For many outside of the Illinois Blago-sphere, the past couple of days have been a bit of a shock. We would never think that a politician already under investigation for corruption would be arrogant enough to attempt to sell Obama’s Senate seat to the highest bidder, and cuss out the President-Elect for only offering his “appreciation.” The sad fact is, corruption is everywhere in the public sphere, not just in Chicago or Springfield, Illinois. And though Gov. Blagojevich might be one of the more stupid people in elected authority to come down the pike in recent years, he is hardly alone. Happy Belated B-Day to the hopefully former governor, by the way! He turned fifty-two yesterday.
All politics are local, which means that most of the corruption in our politics and public policies starts at the local level. In Washington, DC, much of it over the years has involved the DC School Board and DC Public Schools (not the Mayor’s Office). In the case of the school board, it until recently served as the first or second step toward the DC City Council and the Mayor’s Office, as DC residents began voting for school board members in ’67, six years before home rule. The late Walter Washington and Marion Barry (among others) cut their political teeth in become the district’s first elected school board members in the late-60s.
But local politics and corruption can make it into the minutia of everyday public policies, particularly in public education. It can be something small, like who gets or doesn’t get new textbooks, or setting up teacher transfer policies in collusion with the local teacher’s union so that few of the best teachers ever teach in the poorest performing of the public schools. Or it could be something even more insidious, like setting up an ability grouping system so that it benefits one group of local residents over another.
To a great extent, the gifted-track program in which I was a student for most of the ’80s was first created to, among other things, stem the tide of White flight from the Mount Vernon school district. Here’s what I wasn’t fully aware of at the time. The Humanities Program began as a response to an NAACP lawsuit filed on behalf of Mount Vernon’s Black residents in ’76. Despite the district’s previous attempts at desegregation during the ’50s and ’60s (a new Mount Vernon High School, built in ’62, was a result of those early efforts), the system had remained segregated. A Mount Vernon Daily Argus article from early ’77 showed that elementary schools on Mount Vernon’s North Side varied from 17.7 percent to 46.7 percent Black (the one exception was Holmes, at 83.5 percent Black). South Side schools were between 93 and 99.5 percent Black (the one exception was Grimes at 51.9 percent Black). According to James Meyerson, the lead attorney for the NAACP case against the school district, the “figures reflect the basic, segregated nature of the school system.”
Superintendent William C. Prattella and the school board responded in the summer of ’76 with a four-point desegregation plan, of which Grimes was point number one. They also instituted an open-enrollment policy for parents to transfer their children to other schools across the district, authorized the demolition of the old Lincoln Elementary and the construction of a new and bigger one, and realigned school programs along an east-west axis versus the White North and Black South Side one.
The Grimes Center for Creative Education and the Humanities Program that followed was of particular importance, for me and for my classmates. Like so many others across the US, Humanities was also a magnet school experiment that represented the best efforts toward integration and educational opportunities for all—at least that’s what I remember educators and reporters saying at the time. For our school board, it was an experiment that they hoped would keep White parents invested in the school district, as they paid the majority of the property taxes, the lifeblood of the school coffers. White flight from the school district, if not Mount Vernon itself, was one underlying reason for the obvious neighborhood school segregation, with overcrowded South Side and undercrowded North Side schools. The school district had gone from forty-three percent to twenty-eight percent White between ’70 and ’76. At Holmes, my elementary school from third through sixth grade, nearly sixty-four percent of its students had been White in ’70. Six years later, only twelve percent of the students in the school were White, without a substantial increase in the overall numbers of students in attendance. No wonder the NAACP filed a lawsuit in July ’76.
Between ’76 and ’93, roughly 2,500 students attended Humanities’ accelerated college-prep classes. Humanities was built in phases, beginning with the Board of Education’s establishment of it at the Grimes Elementary School, renamed the Grimes Center for Creative Education. Humanities became part of A.B. Davis Middle School in ’77 and ’78 (for seventh and eighth grade), and part of Mount Vernon High School between ’79 and ’83. Humanities’ first class of graduates marched in June ’83.
