Diane Ravitch's Blog: Dasani: The New York Times Should Win a Pulitzer Prize for This Powerful Series
The New York Times just concluded a five-part series of articles about a beautiful 11-year-old girl named Dasani.
It is called “Invisible Child.”
The series was written by investigative journalist Andrea Elliott.
She deserves a Pulitzer Prize for illuminating the life of this child and her family.
Dasani is homeless. She is one of eight children, who lives with her parents in a homeless shelter in New York City.
She is a bright, energetic child growing up in appalling circumstances.
Here is where she lives:
Dasani’s own neighborhood, Fort Greene, is now one of gentrification’s gems. Her family lives in the Auburn Family Residence, a decrepit city-run shelter for the homeless. It is a place where mold creeps up walls and roaches swarm, where feces and vomit plug communal toilets, where sexual predators have roamed and small children stand guard for their single mothers outside filthy showers.
It is no place for children. Yet Dasani is among 280 children at the shelter. Beyond its walls, she belongs to a vast and invisible tribe of more than 22,000 homeless children in New York, the highest number since the Great Depression, in the most unequal metropolis in America.
Dasani grows up in a city of stark contrasts: One city for the rich, another for people like her.
In the short span of Dasani’s life, her city has been reborn. The skyline soars with luxury towers, beacons of a new gilded age. More than 200 miles of fresh bike lanes connect commuters to high-tech jobs, passing through upgraded parks and avant-garde projects like the High Line and Jane’s Carousel. Posh retail has spread from its Manhattan roots to the city’s other boroughs. These are the crown jewels of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s long reign, which began just seven months after Dasani was born.
In the shadows of this renewal, it is Dasani’s population who have been left behind. The ranks of the poor have risen, with almost half of New Yorkers living near or below the poverty line. Their traditional anchors — affordable housing and jobs that pay a living wage — have weakened as the city reorders itself around the whims of the wealthy.
Some would blame Dasani’s parents for her circumstances. They are unemployed and battle drug addiction. The New York Post wrote an editorial scoffing at this entire series and treating Dasani’s family as leeches on the public welfare system. Andrea Elliott recognizes that Dasani’s parents are dysfunctional. But that leaves the question of how a decent society lifts up people whose lives are in such desperate shape. Or whether we leave them to make their way through an opaque and bureaucratic system:
Dasani’s circumstances are largely the outcome of parental dysfunction. While nearly one-third of New York’s homeless children are supported by a working adult, her mother and father are unemployed, have a history of arrests and are battling drug addiction.
Yet Dasani’s trials are not solely of her parents’ making. They are also the result of decisions made a world away, in the marble confines of City Hall. With the economy growing in 2004, the Bloomberg administration adopted sweeping new policies intended to push the homeless to become more self-reliant. They would no longer get priority access to public housing and other programs, but would receive short-term help with rent. Poor people would be empowered, the mayor argued, and homelessness would decline.
But the opposite happened. As rents steadily rose and low-income wages stagnated, chronically poor families like Dasani’s found themselves stuck in a shelter system with fewer exits. Families are now languishing there longer than ever — a development that Mr. Bloomberg explained by saying shelters offered “a much more pleasurable experience than they ever had before.”
There is one center of stability in Dasani’s life: her public school, the Susan S. McKinney Secondary School of the Arts.
Housed in a faded brick building two blocks from Auburn, McKinney is a poor-kids’ version of LaGuardia Arts, the elite Manhattan public school that inspired the television series “Fame.” Threadbare curtains adorn its theater. Stage props are salvaged from a nearby trash bin. Dance class is so crowded that students practice in intervals.
An air of possibility permeates the school, named after the first African-American woman to become a physician in New York State.
There is Officer Jamion Andrews, the security guard who moonlights as a rap lyricist, and Zakiya Harris, the dance teacher who runs a studio on the side. And there is Faith Hester, the comedic, eyelash-batting humanities teacher who wrote a self-help book titled “Create a Life You Love Living” and fancies her own reality show.
The children also strive. Among them is a voice that periodically lifts the school with a “Madama Butterfly” aria. When the students hear it, they know that Jasmine, a sublimely gifted junior, is singing in the office of the principal, Paula Holmes.
The school matriarch closes her eyes as she listens. It may be her only tranquil moment.
