Debate Magazine

The Hustle (from the Archives)

By Stevemiranda

I recently read Doug Merlino’s brilliant book The Hustle, a social history of race and class in Seattle. It’s told through a memoir of the author’s experience on a mixed-race basketball team as a teenager in the 1980s.

One section of the book deals with Merlino’s experience as a student at the Lakeside School, including a discussion of its recent efforts at becoming more diverse. He interviews numerous people of color—recent graduates—who describe the complexity of their experience at the school. One of them now works at an amazing non-profit called Rainier Scholars, which provides structure and support to help promising young students of color as they advance through middle school, high school, and college.

Despite its great work, Rainier Scholars can only do so much. This is what troubles Merlino, who writes,

“At the same time, Rainier Scholars [does not try] to accept and work with every student it can, no matter their test scores. The Rainier Scholars program, instead, enrolls sixty of Seattle’s highest-testing minority students a year and looks to get them into private schools or the advanced tracks of the public schools. The idea is that without the program, the kids may fall behind and never be able to reach their potential. You have to wonder about the next sixty, who barely miss the cut. Or what about all the other kids after that? How many other talented kids lose out because their families lack the means or the background to guide them through the system? What about the students who don’t score high on standardized tests, who aren’t going to go to college? Have we just accepted . . . that a certain number of kids just aren’t going to make it?”

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The tragedy here is not that there isn’t more funding for Rainier Scholars. The tragedy is that we need non-profit organizations to step in and guide kids through “the system.”

What does that say about our schools?

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Sir Ken Robinson, in his awesome book The Element, poses a simple challenge. Instead of creating schools that are defined by the question, “How intelligent are you?” he suggests we flip the question: “How are you intelligent?”

In schools designed to build on kids’ strengths, it’s less likely they’ll need a separate infrastructure just to make it through. And in response to Merlino’s question, “Have we just accepted . . . that a certain number of kids just aren’t going to make it?”—I’m reminded of something a friend said to me recently.

She said, “Can you imagine what it would be like to live in a city in which everyone was dialed into the thing in life that they’re truly passionate about?”

Yes. I can.

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