Steve Poizner, candidate for the GOP nomination for CA governor, has written a book about his experiences teaching at a San Jose high school a couple of years ago. The school was Mount Pleasant and it would not seem to be a "school of destiny" in that it was in the 40th percentile for CA schools, and - in Poizner's telling - was a tough inner-city school. Does San Jose even have an inner city? (Actually, Poizner says the school is in "East San Jose," which sounds more butch somehow). Anyway the book was #5 on the NY Times best-seller list, but it hasn't been without controversy, including protests by Mount Pleasant students and staff at a Poizner book signing.
NPR's Ira Glass did a 10 minute piece on Poizner's book. Now, we all know that 99.99999% of the time that the media guy doing a story on a just-published book may not have read the table of contents, let alone the whole book. Authors can pretty much appear, say their piece, and take off. But, for some crazy reason, Glass was inspired to travel to San Jose (sorry East San Jose), visit the school, and interview some of the students and staff. Glass's findings were surprising: True Urban Legends
For years, I was a reporter in the Chicago public schools for NPR's daily news programs. I've been in great schools, I’ve been in dangerous schools—urban schools, suburban schools. Mt. Pleasant is definitely one of the better public high schools I've ever visited. And I know it may seem like I'm belaboring all this, putting this book under a microscope point-by-point, but so many of the political discussions in our country seem so disconnected from reality. Every year there are egregious examples of politicians and commentators who believe if they repeat some non-fact over and over, it becomes true. And the more I looked into Poizner's book, the more it seemed like one of those rare cases that's so obviously and provably untrue. Though in Poizner's case, what made it especially interesting was that from his book it seemed very possible that he really is just a well-meaning, idealistic guy who wants to help people, who just got a lot of this wrong.
The school isn't unusually dangerous
There is a gang presence in the area. They’ve been here for - we’re into the second and sometimes third generation of gang families, we know this, but at school we don’t have gang problems per se. Our students are able to sit next to each other in a classroom and not have conflicts. We don’t have fights in the classroom. We don’t have fights on campus. We have few fights. Off the top of my head, I think we’ve had about a dozen fights this year.
While the school is not quite Harvard, it does OK:
This school has 150 students studying animation in a special studio with rows of Macs and animation stands - this was all going on while Poizner was at the school, too. There are 19 AP classes. There's a vocational program teaching metal and woodworking and computer-aided design, plus a variety of special projects and programs to close the achievement gap and get less privileged kids to college. School attendance is 95 percent.
Glass also drives around Hell's Kitchen, I mean, East San Jose:
Driving around the neighborhood, it is hard to disagree with the teachers who say it's a perfectly nice middle class and working class area. Occasionally you'll see a house in bad shape, but overwhelmingly it's neatly tended yards, garages, decent cars and SUVs in the driveways. It's suburban. I was surprised to learn that when Poizner taught here in 2003 there was a golf course just a few blocks from the school -there's still a lake and the Raging Waters water park. He doesn't mention those in the book. We called a half dozen local real estate agents who confirmed what teachers told us - that the neighborhood looks the same today as it did back in 2003. If anything, they said, with the recession it's gotten a little worse – the average house price in 2003 near the school was $457,000. Today it's $317,000.
Glass also plays a tape of the drama kids singing a tune from The Music Man, just to hammer the point home.
When I started reading Glass's transcript, I thought I would be blogging about how this pompous NPR guy was picking on Poizner for daring to criticize public schools, but Glass's reporting makes clear that Mount Pleasant is providing a decent education, at least to the kids who want to learn. I guess Poizner should feel lucky Glass didn't notice that Poizner also referred to the school as "Mount Pregnant" (badum-bump!) to further heighten the "bitches & ho's" atmosphere he was trying to conjure up.
Anyway, Glass seems to have the goods on Poizner who kinda maybe should be a little embarrassed by all this. But, maybe Glass should ask himself what inspired him to come down so hard on Poizner. A lot of work went into this investigation; a lot more work than I've seen politicians' books normally receive. And there are plenty of questionable political books out there, hiding in plain sight, if Glass or anyone cares to look.