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Jobs, Crime and Schools: Tie the Most Depressing Stories Together and Find Hope

Jobs, Crime and Schools: Tie the Most Depressing Stories Together and Find Hope

The pressure to spit out news stories as fast as they happen, a disinclination to provide linkages that might look too subjective, a simple failure in our own ability to see: for whatever reason, we in the news business seldom show you how the stories we present to you are tied together. And yet, because we're out there looking at them with our own eyeballs, I think we feel the connections in our guts.

Today's Dallas Morning News offers a really well-done and thought-provoking story by Selwyn Crawford about African-Americans and domestic violence. It's a tough story to tackle for the danger of stumbling on bad preconceptions and assumptions.

Crawford provides a key perspective by reporting that domestic violence has a strong link to male unemployment. He quotes an expert who says, "Unemployed white men were as likely to kill their partners as unemployed black men, but because the black unemployment rate is higher, we see more deaths of black women."

As I read those words, my own gut-link was to reporting I did last winter on people in southern Dallas, most of them black and male, who are counted statistically in a category officially termed "not in the labor force." That is, they're not working now, not working before, not likely to find work any time soon. Not in the labor force is different from unemployment, a term to describe people who have lost a recently held job. My handlers here at the Observer thought it would be interesting to send a crabby old white man around South Dallas for several weeks to ask apparently idle young black men on the street why they didn't go get a job.

It was. Interesting as hell. Many of the men I interviewed turned out to be working their asses off, but at jobs like washing cars or scavenging scrap that didn't involve background checks. Many of them were just standing around in the middle of the day drinking 40s, watching the cars go by.

You'll have to take my word for this, I guess: Many of those stand-around guys were bright, funny, sardonically insightful about the world around them, fun to talk to, with a lot of tough, street-bred survival in them. If anything, you sensed a great competence in them, at least as potential. They should not be standing around in the day drinking 40s. They should be teachers, lawyers, writers, entrepreneurs.

Instead they are standing around. Many of them are dependent on the women in their lives -- mothers, girlfriends, wives who had jobs. Whenever we got to that point in a conversation, without fail, there was a catch in the voice and an evasive turning away of the eye. I had a job. They didn't. We all knew as men what that meant.

Another story you've seen from me and hopefully from plenty of other reporters in the last year is the Children's Defense Fund "Cradle to Prison Pipeline" report: One in three black boys and one in six Latino boys born in the United States in 2001 probably will wind up in prison at some point, five times as many boys as girls.

"This is America's pipeline to prison -- a trajectory that leads to marginalized lives, imprisonment and often premature death," the CDF reports. "Although the majority of fourth graders cannot read at grade level, states spend about three times as much money per prisoner as per public school pupil.

Once a kid drops out of school and gets himself into the criminal justice system, the chances for a normal productive life plummet. A big reason is what I found in talking to guys on the street: If you dropped out of school in the first place because you were a lousy student who couldn't read or write competently and then you earned yourself a criminal record, nobody is going to hire you for a good job, ever. Meanwhile study after study has shown that if you are black, the criminal justice system is going to treat you much more harshly than a white person who commits the same offense. Maybe you're not toast when you get that first prison sentence, but you're pretty damn close.

And that brings us to the third story in the news a lot over the last year here in Dallas -- public school reform. In a recent op-ed piece in the News, Dallas school system trustee Mike Morath reported on gains achieved during the first year of an intensive and often bitterly controversial system-wide reform effort under Superintendent Mike Miles:

Dallas ISD students outpaced statewide gains in 10 of the 14 subjects tested in the crucial elementary and middle school grades, where so many of life's foundations are laid. Of particular note, DISD students gained 8.3 percent over their peers in eighth-grade mathematics, and DISD was one of only two districts in Dallas County to show any gains in third-grade reading.

Historically, achievement gains have come slower for students of color than their white peers. With respect to SAT and ACT scores, Dallas ISD's students of color underperformed their white peers by 34 percent the year before Miles arrived in Dallas, much worse than the 23 percent spread a decade ago. In Miles' first year, the achievement gap shrank by 2.5 percent.

If a kid can read and write competently at the end of the third grade, everything turns around for him in the balance of his school career. Now he knows what the teachers are talking about. Third grade is the key, because kids learn to read from kindergarten through third grade, and from then on they have to read to learn. If they are not at grade level at the beginning of fourth grade, the statistics are grim. It's very tough for them ever to catch up. But if they can read, then school is no longer merely a children's prison. It might even be interesting.

Of course it's wrong and unfair to blame the school system for the social ills of the entire society or the personal tragedy of any given kid. Yes, people have bootstraps, and yes, it would be great if parents and families could do a better job. This isn't about blaming the schools, exactly. This is to say that full grade-level competence at reading, writing and arithmetic at the end of third grade is this golden connection between the stories, a magical key to unlock all of the interlocking headlines.

Even bringing this up guarantees that the comments section below will be visited today by ignorant and evil-minded racist people. But, look: We cannot allow those people to scare the rest of us away from the topic. This is way too important. This is a chance to achieve something really huge for our society and the future of our nation. Let's agree that those commenters are just kind of a cost of doing business.

Meanwhile, the linkages are everything -- way more important than the stories themselves -- because they offer that most powerful of human sentiments. Hope.


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