Computers in the Ghetto – Rolling Stone
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Computers in the Ghetto

In Boston, big business is offering hope and a challenge to the public school system: If you turn out competent graduates, we’ll give them jobs

bus, school, McKay School

First day of school riding a school bus from McKay School in East Boston, MA on September 5th, 1979.

Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe via Getty

The great social question that confronts Boston in the Eighties sounds a little like the premise for a soap opera: Can a poor, struggling black kid from New Dudley Street find his way to success and happiness on Route 128?

New Dudley Street is in the heart of the crumbling ghetto of Roxbury, Boston’s version of the behavioral sink where everything fails. Route 128 is the high-tech future, already thriving in the suburbs. Data General, Wang, Digital, Raytheon — the corporate names evoke the new prosperity. These two worlds are only 20 miles apart, but the cultural distance between them is awesome.

Given the history of poverty and racial separation in Boston and every other city in America, it sounds farfetched to suggest that, somehow, this soap opera could have a happy ending. Especially in the era of Ronald Reagan, when the old do-good social agenda has been muscled aside by hardheaded conservative thinking about how to end general economic stagnation. Helping poor kids up the ladder sounds like yesterday’s passion. Today, people are worried about their own economic future, their own job prospects. The poor kids will have to fend for themselves.

What’s happening in Boston, therefore, seems especially remarkable. A school system notorious for corruption, decline and racial strife is rallying around the audacious proposition that it can break through these counterforces and actually get poor kids out from under their status at the bottom. More significant, perhaps, is the fact that the movers and shakers of Boston’s business community, the establishment leaders popularly known as “the Vault” (because they used to hold their meetings in one), are in cautious agreement.

Together, with blessings from city hall, they have produced a blueprint for reform called the Boston Compact. Ratified last month by the Boston School Committee, it’s an agreement based on mutual self-discipline, with the school system promising in hard, specific terms to raise the performance levels of its graduates. In return, the city’s leading employer — from banking and insurance to hospitals and higher education — promise good jobs for all Boston high-school graduates, provided they meet minimum standards for reading, writing and regular attendance. If the poor kids want real jobs, they will have to perform their part and stay in school.

Will it work? Given the sorry state of Boston’s inner-city schools and the social chaos that surrounds them, no one is making silly predictions about how quickly or easily this new “social contract” can be fulfilled. It will take years, even under the best circumstances. But the significance of the Boston Compact, I think, is that it’s happening at all. While Washington policymakers and politicians are preoccupied with immediate crisis, budget deficits and recession, Bostonians are actually looking beyond the present, trying to rebuild local institutions to cope with the deeper problems of the future.

Ronald Reagan certainly deserves oblique credit for this. After two decades of social reforms launched from Washington, accompanied by a generous stream of federal dollars, Reagan turned off the tap. That forced local communities to reassess their own assets, just as Reagan wanted them to do. School officials in Boston and everywhere else have been compelled to accept the reality that new infusions of financial aid are not going to flow from Washington or from anywhere, at least not until the schools convince the public that they are cleaning up their act.

The business leaders, of course, are not responding entirely out of disinterested altruism. “The number-one motivation of chief executives,” says James Darr, deputy director of the Boston Private Industry Council, “is the business climate. It’s not a good business climate to have your sparkling tower downtown when you’ve got public squalor a mile away.”

But the secondary motivation, not yet obvious to the public, will probably prove to be more powerful in the next few years: the coming scarcity of young workers. That may sound strange today in the midst of record unemployment rates, but the demographics of youth guarantee a shortage of entry-level workers later in this decade (assuming, of course, that the American economy finally does recover, and that it begins expanding again).

The statistics are not guesses but actual reflections of the declining birth rates that followed the baby-boom generation. In 1979, for instance, there were 17.7 million young men aged 16 to 24. By 1990, that group will have shrunk to 14.7 million, and by 1995, to 14 million — a 20 percent decline (the same trend applies to young women). The number of black and minority kids, however, will stay about the same in the years ahead, meaning that minority young people will become a larger portion of the available labor pool (from 15 to 19 percent).