Miss Holmes is a towering woman, by turns steely and soft. She wears a Bluetooth like a permanent earring and tends toward power suits. She has been at McKinney’s helm for 15 years and runs the school like a naval ship, peering down its gleaming hallways as if searching the seas for enemy vessels.
But like Dasani’s family, the school is facing an uncertain future:
For all of McKinney’s pluck, its burdens are great. In the last six years, the city has cut the school’s budget by a quarter as its population declined. Fewer teachers share a greater load. After-school resources have thinned, but not the needs of students whose families are torn apart by gun violence and drug use. McKinney’s staff psychologist shuttles between three schools like a firefighter.
And now, a charter school is angling to move in. If successful, it will eventually claim McKinney’s treasured top floor, home to its theater class, dance studio and art lab. Teachers and parents are bracing for battle, announced by fliers warning against the “apartheid” effects of a charter co-location.
Dasani knows about charter schools. Her former school, P.S. 67, shared space with one. She never spoke to those children, whose classrooms were stocked with new computers. Dasani’s own school was failing by the time she left.
Her teachers and her principal see something special in Dasani. They believe in her. What she loves best about school is the dance classes. That is where she feels freest and happiest. Sadly, the dance studio will be lost when the charter school moves in.
Part 2 of the series begins with a startling contrast between the millions lavished on the renovation of Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s residence where no one lives, and the squalid circumstances in which Dasani and thousands of other children live.
Dasani was still an infant when Mr. Bloomberg took office in 2002. Declaring Gracie Mansion “the people’s house,” he gathered $7 million in private donations — much of it his own money — to rehabilitate the pale yellow 18th-century home, which overlooks the East River. In came new plumbing, floors, lighting and ventilation, along with exquisite touches like an 1820s chandelier and a four-poster mahogany bed.
Facing that same river, six miles away on the opposite side, is the Auburn Family Residence, the squalid city-run homeless shelter where Dasani has lived for more than two years.
Her school is her anchor, but it has suffered too:
The Susan S. McKinney Secondary School of the Arts has suffered its own troubles under the Bloomberg administration: a shrinking budget and fewer teachers.
Dasani’s public school–her watchful teachers and principal– is her salvation in a life of uncertainty and horrific living conditions:
For Dasani, school is everything — the provider of meals, on-the-spot nursing care, security and substitute parenting. On the Gracie trip [the trip to the mayor's empty mansion], Dasani wears the Nautica coat donated by a school security guard and matching white gloves bestowed to her that morning by the principal.
A school like McKinney can also provide a bridge to the wider world.
It does not matter that Dasani’s entire sixth grade must walk a mile to the subway in icy winds, take two trains, then walk another 10 minutes before arriving. This round-trip journey, which occupies much of the day, is a welcome escape.
The Auburn Shelter, where Dasani and her family live, is regularly inspected, but no one seems to act on violations and complaints:
Over the last decade, city and state inspectors have cited Auburn for more than 400 violations — many of them repeated — including for inadequate child care, faulty fire protection, insufficient heat, spoiled food, broken elevators, nonfunctioning bathrooms and the presence of mice, roaches, mold, bedbugs, lead and asbestos.
Dasani can pick out the inspectors by their clipboards and focused expressions. They work for the State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which supervises homeless housing around the state. Given that Auburn is partly funded by the state, these inspectors should presumably hold sway.
Year after year, their reports read like a series of unheeded alarms. Responses by the city’s Department of Homeless Services attribute Auburn’s violations to a lack of money. To the state’s complaint, in 2003, that only one staff member is tending to 177 school-age children in the shelter’s recreation room, the agency responds: “We lack resources for teenagers!”
Residents complain about sexual abuse by staff, but typically their complaints are ignored.
The teachers at Dasani’s school are caring, nurturing, and kind. She makes the honor roll but she has too many absences.
What does school choice mean to a child like Dasani? Only twelve blocks from the shelter is Packer Collegiate Institute, where tuition is over $35,000. But Dasani’s parents know nothing of such schools.
She is not the kind of child to land a coveted scholarship to private school, which would require a parent with the wherewithal to seek out such opportunities and see them through. For the same reason, Dasani does not belong to New York’s fast-growing population of charter school students.
