From the outside, Silver City Elementary School is a humble building. One story tall, unflattering pink and black brick, tall skinny windows. It reflects its humble surroundings, in a poor urban area of Kansas City, Kansas marked by tiny houses and brown apartment buildings.
Although it joined Kansas City in 1910, this region still has an old-town feel. It is not without its history; it used to be called Prophetstown. Nearby is the grave of the Shawnee Tensquatawa, the Prophet. His brother, Tecumseh, built a confederation of Native American tribes in the Ohio Valley, to protect their lands from the United States. Both the Prophet and Tecumseh fought at Tippecanoe against General William Henry Harrison in 1811. After the War of 1812, the Prophet and the Shawnee were forced to move farther west, into Missouri and Kansas. This area of KC now sits on what used to be a Shawnee reservation.
The town has a history of refining and smelting metal since 1880. In 1896, for instance, the town’s plant produced over 1.5 million pounds of copper (Blackmar, 1912, pp. 95-97). The plant refined silver and gold, too, using ore from South and North America, becoming the backbone of the modern city. At one point, its smokestack was the tallest on earth, the city being known as the “Silver Refining Capital of the World.” Excellent railway lines from several counties kept the industry booming. During this period, black freedmen and white European immigrants such as Belgians, Germans, Poles, Russians, and Czechs flocked to the town for work and property. Silver City Elementary is named after this industry.
As one approaches the entrance, he or she will note three sets of doors, all of which remain locked. This is not the safest of neighborhoods. An intercom is on the wall to request entrance.
Inside, all is clean and orderly. What’s perhaps most striking is how open everything is: all that separates the lobby from the library is a partition wall, with hallways branching off the library. Silver City Elementary was actually the first “open-space” school in Kansas City (Shutt II, 1976, chapter 7). Shutt writes, “This means it has large open spaces with semi-permanent partitions. Thus, the school can be adapted to changing enrollment and educational requirements.” This experimental school opened in 1971, a test subject for other open schools to be built the next year. Dr. Oren L. Plucker, the former superintendent, writes that the design of the library, teacher work areas, and fine arts facilities was an architectural model (1986). It seems to have been a success; there is a personal, inviting feel to the open school.
Originally, according to Shutt II, Silver City Elementary was just over 25,000 square feet, and cost just over half a million dollars to build. It had a maximum capacity for 250 students. It began with eight teachers and three aides. Three years ago, a new wing was added, and in the 2010-2011 school year, there were 267 enrolled.
The school appears to be funded adequately. Rooms have smart boards and computers, and are fully furnished and colorfully decorated with student projects. Each teacher has a new Macbook. While there are some old, run-down cars in the teacher parking lot, most of them are recent models and in prime condition.
The children are friendly and polite, referring to me using “Mister.” They were eager to ask me questions, show off what they were learning, and invite me to play math games during class or basketball during fitness period. Most are high-spirited, talkative, and enjoy being there, an amazing fact considering their neighborhood is poorer than 96.3% of all U.S. neighborhoods (almost 40% of the children live in poverty) (Neighborhood Scout, 2010). 93.7% are on the Free and Reduced Lunch Program (kckps.org, 2011). Silver City Elementary provides both breakfast and lunch to its students.
“Mrs. Steele” reports that most of her fifth grade students are still hungry even with these meals, which are small portions and low in nutritional quality.
“I’m hungry,” I overheard a girl say to a classmate.
“You just had lunch!” the boy replied.
Mrs. Steele’s room has bags of food donated from Harvester’s hanging on hooks on the short wall that partitions her room from two others. The “snack packs” contain small cans of soup and fruit, juice boxes, trail mix, etc. It is not much for anyone, much less a growing fifth-grader. The packs are given out to the hungriest children.
“Some parents won’t take handouts,” Mrs. Steele says. “But I keep the student’s name on the list anyway, and give the food to someone else.”
She pays careful attention to her students, and when she sees one of them unable to focus or beginning to doze, she’ll have a snack ready.
The children are clothed adequately (with help from caring teachers: I witnessed one teacher offering a like-new pair of pink and white shoes to a few girls to see it they would fit), but sometimes hygiene is a problem. When parents can’t pay the water bill, students will sometimes go weeks without showering.
Mrs. Steele says there is one student in her class who smells poorly quite often, and it draws complaints from other children and teachers.
The student body is diverse. The male-female ratio is 60-40. It is 41% black, 33% hispanic, and 13% white, with an Asian population making up much of the rest. A considerable 30% are English Language Learners (ELL); Mrs. Steele says that the school sees many first generation immigrants. Equally significant are students with disabilities, who make up 16% of total enrollment (kckps.org, 2011).
Historically, Silver City Elementary’s region was neither so poor nor diverse. “Principal Rivers” says that when the school was built and opened, it was dominated by middle-class whites.
“What accounts for the change over the last forty years?” I inquired.
Mr. Rivers, who grew up in the area, explained that economic downturn in the late 1970s and 80s sent middle-class whites packing and provided inexpensive housing attractive to immigrants of color. Home prices are low compared to the rest of the nation. According to Neighborhood Scout (which provides U.S.-census data on each neighborhood and city), “Rents here are currently lower in price than 67.1% of Kansas neighborhoods” (2010), usually around $400 a month. Both Mrs. Steele and Mr. Rivers reported most Silver City Elementary School families rent. One girl with greasy hair wore around her neck what I suspected was an apartment key. When the bus takes her home, she is probably alone for a few hours.
