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Classroom-Exchange Program Exposes Inequalities

What happens when students get an up-close glimpse of the vast resource disparities between different schools?

To find out, the public radio show "This American Life" recently profiled several alumni of a unique classroom-exchange program in the Bronx, in New York City, in which students from an inner-city public school visited their pen pals at a wealthy private school. Perhaps not surprisingly, the students from the public school recalled being deeply shocked and upset by the contrast between the schools.

The students had been early participants in a program called Classroom Connections, created in 2005 by teachers Lisa Greenbaum and Angela Vassos as a way to foster connections and encourage collaboration between their two schools. Greenbaum taught at University Heights High School, a public school in a low-income school neighborhood where 29.8 percent of people live below the poverty line;  Vassos taught at Fieldston, a private school where tuition for the current school year is more than $43,000.

One of the public school students compared their first visit to Fieldston to Edward Scissorhands' descent from his dark, decrepit mansion to the colorful, cheerful town below. Unlike University Heights, Fieldston's 18-acre campus has a quad, a dance studio, an art gallery, pool and athletics center. Greenbaum told "This American Life" that her students, "couldn't believe the [Fieldston] campus. They felt like everyone was looking at them. And one of the students started screaming and crying—like, this is unfair. I don't want to be here. I'm leaving. I'm leaving right now. I'm going home."

The students were also struck by the racial divide. University Heights graduate Melanie remembered the student body as "a sea of white, blonde, blue-green eyes," whereas her classmates were mostly Puerto Rican and Dominican.

According to the "This American Life" segment, important questions remain about the long-term effects of programs like Classroom Connections on students. It's quite possible, to quote the narrarator of the piece, that for poor kids, the exposure to how the other half lives "just sucks."

But University Heights and Fieldston have kept the partnership going in the hopes of improving understanding and breaking down stereotypes. In recent years, according to a recent story in New York Times Magazine, the program has expanded to include conversations about race relations and gun violence, as well as facilitated "story exchanges."

The Times story includes photographs of students from both schools, together with quotes about the students' attitudes toward money and their awareness of privilege.

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