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Whose School Is It?

Whose School Is It?
Women, Children, Memory, and Practice in the City

The story of a new community charter school, told by one of its founders.

Series: Louann Atkins Temple Women and Culture Endowment, Book Twelve

January 2006
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
243 pages | 6 x 9 |

Whose School Is It?: Women, Children, Memory, and Practice in the City is a success story with roadblocks, crashes, and detours. Rhoda Halperin uses feminist theorist and activist Gloria Anzaldúa's ideas about borderlands created by colliding cultures to deconstruct the creation and advancement of a public community charter school in a diverse, long-lived urban neighborhood on the Ohio River. Class, race, and gender mix with age, local knowledge, and place authenticity to create a page-turning story of grit, humor, and sheer stubbornness. The school has grown and flourished in the face of daunting market forces, class discrimination, and an increasingly unfavorable national climate for charter schools. Borderlands are tense spaces. The school is a microcosm of the global city.

Many theoretical strands converge in this book—feminist theory, ideas about globalization, class analysis, and accessible narrative writing—to present some new approaches in urban anthropology. The book is multi-voiced and nuanced in ways that provide authenticity and texture to the real circumstances of urban lives. At the same time, identities are threatened as community practices clash with rules and regulations imposed by outsiders.

Since it is based on fifteen years of ethnographic fieldwork in the community and the city, Whose School Is It? brings unique long-term perspectives on continuities and disjunctures in cities. Halperin's work as researcher and advocate also provides insider perspectives that are rare in the literature of urban anthropology.

  • Maps
  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • Prologue
  • Part I. Creation: Writing Urban Memory
    • 1. Literacy, School, and Identity in an Urban, Working-Class Community
    • 2. Founding Mothers and the Creation of the Charter
    • 3. The Politics of the Charter and the Politics of Space
    • 4. Hiring Staff: Teachers, Kin, and an Instructional Leader
  • Part II. Deterritorialization
    • 5. Opening the School: Whose School Is It?
    • 6. Kids in the Urban Borderland: A Collage
    • 7. Clashing Philosophies, Clashing Practices: Follow the Leader versus Ring around the Rosie
    • 8. Academic Borderlands: MICROgirls, A Math Club for Girls (With Stephanie Jones)
    • 9. Moments: Collaboration and Consensus in the Borderland
  • Part III. Reterritorialization
    • 10. Negotiating the Borderland
    • 11. Deterritorialization, Crisis Management, and the Beginnings of Reterritorialization (With Lionel Brown and Roberta Lee)
    • 12. Borderlands, Factions, and Inverted Imagined Communities
    • 13. Taking Back the School
    • 14. Transforming and Cycling Borderlands of Community, Culture, and Class (With Holly Winwood, Janice Glaspie, and Lionel Brown)
  • Epilogue: Reinventing Urban Memory
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Rhoda H. Halperin is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Cincinnati.


In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom.

—Toni Morrison, Sula

Memory and History

"It will give us a chance to get back to what the neighborhood used to be."

These were the words of Robbie, a fifty-five-year-old founding mother of this urban public charter school and grandmother of this working-class community, as she scraped and painted and moved furniture for the opening day in September 2000. School opened on the day after Labor Day, to be exact, the traditional day that school starts in the East End. Finally Robbie was back in Highlands School, a Cincinnati public school building where Athena, Robbie, and her sister and brother and cousins had gone. Her father and numerous aunts and uncles had attended Highlands before her. The building is filled with memories—memories of this urban community as it used to be. Robbie had lived in the East End all her life and it had been her dream to bring the old school back to its proper place in the community.

In the eighties Highlands had ceased to be a neighborhood K-8 school for East End children. Other kinds of public schools—alternative schools and specialized school programs—had claimed the building's space. For a few years in the early nineties, Highlands became Peter Clark Academy, an impressive sounding name for a school serving high-school dropouts. Robbie spoke repeatedly and very articulately about the problems associated with attending Clark Academy. To go there, a kid had to be sixteen and have already dropped out of school. There were many more dropouts than spaces, and Clark gave no preference to East End kids, most of whom had dropped out of school between the ages of twelve and fourteen. "Why not take in kids as soon as they drop out? That way they won't fall through the cracks, hang on the street and, if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time, end up getting an education in jail." These were only some of Robbie's thoughts. Only a handful of East Enders had ever attended Clark Academy.

