The first half of Fire in the Ashes focuses primarily on the complex family, community, and institutional dynamics within poor areas and their effects on children’s future. Jonathan Kozol’s introduction to a spirited, incisive young girl named Pineapple marks a dramatic thematic transition in the book. Kozol gives an in-depth description of Pineapple’s “uphill battle” to get a meaningful education in an attempt to give the reader a sense of the direct, severe, and long-term impact that poor quality schools can have on student development.
Pineapple spends the first six years of her educational career in P.S. 65, a school in the South Bronx that Kozol describes as being in a constant “state of chaos” because of overcrowding, “inexperienced and underprepared” instructors, and poor infrastructure. It is immediately evident to the reader that all of these factors contribute to an educational environment where even the most gifted student would struggle. Perhaps most egregious failure, “instructional discontinuity” due to high teacher turnover rates meant that Pineapple was years behind her peers in writing, reading, and study skills. Despite the fact that she eventually attends better schools, has a supportive family, and moves away to a more stable community, Pineapple struggles throughout her educational career to make up for poor instruction during a critical developmental stage at P.S. 65. These setbacks meant that- through little fault of her own- Pineapple’s ambitious dreams never truly came to fruition.
Though Pineapple- along with many students around the country like her- should be commended for their efforts to better themselves despite their initial disadvantages, there is something terribly wrong with the U.S. school system if they must fight for access to an education that is their right. Badly performing schools perpetuate a socioeconomic underclass of people with few skills and low expectations for the future. Contributing to intellectual deprivation and malformation, the near apocalyptic scenario in schools like P.S. 65 limits underprivileged students’ opportunities to succeed.
The American public school system is designed to create a well-educated citizenry, essential to protecting the liberty and general welfare of a democratic people. It is impossible to calculate lost or diminished potential, but statistical data and personal stories like Pineapple’s only serve to illustrate that the inequities in the public school system are a scandalous national failure. In the land of opportunity, we should be ashamed.