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It’s now been 25 years since the modern school choice movement began, with the publication of John Chubb and Terry Moe’s Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools. It’s clear that school choice—either in its harder version of vouchers or its softer version of charter schools—helps the best students, many of them from low-income households, get better educations than they would have otherwise have had.

But what about the students who aren’t motivated to do well, who come to school because they have to or to hang out with their friends? What should be done about them?

Look at the titles of the two major federal education bills. The No Child Left Behind Act left plenty of students behind. The Every Student Succeeds Act, whose ludicrous title claims that the federal government can, somehow, make every student succeed, has superseded it.

I ask these questions after reading an excellent article by Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker. Cobb, who teaches at the University of Connecticut, writes about the rise and fall of Jamaica High School, in Queens, New York, which opened in 1892 and closed in 2014.

We learn early on that Cobb is interested in Jamaica High because he was graduated from the school in 1987. If he turns his article into a book (which would be a good idea) it would be comparable to Gerald Grant’s seminal The World We Created at Hamilton High, which looked at an upstate New York school the author attended in the 1950s.

Jamaica High School has a distinguished alumni list, including humorist Art Buchwald, conductor Gunter Schuller, author Stephen Jay Gould, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, and Richard Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell. Its main building, completed by Walter H. Gompert in 1925, “looked like a state capitol that had been dropped into the middle of a residential neighborhood; it sat on the crest of a hill so imposing that planners would be guilty of pretense had it housed anything other than a public institution.”

The school served middle-class neighborhoods (Flushing, Kew Gardens), wealthier areas (Jamaica Estates), and some working class neighborhoods. When the No. 7 subway opened in 1950, northern Queens filled up with homes, and Jamaica High had 4,600 students.

Until the 1950s, nearly all of Jamaica High’s students were white, although many were recent immigrants: Greeks, Italians, Jews. In 1948 the Supreme Court outlawed racial covenants in housing, and some blacks began to attend the school. One of them was Bob Beamon, who became an Olympic gold medalist in the high jump. Another was John Ward, who told Cobb that when he entered Jamaica High in 1949, he flunked classes until his father told him, “If you’re not going to work at school, you’re going to have to get a job.” Ward worked hard at school, was graduated from Morgan State, and had a distinguished career in the NYPD, becoming one of the force’s first African-American plain clothes detectives.

By the time Cobb attended Jamaica High, the school was one of the most ethnically diverse in the country. He recalls that when he was the right fielder on the Jamaica High baseball team, other players “included a Jewish third baseman, a Dominican pitcher, a shortstop from Colombia, and an Indian utility outfielder. We took the field looking as if tryouts were held at the Census Bureau.” But Jamaica High still had tough standards, and its graduates went on to good colleges and to do well in life.

But things began to break down from 1995 onwards. Cobb credits gradual loosening of rules about school boundaries with accelerating the decline. Two elite high schools—both connected with colleges—opened near Jamaica High in 1995 and 2002, and the best students attended them.

Then, in 2004, Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared that any student in the New York City Public Schools could attend any school in the city. The best students went to the best schools. But “students whose parents—owing to language difficulties or work demands, immigration status or a generalized fear of bureaucratic authority—could not or would not pursue other educational options for their children found themselves relegated to increasingly unappealing schools.” The graduation rate plummeted below fifty percent, and the crime rate on campus soared. In its last year, Jamaica High was 99 percent minority and 63 percent poor.

Cobb interviewed James Eterno, who taught social studies at Jamaica High from 1986 until its closure in 2014. Cobb says that teachers “didn’t get the support. We were not prepared to deal with the changing population.”

There’s a part of the story Cobb isn’t telling us. Principals can either be strong leaders or can be timeserving middle managers that pass orders down from the central office to the teachers. We don’t know who the last principals of Jamaica High were or how the school’s culture changed. But at some point whoever was in charge gave up. This piece of the story is critical, and if Cobb turns his article into a book, he needs to show how the last principals of Jamaica High failed to halt the school’s decline.

The question for philanthropists is this: donors are good at reaching out to the top ten or twenty percent of students and giving them opportunities they wouldn’t have had. But how do you deal with the unmotivated masses. How do you inspire them?

I don’t know the answer to this question. Do you?

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