That Peter Clark Academy manifested no attachment to place was not an accident. As far as the school system was concerned, Peter Clark just happened to be located in the East End, but it could have been situated anywhere, including outer space, as one East Ender so aptly put it. To East Enders, though, locating this specialized school in a community with such extraordinarily high dropout rates represented a considerable blow. No preference was given to East End kids, even though the school was located right in the Highlands building in the center of the neighborhood. I did not realize it at the time (the early nineties), but Clark was just one of many attempts on the part of the school board's power structure to deterritorialize school for working-class kids.

After Clark, Highlands became Project Succeed, another school for high-risk kids—this time with records. Most recently, the Highlands building housed Clark Montessori, a yuppie school that had nothing to do with the East End community or with working-class kids. Montessori methods might have worked quite well where conventional methods had failed, but Clark Montessori made no attempt to recruit East End kids or to connect with the neighborhood. When the school grew too big for the building, it moved out of the neighborhood, and the Highlands building stood vacant for a year. Neighborhood leaders, Robbie and Athena among them, saw the empty building as a waste of good educational space and worried that it would become a target of vandalism. It did. The neighborhood and the ways of thinking about school have changed a lot since Robbie was a child, but urban kids still need schools and schooling as much as, if not more than, ever. The question is, what kind of school and schooling work best for working-class kids?

I had known Robbie and her family for a long time, almost fifteen years, having worked with her and other community leaders since the early nineties. My main function in the community has been to support community projects and interests by collecting quantitative and qualitative data that legitimize local knowledge and practice. In reality this methodology equates to telling the power structure what community residents regard as common sense—facts about the diversity, longevity, and stability of the community but also other practices such as dealing with river flooding, the informal economy, and rituals of survival. Some scholar/activists refer to this kind of research as "action research." Anthropologists might refer to the work as "applied or public anthropology." As a professor of anthropology, I am perceived as having some status and power; East End leaders tend to call me "Doctor" when they need or want someone in power to recognize my presence or hear my advocate's voice.

Even after all of this time in the community, though, I could not help but wonder what, exactly, Robbie meant by getting back to "what the neighborhood used to be." Was she talking about the close interracial friendships and the historically diverse community reflected in the school? For Robbie, her time at Highlands was a very positive experience; she loved the teachers and felt welcome. Education was inspiring and meaningful. She belonged. Surely there had never been a community charter school like this one before, even though we had modeled the school on community practices. Did she mean to bring back the feelings, the pride, and the sense of being "a real East Ender" that her old school had given her? Did she mean that the school would provide a place and a sense of belonging for East Enders in a neighborhood that now, after the passage of the East End Development Plan in 1992, was especially vulnerable to global market forces that gentrify and deterritorialize communities at the expense of the existing residents? Was it just the simple matter of bringing back a school that belonged to the community? Clearly Robbie had images in her mind about herself, the neighborhood, and the school. She is now a grandmother working as the school's community organizer, a paid staff position with an office inside the school.

The neighborhood and the city, for that matter, look very different from the East End of Robbie's childhood memories. While the community still sits just to the east of downtown, upscale condos now line the riverbanks where she played as a child. Now the neighborhood not only borders downtown, but is also a place where many different cultures and social classes come together, with the accompanying boundaries and lines, some visible, others not. Walworth Avenue, a small street that parallels Eastern Avenue near the Delta Avenue underpass, has a few community residents, but it is mostly inhabited by young urban professionals (yuppies, in East End parlance). The same is true of the segment of the East End called Columbia Tusculum. In these gentrifying areas, tensions are growing between newcomers and neighborhood kids, especially around issues of property and cars. Break-ins and thefts are common, and challenges to outsiders happen regularly in the local bars, where neighborhood kids attempt to pick fights with the yuppies. Many of the old landmarks are gone or changed beyond recognition, and there are new markers of place in the community. Gone is the Sunoco gas station where Fritz, who chaired the Community Health Center board as a lifelong East Ender, used to hold informal community meetings. The Sunoco property is now the parking lot for the reopened Pendleton Heritage Center. The Lewiston Town Homes, eleven units of affordable rental townhouses, opened in 1994, and the Betts Flats, thirteen affordable rental units right next to the school, opened shortly thereafter.

