5 February 2012
Yesterday, we looked at the self-esteem courses offered years ago in Fishtown’s Central High School, to combat the high dropout rate and related problems. Fishtown, you will recall, is an iconic working class neighborhood:
… made famous by social commentator Charles Murray, where working class people—far from clinging bitterly to guns and religion—are sinking helplessly into unemployment and family breakdown.
A more recent fix was the decision that Fishtown students need to eat smart!
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Problem 2. Only a vending machine would disagree. But there were a lot of vending machines in and around Fishtown High. Besides which, chip wagons, hot dog carts, and ice cream trucks circled the premises. Nearby variety stores microwaved pizza purchases for customers. (It was a legal gray area.) The school cafeteria franchise competed by serving jumbo cheeseburgers and huge plates of nachos and cheese.
The truest representatives of natural vegetables in the entire lunchroom were the biology department’s “Plants that clean the air” demo in the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the track. But they weren’t edible.
Experts concurred that a key problem for Fishtown’s young people was their steady diet of snack, junk, and fast food. Many students were overweight, though not, of course, the ones who prized athletics or fashion. In any event, poor diet probably led directly to low test scores and reduced motivation to stay in school. Something had to be done to advance the students’ initiative, discipline, and physical fitness . . .
Most Central High students didn’t know what hit them when one Monday morning they arrived to find that all the vending machines were gone. Curiously, local traffic cops started ticketing the food vendors’ wagons for minor traffic offences that had always been overlooked in the past. The vendors’ visits became brief, furtive, and much less frequent. Shortly afterward, something or other happened to the microwave ovens at the local variety stores. The students assumed that the administration was behind all this: The goal, they told each other, was to make students eat in the school cafeteria, in order to curtail drug dealing (both real and imagined) and smoking (usually real) off premises.
Yes, the goal was indeed to make the students eat in the cafeteria, but the students were hardly prepared for what happened next: Cafeteria comfort foods—the burgers, the fries, the nachos n’ cheese—disappeared one day. In their place, were vegetable stir fries, bean salads, and organic vegetables with low-fat dips. Eat Smart!!
It’s no exaggeration to say that the students’ cultural background had not accustomed them to even regarding these materials as food. Some protested, others just shrugged. Most of the cafeteria’s offerings ended up in the trash.
Despite that, the Eat Smart!! program was a roaring success. Remember, the goal had been to “advance the students’ initiative, discipline, and physical fitness.” All three goals were amply met.
1. Initiative: Impenetrable networks were formed overnight, to funnel fast food and junk food into the school under the noses of teachers and administrators, disposing of all wrappings invisibly.
2. Discipline: It was five months before a single lapse offered the vice principal a clue to the intricate workings of the system, which had spread its tentacles through the whole building.
3. Physical fitness: The student relays dispatched to pick up the orders tweeted to local fast-food chains braved all-weather conditions, usually on foot, carrying heavy loads disguised as books. One student spent six hours on the roof in frigid conditions because someone had mistakenly locked the roof-access door. That incident, which triggered a call to the emergency services, was the lapse referred to in 2. above.
The experts were at a loss about their success; it was real, but there was no conventional way of advertising it. How could they say, “We aroused such opposition in students as to force them to display qualities needed for success that neither we nor they knew they had”?
Still less could they say, “We can’t change a culture just by descending from on high with what we believe to be a superior culture. Life never works that way. ”
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Next: Why proposed improvements to failing schools don’t really work, Part III: Fishtown students should be forbidden to leave school before they are eighteen!!