On an unseasonably warm evening last November, Glendalys Delgado lowered herself into a child-sized chair in the classroom of her youngest son, Juan, a second-grader at Thomas Dudley Elementary School in Camden, New Jersey. Juan's teacher, Shakira Wyche, sat next to her looking serious.
"You're going to be a little upset," Wyche told Delgado as she held up Juan's report card. A line of Fs trailed down the page. Juan is "very intelligent," perhaps the smartest in the class, the teacher said, but he refuses to work in class or do his homework. "I can't just give him straight-A's because I like him," Wyche said.
Delgado nodded. "I tell him he's going to be left behind if he doesn't do his work," she replied in halting English, giving the teacher a wan smile as she backed out of the room. "No more excuses."
Delgado, a 32-year-old mother of three, works as a home health aide for the elderly. She moved to Camden at age 18 from Puerto Rico and lived alone with an infant daughter after the child's father was sent to prison for his role in a murder. Delgado stayed in Camden and had two sons.
By any measure, there are few worse places in this country to raise a family than here. Camden, a small city across the river from Philadelphia, competes with Detroit and Youngstown, Ohio, for the nation's worst poverty and crime rates. Infant mortality in Camden is 16 percent, significantly more than the 6 percent nationally. This year, Camden's unemployment rate rose while it stabilized in the rest of the country. The city laid off 168 officers, half of its police force, until the state sent money that allowed it to rehire 50 of them. Last year, the city's population shrank, like it has every year since the 1950s as people with enough means flee to the suburbs.
Only 16 percent of Camden's elementary school students pass literacy tests. The graduation rate at the two main high schools averages just 50 percent. Violence is common. Juan, who is 7, describes his first-grade experience as "rough" because of the numerous fights on the playground and in the halls. The district has a notorious history of corruption, cheating, and neglect by the grown-ups in the system.
Many education reformers have become convinced that fixing failing public schools is the best, perhaps only, way to revive places like Camden. In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie has proposed a series of reforms meant to resuscitate failing schools and, with them, failing communities. "If we get this right, most of our other problems will fix themselves," Christie has said. "And if we get this wrong, we can't fix any of our long-term systemic problems."
Christie rolled out a slate of proposals for statewide school reforms including merit pay for teachers, stricter tenure rules, and more efficient means of removing ineffective teachers from the classroom. In Camden this June, he announced another initiative that would hand the management of failing schools over to private organizations. (Legislation is pending before the state legislature.) At the heart of Christie's philosophy, shared by reformers that include former school chancellors Joel Klein in New York and Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C., is the conviction that poverty has been used as an excuse by teachers' unions and school districts to avoid the hard work of school reform.
But in Camden, even great teachers face obstacles that are difficult to overcome. Increasingly, educators and experts are questioning the reformers' tactics and asking whether the single-minded focus on schools has become an excuse to avoid the hard work of addressing poverty.
For the past seven years, Delgado has lived with her three children in the Ablett Village housing project. Surrounded by vacant lots, the community sits on a spit of land known as Cramer Hill that's cut off from the rest of the city by a sludgy brown tributary of the Delaware River and a rail yard. The project is a few square blocks of two-story bunker-style buildings with a reputation for crime and drug dealing. Living there is a trade-off. Although Ablett may be grimy and dangerous, the apartments are at least occupied; about one in seven homes in Camden is abandoned, and at least one rotting, boarded-up house sits on most blocks.
Delgado's hope is that her children will escape poverty someday, and she has put her faith in the schools to help them do so. "I want them to go to college. I want them to be police or doctors, so that they do something in the morning. I want them to have careers," she says. This year, her faith in the power of schools was deeply shaken. She moved her children to new schools, asked for better teachers, and has meanwhile watched the district experiment with reforms like charter schools. These changes, though, seemed to have little effect on her children's academic performance. Were her children's failures the sole fault of their schools and teachers, or was there something more pervasive at work?
