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Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America, by Jonathon Kozol

Jonathon Kozol’s still at it.

Tho he turned 76 last week, he hasn’t lost any of the fire and outrage he’s had since his first experiences in the Boston public schools in 1964.

Thirteen books later (Death at an Early Age was his first one), he continues his crusade to wake up America to the injustices that our public schools and our public policies foist on poor kids and their families.

In his newest book, Fire in the Ashes, Kozol writes about the children (many now in their 20s or older) and the parents he got to know in the infamous Martinique welfare hotel in NYC (” a hell on earth…the cesspool, the worst place in the world you could be with children,” according to one parent who lived there).

Fire in the Ashes is their story. “What happened to these children? What happened to their families? Some prevailed, a few triumphantly. Most survived, even at a rather modest level of survival. Others did not,” he writes in the introduction.

Kozol tells his readers he “followed them, invited by their parents to visit them on weekend afternoons or in the evenings during a school holiday, to keep alive the friendships we had formed when they were in shelters. I went to their schools. I got to know their teachers. I went to their churches. I got to know their pastors. I went to their hospitals……We had long talks, took long walks, had meals together, and I kept in touch by phone and mail and e-mail…we rebuilt our friendships.”

I suppose you could say Fire in the Ashes is kind of a longitudinal account of what happened to these kids and their families.

When he writes (and talks*) about the children (Eric, Lisette, Christophe,. Miranda, Ariella, Leonardo, Jeremy Stephen, Angelo, Benjamin, Pineapple, Mosquito), he puts life and faces into the awful statistics (72% of black males entering 9th grade city-wide in NY drop out before the end of their senior year, and the failure rate for black males in the Bronx may be even worse, he writes).

There are some successes too, kids who have survived and go on to help others. Yet, of the ones who have done well, he writes, “all these children had unusual advantages. Someone intervened in every case, and with dramatic consequences.”

But, Kozol’s also writes, “(T)he charitable inclinations of a school or philanthropic donors, and charity has never been a substitute, not in any amplitude, for systemic justice and systematic equality in public education. If any lesson may be learned from the academic breakthroughs achieved by Pineapple and Jeremy, it is not that we should celebrate exceptionality of opportunity but that the public schools themselves in neighborhoods of wide-spread destitution ought to have the rich resources, small classes, and well-prepared and well-regarded teachers that would enable us to give every child the feast of learning that is now available to children of the poor only on the basis of a carefully selectivity or by catching the attention of empathetic people like the pastor of a church or another grown-up whom they meet by chance. Charity and chance and narrow selectivity are not the way to educate the children of a genuine democracy.”

*In talking about his new book, Kozol told a full house in the Sidwell Friends Meeting Room in DC last week that while he respects and will vote for Pres. Obama in Nov., he’s disappointed the president hasn’t taken stronger action to ban “No Child Left Behind.” The reliance on ‘mechanistic measuring’ to judge students and teachers, he told the audience, has no bearing on real learning and has become a way of ‘shaming teachers’ and students.**

Kozol concluded his hour long talk, saying “I’m at the age now where time feels precious…but I fear I’m out of fashion. Life goes fast. Use it well.”

How sad that someone who has devoted his life to trying to expose the tragedy of how we fail the poorest in our society can believe he’s ‘out of fashion.’

But even more tragic is the perception that he may be correct in his assessment. That we continue to fail this portion of our population is inexcusable.

(**Almost as if the author of this article – Everything You’ve Heard About Failing Schools Is Wrong –  is channeling Kozol, Kristina Rizga tells the inside story of a supposedly ‘failing school.’)