In fact, the reverse is happening: a charter school is coming to McKinney. Approved last December by the Education Department, Success Academy Fort Greene will soon claim half of McKinney’s third floor. This kind of co-location arrangement has played out in schools across the city, stoking deep resentments in poor communities.
The guiding ethos of the charter school movement has been “choice” — the power to choose a school rather than capitulate to a flawed education system and a muscular teachers’ union. But in communities like McKinney’s, the experience can feel like a lack of choice.
Dasani watched, wide-eyed, during a protest last December as McKinney’s parents and teachers held up signs comparing the co-location to apartheid. Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, serve fewer students with special needs, and are sometimes perceived as exclusive.
A web posting for Success Academy Fort Greene does little to counter that notion. Parents, it says, “shouldn’t have to trek to other Brooklyn neighborhoods or spend $30,000+ on a private school in order to find excellence and rigor.”
In part 3 of the series, Elliott describes the gentrification of Fort Greene, the neighborhood where the shelter is located. And she tells the story of Dasani’s parents, the lives that brought them to a homeless shelter.
Part 4 of the series shows that children are the hidden homeless. When people think of the homeless, they think of vagrants and bag ladies.
Like other homeless children, Dasani did not create the circumstances in which she lives, yet she suffers because of them:
Their numbers have risen above anything in the city’s modern history, to a staggering 22,091 this month. If all of the city’s homeless children were to file into Madison Square Garden for a hockey game, more than 4,800 would not have a seat.
Yet it is the adult population that drives debates on poverty and homelessness, with city officials and others citing “personal responsibility” as the central culprit. Children are bystanders in this discourse, no more to blame for their homelessness than for their existence.
Dasani works to keep her homelessness hidden. She has spent years of her childhood in the punishing confines of the Auburn shelter in Brooklyn, where to be homeless is to be powerless. She and her seven siblings are at the mercy of forces beyond their control: parents who cannot provide, agencies that fall short, a metropolis rived by inequality and indifference.
The experience has left Dasani internally adrift, for the losses of the homeless child only begin with the home itself. She has had to part with privacy and space — the kind of quiet that nurtures the mind. She has lost the dignity that comes with living free of vermin and chronic illness. She has fallen behind in school, despite her crackling intelligence.
The children stick together, but even their solidarity is not enough to overcome the negative experiences, the lack of almost everything that makes for security and the most elemental level of comfort in life.
In part 5,as the series concludes, Dasani finds reasons to dream, reasons to hope, as she gets a chance to join a gymnastics team in Harlem, where she can earn some money and self-respect.
What is the takeaway from the series?
The public school is the anchor of Dasani’s hard and mean existence, the place where she finds care and discipline. The adults in the school know her, and many have shared her own experiences, having grown up in housing projects, with nothing but ambition.
Nearly half the population of New York City is poor or near poor,according to Mark K. Levitan, the Bloomberg administration’s director of poverty research.
This is a higher figure than reported by the Census, which pegged the city’s poverty rate at 21.2% in 2012.
Nearly a third of the children 17 and under in New York City are living in poverty, according to the Census Bureau (surely much higher using the Levitan numbers).
Whichever the number, the reality is that the gap between Dasani and her counterparts in other parts of the city is huge.
Income inequality is also huge:
A yawning income gap seemed to show a city that has become stratified with wealth concentrated in a small percentage of the population.
Citywide, the mean income of the lowest fifth was $8,993, while the highest fifth made $222,871 and the top 5 percent made $436,931 — about 49 times as much as those with the lowest income.
Manhattan retained the dubious distinction of having the biggest income gap of any big county in the country. The mean income of the lowest fifth was $9,635, compared with $389,007 for the top fifth and $799,969 for the top 5 percent — more than an eightyfold difference between bottom and top.
How can one of the richest nations in the world tolerate such degrading circumstances for any of its children and families? Blame the parents if you choose, but even they are victims of their circumstances. Surely, we can and should do more than expand the number of shelters for the homeless.
Here is hoping the New York Times’ editorial board reads the series and thinks about the editorials it writes touting high-stakes testing and privately managed charters.
Thank goodness for investigative reporters. Thank goodness for Andrea Elliott’s powerful prose.
I hope she wins a Pulitzer Prize for this important series that tells a story that too many of the elites would prefer to ignore.
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