After school, there is a “Kids Zone” program for students who stay later. Most students take the bus. Bussed kids are dismissed separately from those being picked up, and there are usually only one or two of the latter, in a class of 17. Most of the parents will still be working when school gets out.
“What do most of the parents do for a living?” I asked Mr. Rivers.
“Most are what I would call ‘laborers.’ You obviously won’t have ninety-seven percent of students on Free Lunch if parents were managers or executives.” Neighborhood Scout confirms this, reporting most people are in manufacturing and labor, and only 12% of area adults have a college degree or higher (2010). Between the refinery and the railroads, labor has been the dominant occupation for over a century.
I asked the principal what he saw as the key to turning this neighborhood around. He answered, “Education” without hesitation.
He pointed out that the teachers’ and administrators’ diplomas are on display in the lobby, to serve as an example, to demonstrate that students can go to college if they are willing to believe in themselves and work hard. Doing well in school and making it to college will help break the cycle of poverty, he says.
“Is college hard?” a boy asked me.
“It can be a lot of work.”
“I’ll be there someday,” he said.
Silver City Elementary is preparing students for a lifetime of academic success.
“We have done very well,” Mr. Rivers says. “Despite our challenges, our test scores are very high.”
Indeed, even with high percentages of ELL and SPED students, Silver City is excelling. “90% of our students exit 5th grade on-track and on-time for 6th grade,” the district’s website, kskps.org (2011) reports, adding, “90% of all our students will meet or exceed grade level expectations as measured by the MAP assessment.” Many of the teachers have master’s degrees, and the ones I observed genuinely care about students and their success. They do not appear to play by the rules of Ronald Takaki’s “Master Narrative.”
Takaki, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, writes that American schools perpetuate an ethnocentricity called the “Master Narrative” (2008, p. 4). This ideology preaches that “true” Americans are white, and it can be felt not only in our schools and history books, but also in our media, businesses, and public policies (p. 5). Takaki says, “Through this filter, interpretations of ourselves and the world have been constructed, leaving many of us feeling left out of history and America itself” (p. 5). This view ignores the history, contributions, and overall relevance of immigrants that did not come from Europe, a great and growing population in the United States. It is also a great and growing population at Silver City Elementary.
The effect of this ethnocentric force is that educators who perpetuate it serve an injustice to their students. They see nonwhite students as less worthy of their attention, as less valuable to society. Vito Perrone, from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, an immigrant himself, writes that he has heard teachers comment that students of color “are not worth worrying about” (1998, p. 16). He writes, “I have conversed with many alienated students who believe most adults in their schools are hostile toward them, wishing they would just stay away” (p. 16). When teachers don’t see darker-skinned students as “Americans,” their education and self-esteem will suffer. Racial tensions will flourish. If said students are impoverished, this will only entrench them deeper into the cycle of poverty.
Nothing like this can be seen at Silver City Elementary. Indeed, it is more like Leonard Covello’s public school in New York that Perrone writes about. Covello, a teacher and Italian immigrant, helped create an atmosphere of racial tolerance and celebration of other cultures in the impoverished East Harlem of the 1930s. He focused on the needs and interests of diverse students and, like Silver City, helped provide food, clothing, and other non-academic services to students (Perrone, pp. 42, 69). He was a teacher who cared. He believed with all his heart that the school was key to creating a more democratic and less hateful society (Perrone, p. 66). And it worked.
“This boy is my friend,” a black student told a reporter, placing a hand on an Italian student’s shoulder. “That’s all I know” (Perrone, p. 127).
When one observes Silver City Elementary, it feels very much the same. Race is a non-issue. Perhaps this is more likely considering the young age of most of the students, but the attitudes of the teachers surely help. Many of the teachers are white (while the principal and many of the paras and staff are black or Hispanic), but all the adults treat the children with respect. They care about their success, never hesitating to explain a concept over or work one-on-one with a student, regardless of skin color. The teachers arrange desks in diverse clusters, helping students of different ethnicities work together and build friendships.
Despite the pervasive poverty and the hunger, Silver City Elementary provides an effective education and, equally as significant, a safe and caring environment. People are people and Americans are Americans regardless of physical traits. The attitudes of the teachers are best reflected by those of the students. Students of color are just as eager as white students to leap up and help the instructor erase the whiteboard or clean up the classroom. The majority respect and appreciate their teachers, and even those who do not surely know their teachers care about them anyway. The Master Narrative doesn’t exist. Teachers care so much that college is not spoken of as a pipe dream, but a possibility. And, most importantly, when students swarm outside for fitness period, they run and shout and play with the same blindness to race they had in the classroom moments ago.
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(2010). 18th st expy/ruby ave neighborhood profile. Neighborhood Scout website. Retreived March 28, 2012 from http://www.neighborhoodscout.com/ks/kansas-city/ 18th-st-expy-ruby/#desc.
(2011). [P-S] Elementary school profile information. Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools website. Retreived March 28, 2012 from http://kckps.org/dera/profiles2.php#p.
Blackmar, F. W. (1912). Kansas: A cyclopedia of state history, embracing events, institutions, industries, counties, cities, towns, prominent persons, etc. Chicago, IL. Standard Publishing Company.
Perrone, V. (1998). Teacher with a heart: Reflections on Leonard Covello and community. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Plucker, O. L. (1986). Schools in KCKs in years of change 1962-1986. Excerpt from http://www.kckps.org/disthistory/openbuildings/silvercity.html.
Shutt II, E. D. (1976). “Silver city,” a history of the Argentine community of Kansas City, Kansas. Kansas City, KS. JOELitho.
Takaki, R. (2008). A different mirror: A history of multicultural America. New York, NY: Back Bay Books.