During a parent-teacher conference last fall, Delgado listened to her son Carlos's sixth-grade special-education teacher spend a half hour complaining about her students: "They do not shut up. They're all talking while I'm trying to teach." The woman confided to Delgado that "math was never one of my favorites." The teacher then explained that she'd started the year with a fifth-grade math book but that the students didn't understand her lessons. So she switched to a third-grade book.
In Juan's case, it was more difficult to blame an indifferent teacher for his troubles. Wyche, who has two years of experience, works late most days. One of her lowest-performing students often stays after school to finish his homework because his mother works long hours. Wyche, who spent much of her childhood in Camden and "knows what goes on outside of these walls," was sent several hard cases last year because her principal thought she was best equipped to handle them. Even after the parent-teacher conference, Juan still refused to do his schoolwork and was suspended twice for fighting. Wyche blames a combination of things: his past teachers, a lack of discipline at home, his environment, his own stubbornness. "I don't write them off," she says. "But there has to be effort from everybody."
It's hard for schools to hold the line against a city that has crumbled into rubble and violence around them. The first time I visited the high school that Delgado's 16-year-old daughter, Ninoshka, attends, a brawl involving dozens of students broke out on the lawn. The second time, as I chatted with Principal Tyrone Richards, a school secretary swept him away to deal with an emergency. Gang members had threatened a ninth-grader after killing one of the boy's friends, and the ninth-grader had attempted suicide. "Learning is our first priority," Richards said later. "But sometimes it can be hard to focus on academics."
A recent study by John Fantuzzo, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests that even for kids like the Delgados who don't suffer from problems like homelessness or abuse, being surrounded by kids who do can hurt their achievement.
Delgado has sought out charter schools after hearing good things from other desperate parents about the schools' "no excuses" motto. She applied to four, but her children were waitlisted at each. Even if they had gotten in, it's not certain that they would have excelled.
Camden's half-dozen charter schools have yet to prove that schools alone can conquer poor academic performance in high-poverty areas. Two-thirds of elementary students in Camden's charters fail state literacy tests, and more than half of middle-school students in charters fail, according to a report by the Christie administration.
The focus on schools as the saviors of communities like Camden have largely quashed discussions about more large-scale anti-poverty policies as a piece of the solution. Two universities in Camden are trying to replicate the whole-neighborhood approach pioneered by the Harlem Children's Zone of improving parenting skills, health, and other outside-school factors; both projects had hoped for more funding from an Obama administration initiative known as Promise Neighborhoods, but Congress scaled back the budget for the program this year.
Expecting schools to make up for all of society's problems is shortsighted, argues Fantuzzo. "Success in education is more than the education system," Fantuzzo says. If schools were to start coordinating with hospitals and doctors, government agencies that deal with homelessness and child abuse, and nongovernmental groups that provide counseling, after-school programs, and other services--all of the "many hands that touch the little hand," as Fantuzzo puts it--government might be better able to craft more comprehensive, and ultimately more effective, interventions.
On a recent afternoon at her apartment in the Ablett Village, Delgado sat at the kitchen table in hot-pink scrubs after work, thinking back on the school year that she once had high hopes for and recounting her children's latest academic crises.
She lobbied to have Carlos moved into a regular education class for part of the day, where he was enjoying the more challenging work. But the principal told her that because his teacher continued to report behavior problems, he might have to move to a new school this year, which is known for gang violence. She caught Ninoshka cutting a free tutoring program she had found for her. And she was still at a loss about how to make Juan work harder.
"I'm giving everything for my kids. I told them I want them to have a better life than I did. I don't know what's wrong," Delgado said, adding in Spanish: "I get so stressed and anxious about it. It's like I'm swimming and swimming upstream, and I don't get anywhere."
The same might be said of Camden as a whole. Governor Christie and his fellow reformers hope that teachers will have more success in improving beleaguered places like Camden, where every previous effort seems to have failed. But, as Fantuzzo and his colleagues and many others are increasingly arguing, their job would be easier if poverty and failing schools were attacked together.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.