For nearly 50 years, Jonathan Kozol has dedicated his life to working with low-income children in inner cities. As one of the leading advocates for public education reform and the author of three prize-winning books about his time with children in the South Bronx, Kozol is a steadfast champion of children subjected to poverty. Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America serves as his culminating work about his captivating journey, with them, of friendship, triumph, and loss.
As Jan Resseger points out in “Education and the Wealth Gap ” in the September-October issue of Sojourners magazine, the unjust, systemic economic inequality in U.S. public education today harms the common good. Kozol writes with conviction and clarity that public education must be reformed to benefit all children, not just a select few.
Fire in the Ashes launched nationwide on August 28; he’s currently on a fall book tour . Sojourners assistant editor Elaina Ramsey, a former resident of the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx, spoke with Kozol in early August.
Elaina Ramsey: What compelled you to write Fire in the Ashes?
Jonathan Kozol: In the middle of the 1980s, I was drawn into the terrible struggles of the destitute families in New York. A religious friend of mine brought me to a homeless shelter in midtown Manhattan, a nightmarish place called the Martinique Hotel. It was a 17-story building packed with about 1600 children and their parents. I spent two or three years with families from that shelter. In 1990 and 1991, the city finally shut down that shelter and resettled them in the poorer sections of the South Bronx.
The children found themselves surrounded by the height of the drug traffic in Mott Haven as they went to school. And the schools they attended were among the worst I’d ever seen in the United States, wildly unequal to suburban schools.
I followed the families there, we became friends, and I wrote three books about those kids as they were growing up. Around 2006 I lost track of a lot of the kids and families due to my own parents’ health issues and passing away. It wasn’t until four years ago that I had the strength to go into the same neighborhoods and find those kids. I wanted to find out what happened to them. I wanted to know how many were able to rise above the injuries they had undergone, so that’s why I wrote Fire in the Ashes.
You write about how the poor quality of education in the South Bronx affected children like Pineapple, Angelo, and Jeremy. Can you share more about the journeys of some of these children?
Some of them, I’m sad to say, never did recover from the damage that was done to them in the early years. These were kids who had learning disadvantages. Three of them who suffered most are no longer alive. Many other kids did not die at an early age, but nonetheless got caught up in a school-to-prison pipeline starting in their teenage years.
Then there are a lot of other kids in this book for whom our prayers will not be needed, although, of course, they are always welcome. About seven of the 15 children I portray didn’t simply survive against the awful obstacles that they faced, but persevered with a lot of help from grown-ups—some from the community, some from outside—teachers who spotted these kids and fought on their behalf. The triumphant victories of children like Pineapple and Jeremy: These are the ones I call the fire in the ashes.
Studies show that there is an achievement gap between children living in poverty and those in affluent neighborhoods. How did you see this disparity play out in the classrooms of the South Bronx?
Pineapple’s school was a real disaster zone. The halls were dark; the building smelled. She had typically 30 to 32 students in her class. Teachers understandably didn’t stay for long. In her third and fourth grade years, Pineapple had a total of seven different teachers. The school thought it could compensate for instability of faculty and miserable teaching conditions by very rigid methods of instruction—no asking critical questions, no time for the children to be whimsical or enjoy a time of delicious hilarity.
People would say, “Kids don’t have time for that. Save that for the children of the suburbs.” Pineapple basically learned nothing in school. By fifth grade I finally sat down with her to see where she was—and I knew she wasn’t learning much, but I didn’t know how bad it was. I realized that she could barely write a sentence of five words. I didn’t need any standardized exam to point that out. And here she was, a smart and spunky little child. She wasn’t dumb. She had been artificially retarded by New York.
Speaking of standardized exams , what impact did the testing policies of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) have on these children?
The schools they went to, especially the elementary middle schools, were beginning to undergo the early stages of what I would call “obsessive testing,” or teaching to the test. The same things were happening in other urban areas where suddenly, instead of reading books, teachers were forced to make children read out of these abysmally boring phonics readers, reading systems produced by corporations which were allegedly aligned with state exams. Even before NCLB was passed in 2002, it simply codified what was already happening in New York, Chicago, Houston, etc., but made it more severe. In any case, these kids were the first product of what I would call the test-and-terror regimen which has since overtaken our public education system in this country.
There is an ongoing debate about the effectiveness of charter schools vs. traditional public schools. Where do you stand on this issue?
There are a handful of good charter schools out there. I try to be fair-minded, but they really are exceptions. They are the ones that get attention, so they get extra money. They are subtly selective in the children that they admit, so naturally their scores look better. But by and large, these semi-private schools or privately funded small academies do no better. On average they do a little worse than the public schools that serve the children charter schools don’t want. And I think in the long run the battle here is a major one—to defend the legacy of democratic public education against those who really don’t see the value of that legacy as something worth preserving.
The New York Times recently reported that wealthy neighborhoods in Manhattan are raising about $1 million a year through their PTAs  to supplement public education funds. How do you feel about this practice?
I think if you’re going to allow that, you ought to stipulate that at least half the money raised be shared with the schools with poor children. What we’re ending up with in wealthy neighborhoods are hybrid public/private schools. So long as this goes on, there will never be an honest meritocracy in the United States. What we have right now is what I would call a purchasable hereditary meritocracy. That isn’t the way to educate citizens in a democracy.
Even though you’re based in Boston, what keeps you coming back to the South Bronx?
In order to write this kind of book, I had to keep going back. Almost every book I’ve written in this period of 40 to 50 years is about education. Sometimes it’s about very specific education issues, but it always begins and ends with kids. There’s a terrible danger, in discussing the issues, to forget that it’s all about the children. That’s why I kept going back. I didn’t learn nearly as much from my four years at Harvard as I learned from the children in the Bronx.
What lessons can we learn from these children?
If there’s any important lesson to be learned by Pineapple’s eventual victories and those of the other children like her in the book, it’s not that we should be celebrating exceptionality of opportunity. That would be a great misreading of the book. To me, the lesson is that the public school in neighborhoods of poverty ought to have the same terrific resources, well-respected and well-rewarded, emotionally well-protected teachers that can see the magic in the child’s eyes and have the time to educate. A child shouldn’t have to dazzle the world with her amusing personality to get a wonderful education in an alleged democracy.
Pineapple prevailed in part because of charity. Charity is a blessed thing; I’d never turn it down. But charity is not, and will never be, a substitute for systematic justice. That’s why I keep on struggling to defend good teachers against the tendency to treat them with abuse and disrespect. This is why I will continue to do everything in my power to get rid of the obsessive testing, this notion that the only things that matter are the things you can measure. And that’s also why I will continue struggling against the invasion of corporate interests into the public sector.
Given your 50-plus years as an educator and activist, do you think we are making any progress? Is our public education system becoming more equitable?
The only genuine victory since the late 1960s, when Brown vs. Board of Education began to be enforced, is that legally mandated segregation is no longer permitted in America. But it’s a very small victory when you realize that black and Latino children in the present year of 2012 are actually more segregated in their public schools today than the day when Dr. King was taken from us in 1968. When Pineapple went to P.S. 65, I think there were three white children in the school. I checked recently with the New York Board of Education, and there are zero white children in that school today.
In spite of Brown vs. Board of Education, schools in the South Bronx; most of Washington, D.C.; and overwhelmingly large stretches of Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, etc. are in exactly the same situation as children in Mississippi 85 years ago. Inequalities have not diminished. Inequalities are greater than they were before. We have a long way to go.