An optimist like myself must argue that this is one of the most hopeful facts of American life. It suggests that the dynamics of the labor market could turn the Eighties into an era of dramatic progress in the area of equal economic opportunities. The scarcity of people for entry-level jobs might well force major reductions in inner-city unemployment and the social pathologies that accompany poverty — crime and drugs and family deterioration.

But there’s one question even an optimist has to ask: If business finally needs the children of poverty, who used to be treated as surplus labor, will these kids be prepared to seize the opportunity? This is the soap-opera question they are trying to answer in Boston.

The Computer Center on New Dudley Street is white on white, a cool, antiseptic room equipped with 20 or so Apple microcomputers and a larger Digital computer with 16 terminals — sufficient hardware for data processing in a business. Some of the high school kids at the terminals clearly know what they’re doing, and some of them don’t. All of the students are poor, most of them black or Hispanic. Some use a tedious hunt-and-peck method to punch in their schoolbook programs. Others are completely at home with computer languages and their uses.

Helen Weathers, a shy, slight black girl in a black Roxbury jacket, is debugging a program she’s prepared for automated mailing lists. She moves back and forth between the printer and the terminal, talking in dense shorthand with her instructors. None of them can seem to find all the glitches.

At the next terminal, Jose Quiles, having finished his assignment, is playing football with the computer. It’s a game of codes, probabilities and quick choices that lacks the visual magic of the arcade games but is intellectually more challenging. The computer wins, 42-28. “He beat me now, but I beat him the first game,” Quiles says.

His buddy, Randy Phillips, takes over and loses, too. “I love the computers,” Quiles explains.

“He love to play,” says Phillips, mocking the seriousness.

“There’s a big mystique about computers, but it’s a lot of baloney,” says Bob Pearlman, who directs the computer center at the Hubert Humphrey Occupational Resources Center, Boston’s vocational-technical high school. His students are typical kids from the inner-city schools, of average intelligence and quite poor. Most of them do not aspire to become computer engineers or systems analysts, but Pearlman believes “everything else is within their reach. Computers are not that hard.” Successful graduates could work in data processing or computer manufacturing, even selling and repairing. With some more training, they could earn $15,000 or $20,000 in a couple of years. The Roxbury kids, of course, start out way behind the competition.

“Out in the suburbs,” Pearlman said, “we have a situation where huge numbers of parents already work in the computer industry, so their kids are the children of the industry. That isn’t true of our kids. They have no computers in the home, and they have no one in the family who works in the industry. They need to see computers here and understand them.”

Pearlman and the other instructors have a touching faith in these kids. Last spring, they bought 190 Apples and carefully allocated them to fourteen of the city’s 100 schools. And though that doubled the number of Boston students exposed to computer education, it still is only fifteen percent. In five years, they hope to reach 100 percent.

Their optimism is tempered by the recognition that just their good intentions and diligence from the students will not get the job done if racial and cultural stereotypes endure. “It’s almost a cosmic notion,” Pearlman says. “How do you merge those two worlds? It’s not going to happen unless industry has an economic self-interest. They’ll do a certain amount altruistically, but it’s got to be more than that.”

James Caradonio, director of the Humphrey Center, puts it more directly: “We’re fooling around with something potent here. We’re mucking with the subterranean job-referral system. We’re setting up a network for these kids. We’re breaking the chain.”

Last summer, the Boston schools placed 852 students in summer jobs. According to Caradonio, 60 percent of the employers reported that the kids from the city performed satisfactorily and another 37 percent rated them excellent. “This isn’t me talking; this is employers talking about Boston kids,” Caradonio says. “But what do you hear from people? ‘Oh, those urban kids.’ It’s much easier to crap on the kids. There’s something in human nature that wants someone to step on.”

The Boston compact brings together all the best names in city commerce — Prudential, John Hancock, First National Bank of Boston, the Shawmut Bank and Digital, among others. Why should it succeed when so many past reforms have failed? The agreement itself offers an answer. In fact, it reads like an ultimatum:

“One important difference is economic. During the decade in which the schools have declined, Boston’s economy has expanded to the point where it can look beyond the current recession to a decade of continued growth. The jobs created in and around the city demand a minimum level of skills simply to hold them. … Boston’s recent prosperity has come about, in part, because of its well-educated, well-motivated work force. Obviously, as the largest school system in Massachusetts, the Boston Public Schools must improve in order to sustain economic growth in the city.”