Robbie is constantly filtering memories through both the old and familiar and the new and uncertain—rethinking, re-creating, and reimagining her memories to accommodate her own changing goals, personal and political. In a place that takes community personally, the personal and the political are almost always one and the same. Outsiders do not understand this meshing of the private (personal) and public (political) domains of life. For Robbie, bringing back a community school is both very personal and very much a community project. She empathizes with the kids and their families, having grown up with many of the grandparents, and says repeatedly, "There is no kid in this building who doesn't want somebody to talk to." The kids and the parents and grandparents do talk to her.

Urban Ethnography

This book is an ethnography based in a school more than an ethnography of a school. That the school is the site of the ethnography is not exactly happenstance, but it is not the most critical point. What is critical is that there are larger points to be made about the nature of cities—urban places, including, but not restricted to, urban schools. These points have to do with global processes of identity formation and change, deterritorialization of local places and monuments, and the patterns of urban life practiced in and around the school.

For example, when the Highlands building housed Peter Clark Academy and other non-neighborhood schools, processes of deterritorialization were clearly at work. Such deterritorialization appears to be identical to the deterritorialization that comes with globalization. I cannot help but think of the neighborhoods in San Francisco that have been virtually taken over by global companies such as Starbucks, which drove out local coffee places. The same thing was happening with the schools placed in the Highlands building in the East End: they had a strong presence in the neighborhood; indeed, they were in the neighborhood, but not of the neighborhood. Such global economic processes, which create a diaspora of often small establishments (like small schools), result in institutions that are in the community, but with no connection to it. Such deterritorialization ultimately destroys communities. I see the school as a small city, or at least a model or replica of a small city, with all of the attendant diversity, inequality, income and lifestyle disparities, global markets, capitalist forces, conflict, hegemonic (power) dynamics, and reinventions of tradition and memory.

Like many cities, Cincinnati is segregated by both race and class, conservative in leadership and in policies supporting business development and (often high-end) market-rate housing over affordable, low-income housing, job training, and educational programs. In this climate, incentives to finish high school for working-class kids of whatever race or ethnicity are very few. College, then, appears as a completely unattainable goal. Why should a poor or working-class child finish high school if there are neither jobs nor resources for attending college? There is strong pressure from family members, friends, and neighbors to get a full-time job before graduation to help support the family. Social justice and the narrowing of digital divides easily give way to market forces. As a result of years of marginalization, racial and class tensions grow worse and kids exhibit rage in more and more dramatic and often violent ways. How can we channel their energy and creativity in positive directions?

Writing this book in the wake of the uprisings in Cincinnati in the spring of 2001 and the terrorist destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11 of that year feels drastically different from past research and writing projects. Writing seems urgent. The meaning of words and especially the relationships between theory and practice seem compressed and pressured. The marginality of urban working-class communities intensifies to convey a feeling of being in the third world. Urban kids already grow up much too fast. The adults shaping the school, its history, and its future must work quickly. The original out-of-the-box design of the school, the policies and practices needed for the school to function daily, and the long- and short-term plans for the curriculum must all be accomplished at once. The neighborhood has already changed dramatically, and it continues to change in ways unfamiliar and threatening to residents.

Recent events have set a new global context for writing about schooling and community in multicultural urban borderlands. If cities are more vulnerable than ever, more impoverished than ever, and more violent and drug-infested than ever, then our models for understanding cities and their schools must be rethought. Relationships between schools and urban places and the dynamics of schools as urban places that have themselves been deterritorialized are new relationships and new dynamics that are being discussed and theorized. Whereas we once may have thought of cities as melting pots and schools as instruments of upward mobility and success, both cities and their schools have changed greatly in the last two decades. Globalization, feminism, multiculturalism, information technology, and the horrific events at schools such as Columbine have impacted the way we think about kids and schools. More and more kids have been to therapy or to jail and feel labeled as "crazy" or just "bad."

