An Unsentimental Education

A week on the inside with the students and teachers of Wayzata High and St. Paul Central.

After the game--6-0 over Edina--the kids mill around in the cafeteria, dancing to what sounds like a crowd-control repertoire of "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" and old disco. "Hey," the DJ blurts over the amps, "no moshin' out there. Let's keep it clean tonight." Chaperones hang off step ladders around the perimeter, checking for strays. Couples in hip-hop gear clot the dark corners in the courtyard, whispering and making out. Two cops from Plymouth patrol the hallway.

"Trouble?" one says. "Sure, we might get some trouble out here. Kids just don't respect authority anymore. They swear at teachers, at parents, at us. They don't stop when we tell them to." A kid fresh out of the locker room, with a residue of black grease still under his eyes, stops, salutes with a snicker, then turns and digs four bucks from his pocket for a ticket.

"See? It's the little stuff. It's weird these days. These are the luckiest kids around, with all the promise in the world. Best school, best families, got everything going for them. We can't figure out what the hell's wrong with them."

"I did call the doctor, I did do that. But his office says there's no time free till Thursday. So my baby's just sick. Plus the buses ain't running so I can't get there. My aunt's car's broke down."

The girl is standing outside St. Paul Central High School's nursery; inside, a dozen infants and toddlers snack on cereal and crackers. The teacher who's pulled her over in the hall between classes rocks back on her heels.

"Does he have a fever?"

"Yeah, he's burning up."

"Did he sleep?"

"Not so much. He was crying, wouldn't stop crying, all night. So I didn't do any of the studying. That's it. I got to take care of this, I got to get home." The bell startles them both to attention, and hundreds of kids flood into the hall. Students pry open lockers around the two, yanking out gym clothes and books, strapping on headphones and slamming the metal doors shut.

"You got practice later?" a boy yells to his friend on the stairwell.

"No man, I got to be to work fast. Later."

The young mom examines her nails, in detail, antsy to quit the talk and go. "You'll be here tomorrow?" the teacher asks, touching her on the shoulder. "Depends..." she says, walking away, "it depends on if I can get some better sleep."

Like Wayzata, Central High School in St. Paul is filled to capacity, with nearly 2,000 kids enrolled and another wave on the waiting list. It's a near-even split here between students who live in the vicinity and those who bus or drive in from elsewhere, mainly for the popular magnet specialties in Central's curriculum. The building itself towers on the corner of Marshall and Lexington, a colossal structure of tacked-on administrative and science wings with a spread of baseball diamonds and overgrown tennis courts in the rear. It's the oldest continuous high school in the cities, around since the late 1800s in various sites; a succession of keep-up-with-demand renovations still show in the seams around the original brickwork.

By 9 a.m., two door monitors are in place by the front entrance with walkie-talkies in hand, checking passes in and out of the locked building. At the end of the long corridor of administrative offices nearby, a teacher with a snazzy wild-animal necktie leans over the secretary's counter. A colleague nudges him in the ribs, says, "Ah, a safari tie--"

"Right-o," he shoots back, adjusting his laminated name badge. "I live in the jungle. I work in the jungle."

It's a joke some image-builders at Central don't find too funny these days. A bad reputation--sparked by a few incidents of gang violence and stoked in evening news leads--is tough to live down. But beyond the occasional toilet paper fire in a boys' bathroom and the periodic stash of hooch nabbed from a locker, most who run this school will tell you the bad rep is undeserved, a lingering rumor that's dogged Central too long.

"Many traditions, one school" reads the red banner on the building's face. The ethnic breakdown at Central--56 percent white, 26 percent black, 13 percent Asian, and the balance Hispanic and Native--looks right against integration standards. By the administration's count, 60 percent of these kids are bound for college, some two- or four-year, some tech. The Quest program in humanities, the International Baccalaureate program across the board, and an exclusive performing arts department are all recent inventions designed not only to launch kids toward college diplomas, but also (and this is the underlying agenda wrestled over at staff meetings) to stanch the "white flight" out of the city, to Wayzata, say, or into private high schools. In response, Central's curriculum offers more electives than any other school around, a battery of diverse clubs and after-school extras, and an Advanced Placement tracking system that, on paper, reads like the answer to middle class parents' prayers.

"Self-tracking" is how it's phrased. As in, "Advanced Placement classes run on a sort of self-tracking system, so students choose whether or not to include themselves." These are the high-powered courses--college-level calculus, philosophy, political economy--assigned to the best teachers and, as it turns out, populated predominately by white students. This academic school-within-a-school arrangement is high on Central's bragging list, and it's no wonder. Ivy League recruiters court these cream-of-the-crop kids, their lucky parents love it enough to resist the urge to flee, and overall test-score averages--a constant source of potential flak for today's urban schools--get boosted. Meanwhile, the "regular" classes of self-selected students struggle along in crammed classrooms, saddled with a new sort of in-house segregation no legal statutes seem able to remedy.

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