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The Life Story of an American High School : THE WORLD WE CREATED AT HAMILTON HIGH 1953-1987: by Gerald Grant (Harvard University Press: $24.95; 304 pp.)

July 24, 1988|Art Seidenbaum | Seidenbaum is The Times' Opinion editor.

Gerald Grant gives the education furies two books in one. The first is a graceful, human, engaging narrative of what happened to an American High School during successive decades of optimism, integration, student upstarting and declining results. Book 1 has heart and mind. The second is an analysis of other writers' researches, generally validating what Grant learned and saw for himself at high school. Book 2 reads like four chapters of footnotes, germane and useful but about as stirring as the opening-day lecture from a teacher of mechanical drawing.

The first half is full of manic verbs and specific drama, including one principal who suffered a heart attack on active duty and another who was benched by a skull fracture. The second half slows in semantics; the word ethos --the common values of a community--appears seven times on a single page describing the character of different schools.

Yet here is a history of what went right and wrong and then almost right again in the tempestuous course of American public secondary education. Hamilton High is a real place wearing a phony name to protect its people and property. It was built in the 1950s to serve the upper-middle- class neighborhood of a growing northeastern city. Times were good. Boy students wore crew-cuts; girl students wore skirts--and often pearls.

Desegregation arrived in the mid-'60s, by bus. Many white families resented the intrusion. Many black families disliked the long rides to Hamilton. "The irony of desegregation for black students," writes Grant, "was that it brought them together with whites only to increase their sense of distance." Instead of one student body, there were two--an affluent crowd in the pre-college classes and a relatively poor black crowd resegregated into vocational tracks. In a national climate of assassinations and riots, riots and violence invaded high school.

The '70s were punctuated by a variety of strains: student power; sexual freedom; decreased disciplinary action; lawsuits against school systems, and a new faculty full of young teachers who were often part of the problem. Students constructed their own curricula, and test scores dropped while absenteeism and drug abuse soared. Children decided to go to work instead of to school, well-to-do children among them.

The pendulum swung back by the beginning of the '80s. Black students and white students were no longer hostile toward each other at Hamilton. They had attended the lower grades together and now came to high school as old acquaintances, even as friends. Asian students arrived in significant numbers, bringing with them the seriousness of family aspirations and devotion to education. Test scores began rising, especially among blacks. "Hamilton High students," writes Grant, "had not returned to the respectful and obedient mode of the 1950s and early 1960s, but they were no longer psychologically in charge, either. The revolt was over." Adult authority returned, helped by new laws and a new competitive context in the larger culture. But school was a place without spirit, without what Grant calls "a positive ethos."

The author, a Syracuse University professor, was more than a sometime visitor. Grant and five research assistants spent a few days in each of 33 public and private schools across the country. Then they spent the next academic year immersed at five campuses, asking selected teachers and students to keep journals while the researchers were attending classes, faculty meetings and student events. Grant would discover that, "One of the ironies of our present predicament may be that only the private school has a public," a meeting of parent, administration, faculty and student minds dedicated to the values--moral and intellectual--of the school.

He went to an integrated public school, Hamilton, as a teacher in 1984, to validate the way it represented decades of educational turmoil, to elicit faculty participation in recommending needed reforms and to gather first-person testimony for his book. Four national trends had been reflected at Hamilton from the '50s into the '80s: Disorder and drug use rose and then declined. Academic demands dropped as students negotiated their own programs. Absenteeism and drop-out rates increased. Student achievement fell for almost two decades and then began showing some improvement in the '80s.

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