The images of kids in the media are many, varied, and more fragmented and complicated than ever. Videos abound with fast-paced rhythms and often raw sexuality. Commercials convey images and messages that might have been considered pornographic just a few years ago. Most recently, the constant threat of global terrorism has demanded new thinking and new models of cities and schools. Cities have become borderlands of conflict and terror—places where strangers rub shoulders in skyscrapers, streets, and schools. The boundaries—community boundaries, personal and professional boundaries, cultural and class lines—shift constantly. Who are the best teachers, counselors, mentors? Does a person have to have credentials in order to teach? Are people with credentials always the best teachers?

The term "borderland" borrows from the borderland studies of the Mexican-U.S. border, which describe a place where many cultures meet and clash and where contradictions, inconsistencies, and power struggles rule over ordered and practiced cultural patterns. In a single urban school building, we can see lines drawn between East Enders and outsiders, people from the country and the city, kids from different parts of the city and from distinct and separately identified parts of the neighborhood, educational progressives and educational traditionalists, credentialed professionals with no knowledge of the community and uncredentialed community leaders and residents with an abundance of local knowledge, street smarts, and just plain common sense—products of years of living in the community.

The East End Community Heritage School can be understood, then, as a microcosm of the city (the global, deterritorialized city). The school, much like the city, is hierarchically organized in a ladder-like pecking order of power and control. Within the building, credentialed people interact and often clash with uncredentialed people, mirroring encounters in urban spaces. In cities, for example, people from the street set rules and relationships of trust alongside professionals and businesspeople who engage in more formal interactions. In the school, as in many urban neighborhoods, formal and official rules often give way to informal ways of doing things, and resistance to formality and to rules is always in evidence. For kids, in school and on the street, even the slightest differences in demeanor, language, clothing, shoes, hairstyle, become markers of status and power. Image is very important—for many kids it is everything.

The school is still shrouded in some of the old rhetoric of schooling and conventionality, power and knowledge. Rules prohibiting hats and baggy pants, requiring "passes," and curtailing urban language and vernacular conflict with the free-spirited educational philosophy in the charter. As the school has evolved, it has changed in structure and, to some degree, in function. The wellness center, established in the summer of 2002, occupies a separate space in the school to meet the health needs of adults and children in the community. East Enders perceive the wellness center as community-controlled space within the school. The Intervention Team operates out of the wellness center as the forum for community voices. Case managers, or lay counselors, were brought into the school in the fall of 2002 to function as the "human bridges" between families and the school.

Urban borderlands can and do arise instantly. Contestations began as soon as the doors opened, over space in the building, over who was in charge, over what the rules should be and how should they be determined and enforced, and with what consequences. Every process, from the most trivial and mundane to the most fundamental and profound, seemed open to contestation. The school was meant to occupy the central place at the heart of the community, just as the community is at the heart of the school. The exact nature of this reciprocity is, in 2005, still unclear. But this murkiness is one of the key features of the borderland. It is clear, though, that community presence in the building symbolizes and enshrines past memories of school and educational opportunities for the future. Occupying the building certainly, at least for the time being, prevents developers from turning it into upscale condominiums.


When I came to work in the East End in 1990, community leaders and residents were participating in a long and contentious economic development planning process designed to preserve and revitalize the community. My job was to strengthen the "community's voice" in the planning process, primarily by collecting data that would be useful in documenting the strengths of the community and combating negative stereotypes.9 Beginning in 1990, a diverse team of twelve university students, a field coordinator, and I conducted intensive ethnographic research. Strong presence in the community as researchers and advocates, in-depth interviews with families, the creation of elaborate kinship charts with attendant family histories and stories, and the documentation of meetings, both inside and outside the community, have been conducted without interruption over the last fifteen years, continuing up to the spring of 2004.

Throughout the school's planning and first year, I chaired its board of trustees and acted as a founding mother. I see my involvement in the school itself as a necessary, albeit at times problematic, part of the research itself. I write both from the position of an insider and from that of an outsider within. Some East Enders refer to me as a second-generation East Ender, a testimony to the power of what Pierre Bourdieu calls "practical kinship." In the East End, though, kinship is a metaphor for trust. I am a trusted member of the community and school development team because I support and advocate that local knowledge is as legitimate, if not more so, as other forms of "outsider" and "credentialed" knowledge.