Guided by this self-interest, the business leaders signed on in September. Many of them were already Boston high school “partners,” providing free equipment and occasional financial help. The compact represents a much more serious commitment, though no overnight miracles. Next summer, under the agreement, some 200 businesses will reserve 400 jobs for Boston graduates; two years from then, they will provide 1000 jobs. Not counting those who go on to college or join the armed services or aren’t interested, that should be enough to cover everyone — if everyone can read and write at a minimum level and demonstrate the self-discipline it takes to show up for class.

Ellen Guiney, head of the Citywide Education Coalition, worries whether the school system can produce that many competent graduates so quickly. The dropout rate from ninth to 12th grade is 45 percent (this includes transfers to private schools). Two-thirds of all sixth-graders are at least two years behind in reading. Nearly a third of Boston’s high-school graduates test as functionally illiterate. “I just don’t know if the school department can deliver,” she says. “I think it’s going to be very hard to come up with a thousand kids who can meet the requirements.”

On the other hand, John O’Bryant, a vice president at Northeastern University and a black member of the Boston School Committee, remains skeptical of the white business leaders’ commitment. In a school system whose enrollment is 70 percent minorities, the compact was designed and lobbied to adoption almost entirely by whites. O’Bryant insisted on an amendment guaranteeing that the hiring would not be “whites only,” but would reflect the racial composition of the schools. “It remains to be seen whether they’re going to follow through,” he says.

Nobody expects the compact to erase the scars of the brutal racial conflict that accompanied school desegregation as it came to Boston with massive court-ordered busing. Thousands of white children left the school system, but this does not mean they are now any better off than poor black kids. They all need jobs. “The poor white kids think the blacks get everything,” says Guiney. “The kids who are hanging around in South Boston and Charlestown feel the schools were taken away from them. This compact is a way, maybe, they can get a stake in the schools again. If it works, some of the white kids might come back. A lot of them are on the street. Jobs are what they need desperately. Their problems are the same as those of the black kids in Roxbury, but they don’t want to admit it.”

Even in its infancy, the Boston experiment suggests some powerful lessons for the future — new approaches to reform that might just overcome the failures of the past. One only has to ask how the Boston Compact is different from the old liberal programs of the past to grasp the lessons.

Up front, the Boston agreement demands performance standards from the schools (you don’t get the jobs if the kids can’t read). Such a sense of discipline was missing from the Great Society programs, which rushed a lot of money out to school districts but failed to hold anyone accountable for results. If this single principle were incorporated into federal aid programs, for instance, it could work wonders. You don’t get the money if the kids haven’t learned.

Boston also promises tangible rewards. Federal job-training programs consumed billions over the last 15 years, but most of them looked like a hustle to poor kids. They dutifully went through the job training, but there were no jobs at the other end. Boston is trying to forge a practical connection between education and real jobs — another principle that seems only dimly perceived in Washington. Everyone is in favor of job training, even Reagan, but there is no point in running thousands of young people through expensive training unless there are real jobs waiting for them. It only deepens the ghetto cynicism.

Finally, after years of attack and conflict, Boston is trying to rebuild one of its fundamental institutions, the public schools. William Spring, who drafted jobs legislation in the Carter White House and is one of the key architects of the Boston Compact, thinks this is an important change from the old war-on-poverty approach. In the Sixties, reformers created new agencies and organizations to speak for the poor, believing that the old “establishment institutions” were hopelessly racist. In the Eighties, the new reformers must concentrate on rebuilding the battered old institutions of their communities, reviving them by changing them.

None of this will make any difference, of course, if Americans have not also learned something about race. The poor are still far behind, and they may be passed over again in the high-tech future if employers are unwilling to differentiate among them. The essence of racism is the inability to see the difference between a competent, willing black kid at a computer terminal and another black kid on the street with a gun.

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