In the principal's office at the South Bronx's Morris High School hangs a faded picture of the school's most famous graduate, Colin Powell. It's a reminder that, as recently as the fifties, poor minority youngsters got a decent education in the city's public schools.
Today, the battered old Gothic building cannot protect against the pathologies that afflict the surrounding neighborhood. Heavy security gives the building a prison flavor: at the entrance to the school, a visitor encounters a phalanx of five whiteshirted guards armed with handheld scanners; another ten guards patrol the halls. Every student entering the building is frisked before passing his book bag through an airportstyle metal detector. When the bell rings at the end of a period, the guards and some teachers rush into position to move students along, as if they were a group of inmates passing from one lockup to another.
When I visited Morris last spring, assistant principal Gregory Hodge told me that 1,750 students were officially enrolled in the school, but only 800 to 900 show up on a given day. He expected 40 students to graduate in 1994—but only three would pass the test to receive a Regents diploma. In contrast, at least 200 girls at Morris get pregnant each year; more than half of those carry the child to term. School officials know this because the girls usually come into the school's fully staffed health clinic, where they can register for abortion referrals, prenatal care, and day care for their infants. It seems to be the only part of the school that works.
In one school year, two children are murdered, three graduate with a Regents diploma, and 200 become pregnant. These are the measures of the social ecology that any school reform effort will have to confront.