As the school's history unfolded, additional people became part of our research/advocacy team, including various members of the staff and board and several undergraduate and graduate students who also contributed to the school program as tutors, teachers, coaches, and friends. We continued to collect information that would benefit the school's growth and the students' achievement. Participatory evaluation and collaborative documentation involved all of the school's stakeholders, including parents and kids. Before anything was published or presented at a professional meeting, community leaders were always consulted. We all worked hard to obtain input, build consensus, and move forward with the school's agenda. As an urban anthropologist, I see the school as a microcosm of the city—not just Cincinnati, but cities globally. This urban school contains within a single building all of the elements of a contemporary global city: it is multicultural, class-stratified, fluid (always changing with many people moving in, out, and around), territorially (spatially) segmented, and fragmented. It is tense, conflict-ridden, and often explosive. Class here refers to situated practices based in economy and culture, and while there is an internal stratification pattern in the East End, most people are still working-class or working-poor. Hierarchy within the school refers to power structures and hegemonic decision making. The school is not only situated in the city at large, but also operates within a special, and somewhat unclear, power relationship with Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS). Working with a democratically elected school board and its fluid administration presented some challenges. As a new, publicly chartered school, we, and the public school system, were literally creating the rules as we went along. CPS's charter school manager, a highly paid administrator, functioned as the liaison between "us" and "them."

There are multiple layers of urban-ness in the school, including kids' street images and representations of street life. Schools contain the cultures of the city at large, including those stakeholders who constantly attempt to remove the community from the school and, in essence, deterritorialize it. Even those with good intentions can take over a project, or an aspect of a curriculum, to the point where it no longer "belongs" to the community. By employing East Enders and making sure community leaders, parents, and residents play important roles in all decision-making processes, the EECHS board of trustees has managed, albeit with great difficulty, to keep its community context and focus. A focus on working-class culture and practice has remained a strong point. The school embraces all working-class families in the city—a practice that has created an urban, multicultural environment that is both energized and tense.

With these features of the city in mind, we designed the East End Community Heritage School to be a multicultural, public community charter school, K-12. It is an independent public school, operated under the aegis of CPS but run by our own nonprofit corporation, complete with a community board of trustees, a seven-figure budget, and a complicated set of partnerships with local universities, corporations, and other nonprofit groups. Dedicated to working for change and social justice, the founding mothers, as we still call ourselves—community leaders, university professors, teachers, and neighborhood activists—spent two years designing an out-of-the-box school that would work for kids in this small-scale, long-lived community with astronomically high dropout rates. In the nineties, almost no one graduated from high school and most kids dropped out of school in the sixth and seventh grades. Going to school as a poor child meant not having the right clothes or the right language (dialect of English) and having the lunch ticket that stigmatized a child as poor. We planned the school with community practices foremost in mind—intergenerational learning and hands-on projects that would teach concepts and practical skills at the same time. By an out-of-the-box school we meant many things—community-based, nontraditional, non-bureaucratic, small, innovative, hands-on, and apprenticeship-based. We all agreed we did not want to create another conventional CPS school, for these schools, like many public schools, had failed not only this generation of kids, but also several generations before them. We were very idealistic and somewhat naïve about how we would put these ideas into practice, but the momentum of those intense two years of school development kept us going and pressured us to get the school open as soon as possible. Ironically, perhaps, it was precisely this out-of-the-box-ness that created the most conflict and the most contentious discussions about what the school was really meant to be. In short, it was the unconventional, community-driven character of the school that laid the groundwork for the global borderland.