In the process, the district moved around its teachers, administrators, and other resources to build Humanities, as they received two million dollars a year from New York State for the program. The Board of Education authorized the construction of a new wing at Davis specifically to house Humanities’ students, and Mount Vernon High School allocated three of its fifteen guidance counselors for about 400 of the school’s 3,500 students.
What brought Humanities to my attention occurred in ’80. That May, allegedly as an effort to save money, the school board voted five to one to move the Grimes program to Pennington Elementary, deep in Mount Vernon’s North Side between ritzy Fleetwood and Mount Vernon’s affluent and White northern border. The lone dissenter was James Jubilee, the only African American on the school board. In response to fellow board member Anthony Veteri, who said in exasperation, “What’s the difference where you make love?,” Jubilee responded, “In this community it makes a lot of difference. . . . it [the board’s decision] almost spells racism.”
Pennington was a high-achieving and mostly White school and it was underpopulated— 292 students were enrolled in a building that could hold up to 525. Grimes only housed 273 Humanities students, but it was in an old building that the school board couldn’t afford to renovate. Without Humanities, Pennington already possessed a reputation for its teaching and student achievement excellence. With Humanities and its Grimes students, Pennington would become the preeminent elementary school in the city. By the time I enrolled in Humanities, White students were roughly sixty percent of the program’s total student body. About seventy-five of my 120 seventh-grade classmates in Humanities were White, many of them post-Grimes Pennington converts.
Mount Vernon’s racial and ethnic politics influenced the selection of a fair number of Italians in Humanities, at least in my class. The Italian Civic Association (ICA), a six-decade old organization when Humanities got off the ground in the late ’70s, boasted school administrators and school board members as part of its membership. This included the district’s superintendent, William Prattella. Having taken the job in ’72, Prattella by the time I’d reached Humanities was the second-most politically powerful person in the city, after the late Mayor Thomas Sharpe. Only one member of the school board was African American, while more than half of the members were Italian. In the spring of ’81, two Blacks and one Italian ran for the school board slot that the lone Black, James Jubilee, had vacated. Jubilee’s decision to step down was apparently motivated in part by the decisions leading to the creation of the Humanities Program and Pennington-Grimes. According to the Mount Vernon Daily Argus, Jubilee’s resignation was his protest against “the ‘shams’” on the school board. He called the board “a monolithic block of white Italian men,” all of whom had ties to the ICA.
The racial politics didn’t stop at the polls or in the local newspaper. There was some indication that some Humanities students, particularly the Italian ones, were able to enroll in the gifted-track program because of their relatives on the school board or because of their parents’ ICA membership. One former classmate noted that Prattella was a “distant cousin of his mother’s,” and that one of our seventh grade teachers was also a close relative on his mother’s side. The teacher put a good word in for him with Mrs. Mann, the Humanities coordinator at Davis Middle School, trumping issues with his grades and conduct. And there was Dawn Prattella, the daughter of the superintendent. I wasn’t aware of the nuances of racial and educational politics in seventh grade. But I did notice, almost immediately, that my Italian classmates generally didn’t fit in with the affluent and more cultured Whites in our class.
It this a form of corruption? You bet it is! Is this unusual or shocking? No, unfortunately. People use their power and influence everyday to level an unlevel playing field for others, and more often, to tilt the field in favor of people they know, like, or can help them politically or economically. In the case of Mount Vernon’s local school politics, it made sense for those in power to put their thumbs on the scale of an academic program so that their relatives and others with economic or political connections would benefit. Of course, Black, Afro-Caribbean and Latino students benefited as well. But likely not as much as they could’ve under the circumstances.
This is the everyday nature of politics locally and nationally. The only real way to limit corruption and the abuse of authority or power is with civic vigilance and political oversight. Which was why the Mayor’s Office in DC under Adrian Fenty took oversight authority over DC Public Schools two years ago, and likely why he decided to go with a non-traditional education reformer and outsider in Michelle Rhee as Chancellor last year. Too bad this didn’t happen in Mount Vernon a quarter-century ago. Face it, folks. Corruption will always be with us, but only to the extent that we allow our leaders to get away with their excesses.