Documenting inner-city kids' rise to the top

Inner-city public schools often bring to mind images from movies like "Dangerous Minds": menacing minority students, drugs, and gangs. But Miles Corwin offers another view in his book, "And Still We Rise: The Trials and Triumphs of Twelve Gifted Inner-City High School Students" (Bard Books), available later this month.

The Los Angeles Times reporter followed seniors in an advanced placement English class during the 1997 school year. Crenshaw High School is notorious as the setting for the movie "Boyz 'n the Hood" and as home base for one of L.A.'s worst gangs. Its dropout rate is almost 50 percent.

The struggling students, whose stories Mr. Corwin adroitly interweaves faced many challenges: Some had parents on welfare, in prison, or addicted to crack; many worked part- or full-time jobs; several have coped with abuse. Yet most minority students in Crenshaw's gifted magnet program manage to get A's and go on to college.

Excerpts follow from a recent interview with Corwin by the Monitor's Sara Steindorf:

What obstacles did the students face in getting into college?

Well there's Olivia, who was living in yet another foster home where the people didn't really care about her, where it was impossible to study, it was noisy, and she was working full time. (See story, below.) And then there was Sadikifu, who grew up in a tough neighborhood and was a gangbanger and had to leave the gang scene. Then there was Toya, whose stepfather murdered her mother. Then she got pregnant.

What motivated them to rise above their challenges?

You know, that's something I really struggled with. Why do some kids withstand all these difficulties and persist and graduate and go on to college, and why do some fall by the wayside? The kids I followed, by and large, persisted and succeeded. I think part of it is, their intelligence saved them.

They were directed to gifted programs in grammar school and junior high school, and then high school. With the horrendous state of inner-city education, these kids had a little bit of an edge over the other kids.

Oftentimes in the inner city, if the kid is bright and articulate and speaks out in class, he's given a very hard time by the other students. Especially in black schools, sometimes they're accused of selling out and acting white. These kids never had to deal with that to the same extent, because they were in classes with other gifted kids.

And I think because they were bright kids and tested well, it was a little easier for them to envision their future.

From very early on in high school, [a lot of them] were getting recruiting letters from colleges - making it a very real possibility.

Your book suggests the criteria for university admissions are not equitable. Can you give some examples?

One example is the SAT exam. It's purported to be the cornerstone of the meritocracy, where it's just strictly a test score. But it's clear that the suburban and wealthy kids get a lot more preparation. Some have SAT classes or tutoring for years, where parents pay thousands of dollars, and ... their scores can go up quite a bit. The kids I followed didn't have the money for preparation, and a lot of them worked 40 hours a week - even the night before the SAT - and walked into the test cold.

Another thing that is unfair is advanced placement and honors classes, where the grades are weighted so you get more points. In a lot of the middle-class schools, they have two to three times as many honors and AP classes as they do in inner-city schools. If you're in a school that doesn't offer any or only a few, your grade-point average is going to be much lower.

And the whole legacy system: If you have a parent who graduated from a particular college, you have a real advantage.

What do you say to people who think that 40 years of affirmative action is enough?

I agree that affirmative action is an imperfect system, and there are a lot of flaws. There are some kids who benefit from it that shouldn't, and others who should. And I agree our focus should be on improving inner-city schools, but until that is done, there are such clear inequalities in public education, it's just needed, and equitable, and the right thing to do.

In the book I mentioned a study of all the doctors who had graduated from UC medical school over a period of time and who benefited from affirmative action. Forty percent of those were nonminority. They were given an edge because of family income, because of disability, and other problems.

So it is a myth that it is just race-based, but I do think race should be taken into account, along with family income or disability.

What about minority students who are accepted to prestigious universities partly through affirmative action, and get discouraged because they're not as well-prepared as others?

I asked my kids in the book about feeling stigmatized. They say, 'Hey, maybe I've had an edge in some way, but my classmates have had an edge their whole life.' So they certainly don't feel stigmatized.

And as far as maybe being underprepared. You look at the dearth of black and Latino doctors and lawyers and how the healthcare system in the inner city is underserved. Blacks and Latinos who graduated from dental and medical and law school may get slightly lower grades, [but an extensive study shows] they are more likely to return to their communities, be role models, and provide those services that are severely needed in their communities.

What did you learn from these students?

I really respect their ability to persist and persevere and to hold on to their goals under such difficult circumstances. Someone from the outside sees these kids with their baggy pants, and their hip-hop clothes, cornrows - and has one stereotypical impression. But then sit in the classrooms and hear them articulately discuss Shakespeare and James Joyce and read some of their papers, which are so beautifully written, and it doesn't match up to this stereotype.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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