On a conceptual level, the fact that many different cultures come together in this urban school makes it an urban borderland, in Latina feminist Gloria Anzaldúa's terms. Further, Anzaldúa's concept of borderland can be used to theorize the city as a conglomeration of discrete cultures. But the concept of borderland is more than a descriptive term; it is a conceptual tool for dealing with complexity, diversity, fluidity, contradiction, irony, conflict, even anarchy. In several senses, then, this analysis is an expansion and elaboration of "borderland anthropology" in a global urban context. The cultures in the borderland do not melt together, but rather retain their identities in conflicting, contested, and deterritorialized ways. Moreover, these diverse urban cultures (including class cultures) straddle country and city, often becoming deterritorialized or reterritorialized in complex ways. The school, then, can be understood as a microcosm of the city—a small-scale version of the urban environment within an urban setting that is still connected to "the country" (rural areas) and that is increasingly subject to global processes. If the dynamics of the school model the dynamics of the city, then we can learn a lot about cities by understanding the school.

Celebrating Diversity, Common Sense, Heritage, and Family

Diversity in the East End of Cincinnati is historically etched in community practices and is practiced in everyday life. From its inception in the late eighteenth century, the East End has been home to people from many cultures. The East End Community Heritage School is dedicated to celebrating all forms of diversity—racial, ethnic, class, gender—and to respecting all heritages, whether these are conceived as rural, urban, African American, European, Appalachian, Hispanic, or combinations of these and others. Cincinnati's East End is a multicultural, working-class, urban neighborhood where many people maintain strong ties to the country as well as to other urban communities.

"We haven't got a lot of book learning, but we sure have common sense." I have heard this exclaimed a thousand times in the East End. It took a long time for me to figure out what, exactly, East Enders meant by common sense. It can be deconstructed as follows: "We know our community; we have strategies for survival and strategies for life. We want to be free and autonomous, and, perhaps most importantly, we take care of our own." Practicing common sense—living by it—is a fine art in the East End. It is something learned through apprenticeships and experiences, not books. In fact, common sense in the East End, and probably in most other working-class communities throughout the United States, if not the world, is a perfect example of "common sense as cultural system," to borrow Clifford Geertz's phrase. It is something children learn not in school, but by spending time with adults—watching, imitating, and eventually reproducing and elaborating community practices. If we think about how children grow up to be viable adults in most cultures as we know them in historical and evolutionary time, schools as we know them have not been part of the process.

In the East End, children watch and listen with focus and concentration; they imitate, mimic, and internalize patterns in the course of everyday life much more effectively than they appear to do in school. Common sense is complicated and multilayered. Can the process by which common sense is learned be replicated within a school building? Throughout the entire school development process, I was acutely aware that we were creating an institution that would privilege book learning over common sense and "street smarts." There were prices to be paid for such privileging. At the same time, to link the two, book learning and common sense, to use one to enhance the other, was the major challenge. We thought we could encourage book learning by celebrating street smarts. Writing projects would be based on students' experiences. Other forms of expression, visual and musical, would incorporate skills and creativity. We knew the kids had a lot to write about, and their writing was, in fact, powerful and persuasive as well as gut-wrenching and troubled.

Family is central to East End culture and takes priority in the lives of children. To be a member of the East End family is an honor, but with honor comes responsibility. To be accepted as a member of the community, a person must meet family needs before all else, including school attendance and schoolwork. Family and community membership confers trust and anticipates sharing. It means "being there," for better or for worse. Family became the metaphor for the school. Many stakeholders spoke of "our school family," but people with differing agendas used words like "family" and "kin" in their own ways. Moreover, families squabble, fight, don't hold back. Families are fiercely loyal; they have their rituals and their rules. Families are about warmth, tough love, and discipline. As much as family models were used to characterize the school, there were also other competing models—corporate models, progressive educational models—that were seen as simultaneously undisciplined, elitist, rebellious, and threatening to conventional community practices. The words spoken by progressive teachers sounded strange and unfamiliar—words like "living the writerly life," or "studying interdisciplinary projects in the humanities." One leader asked, "What exactly is humanities, and do our kids get credit for it? If so, what kind of credit?"

Theory and practice are related, and the school presented an opportunity to think about the nature of the city, to theorize the city, as academics say. Like the city, the school has permeable boundaries; people move in and out of it, but usually remain connected in some way. The timing of school entrances and exits is interesting. Sometimes parents move their kids from one school to another within the community or the city. Sometimes, when urban life gets too difficult, parents take the whole family back to the country. Movements within the city, and from city to country, reflect the tensions and contradictions of urban life.


