated and "failing") cities, as well as the communities' sociopolitical contexts. Milliken v. Bradley may have made bussing impossible across (arbitrary) district lines, so Raleigh NC said away with districts! The nation could learn a thing or two from this successful execution of desegregation -- hopefully, we see more cities trying out much-needed systems like this in the future.
Profile Image for Patricia.
2,324 reviews43 followers
October 2, 2009
I stopped reading this short, readable book before getting to the "hope" section. Reading about the decline of Syracuse just made me mad. Even though I haven't finished it, this book will always be the book that opened my eyes to the fact that the mortgage subsidies most homeowners get add up to much more of a subsidy than welfare recipients get.
Profile Image for Nicholas Husbye .
10 reviews4 followers
September 13, 2011
A really informative read about the construction of a school district designed to support all students. Well written and thoroughly engaging, it made me appreciate the hard work and dedication that goes into ensuring all students have a chance to learn. Unfortunately, the book also documents the dismantling of that same system.
Profile Image for S..
Author 1 book1 follower
November 26, 2011
Although I think this is an interesting book and a very worthy topic of discussion, the author presents a simplistic view of some of the arguments. He often ignores high profile research that disagrees with some of the viewpoints presented.
Profile Image for Liz.
151 reviews
January 3, 2010
Very good, skipped a few chapters and just reading the parts I'm interested in...really makes one think of the issues of poverty and income inequality...now I just need to read the Marx's Capital.
527 reviews
March 13, 2010
A little bit dry in parts, but an interesting history of segregation/desegregation of neighborhoods and schools.
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