Relevant For Whom? A look at curriculum and culture.

By: Evan Major

Everyone knows Hamtramck is a contemporary melting pot. Some ingredients mingle in the bowels of the pot to form an exquisite and passionate flavor never before tasted. Some rise to the top as the proverbial cream, allowing the best elements of the cacophony to influence their ascendance. Yet some, despite the chef’s good intentions, remain an antagonistic pairing, thwarting each other’s potential to revel in the greatness of their surroundings.

Nowhere is the melting pot metaphor more evident than Hamtramck High School. At the emotional and physical center of the city lies the place where we have put faith in the assemblance of our community’s most precious ingredients, our young people. Affectionately known as Ham High, and truly unique in its composition, this school is frequently cast in the same lot of many of its brother and sister districts deemed failing to meet Annual Yearly Progress (AYP), per the requisites of the flawed No Child Left Behind legislation. Flawed as it may be, the accountability for an equally apparent and dually unmet criterion does not simply fall on the shoulders of Bush’s cronies, but on us and our greater community.

We have such high expectations for young people to enter the rapidly changing world with a positive trajectory, though we continue to rely on antiquated ideas of what it means to be educated. “We keep sticking to the formula of 30 kids in a room with a chalkboard and a teacher,” an anonymous teacher at the high school recently commented to me. The world they are presented with inside the confines of school isn’t always in stark contrast to the realities outside the doors of their supposed educational benefactors, but it definitely lacks a personal touch to say the least.

District budget woes can contribute to hurried policy decisions, such as the school board vote to open up enrollment at the High School. Increasing inter-racial violence on the street and in the hallways seems an obvious example of resulting disharmony, where perceived differences are more evident than commonalities. One glimpse across the mosaic that is the student body, and most onlookers are left in disbelief. Bengali, Polish, African-American, Yemeni, Bosnian, Albanian, Pakistani, Russian, and on it goes. Many beautiful relationships and perspectives are born out of this cultural collision. The students of Hamtramck High, and by extension their parents, have the ingredients for a 21st Century model of cultural inter-dependence, yet the challenge lies in creating more legitimate spaces for them to meet each other as students, without the perceived implications of residency status, skin color, gender, or religion.

We concede that tougher standards and higher accountability are somehow part and parcel to standardizing academic success, and that this in fact is a laudable goal to begin with. We accept a system that discourages human emotion and connection, and produces passionate young people unsure of where to direct their love, fear, rage, or compassion. This, despite the dedicated professionals who work there, is endemic not just of Ham High, but of a greater delusion we have towards finding the answers to the state of American education at large.

The poet Gwendolyn Brooks wrote, “I shall create. If not a note, a hole. If not an overture, a desecration.” If we fail to incorporate essential elements of community and identity into the education process, then we aren’t giving them the tools to make real and life sustaining connections when they leave, and so diminishing the chances for overtures, as Brooks might say.

The construction of companies and communities alike are in need of creative young minds to populate their growing ranks, yet we fight the tide, somehow expecting the industrial high school model to not only meet these needs, but to remedy the greater ills of an aging society growing ever more dependent on the emerging leaders. Though they exist. Their talent is real and palpable. So why is it so hard for us to shift the way we think about education to deal with these realities? When will we embrace an alternative model that combines academic achievement with experiential learning and human development? And when will policy makers at large see the inherent inequalities in the school funding structure that expects some communities to do more with less?

These questions, and more, remind me it is time to stir the pot.

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