People were amazed that we opened a K-12 school in the first year. Why not start with a few primary grades and add a grade each year, as most new schools do? It has to be K-12, argued community leaders, with great conviction, so we can have a school for all children in a family—so parents don't have to run around to different schools on parent-teacher nights. Kids in one family need to be in one school. Against the advice of our trusted education colleagues, we opened with thirteen grades, and now we have a preschool as well. In the first year, most of the high-school teachers were hired at the last minute, just before school opened, because our high-school enrollments shot up from twelve, in late August 2000, to seventy-five, in early September. Many of the primary teachers also came in just before school opened. Having been rejected many times by schools and other bureaucracies, East Enders didn't trust that a neighborhood school could really be opening. Many families signed up at the very last minute. There was little time for planning curriculum and even less time for teachers and staff to get to know each other. In September 2000, we had 160 students and fourteen teachers. Finally the school, a very important piece of "the plan," as the economic development plan for this increasingly valuable neighborhood on the Ohio riverfront was known, had been realized. The dream of one East End grandmother was a reality. But as this grandmother said many times, "I wonder whether my dream is turning into a nightmare." The nightmare was her way of referring to the conflicts in the school borderland.

In this book I use different genres (narratives, stories, essays) and incorporate different voices (community leaders, teachers, students) to talk about the challenges faced by a coalition of diverse women as we designed and opened a public community charter school in one of Cincinnati's oldest urban neighborhoods. The focus is on a global, urban borderland in which East End community leaders changed their identities several times—first being leaders, then going through a subjugated and exploited phase as "mere employees," and eventually becoming organic intellectuals. Simultaneously, and in parallel, the community went through a process of first establishing, then coming close to losing, and finally taking back the school.

It seems fitting to carry over our team concept to the telling of the school's creation, birth, and first four years of life. This book builds on and is part of the institution-building involved in "practicing community," only in a broader sense, because working-class people and communities outside of the East End are involved.

From the outset, every meeting and conversation (large or small), every event, and every decision had and continues to have multiple dimensions, multiple interpretations, and multiple retellings and reinventions. Only a day later, memories of a conversation, a meeting, even a minor incident varied greatly. The characteristically urban potential for conflict was always close to the surface, and there were many times when I could see the borderland take on a life of its own. It is always energized, vibrant, and alive. Every time I walk into the building, I can sense the energy in the school, the sense of anticipation, the sense of hope.

Rather than create a dreary narrative of chronologically arranged blow-by-blow descriptions, I have condensed events and told them thematically, while still, I hope, providing the necessary contexts and backgrounds. I have deviated substantially from chronology and favored key issues and moments, especially crises, tough decisions, and ordinary growing pains. In the thick of it, we had difficulty discerning the differences among these.

My goals for this book operate on several levels, both practical and theoretical. One goal is to document the school's creation and first four years of life, so that others with similar aims in similar urban settings might learn from our working models as well as from our mistakes. This is the story of how the East End Community Heritage School came to be and how it worked, or didn't, in its first years. On May 31, 2002, ten students graduated from our high school.

The primary goal, though, is to use the processes of this urban school's creation and function to theorize it as a global urban borderland, subject to processes of establishment (characterized by collaboration and shared leadership); deterritorialization (characterized by fragmentation, conflict, and crises); and reterritorialization (characterized by renewal of leadership, community empowerment, and the flourishing of organic intellectuals). The community agents in the school shaped their positions in accordance with these processes. The three phases of agency in the global urban borderland correspond with the three parts of the book. In this respect, though I am writing about a school, the site of this analysis could be any urban site: a health center, community center, school, or neighborhood. As such, the analysis is not heavy-handed. If anything, the opposite is the case. That is, many of the narratives, the telling of events, the reports of meetings, are lightly analyzed so that the reader can interpret, reimagine, and remember the authenticity of the voices telling the story.


“A gem. . . . A gripping book that conveys so much insight and illumination into the construction of educational identities in working-class urban communities that it must be shared.”
Anita Puckett, Director, Appalachian Studies Program, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


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