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Originally published Friday, January 12, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

"The Children in Room E4" | A life lesson on the importance of teachers

When smart journalists observe a phenomenon long enough, they often experience an epiphany. Those epiphanies can sound deceptively simple...

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Children in Room E4: American Education on Trial"
by Susan Eaton
Algonquin, 395 pp., $24.95

When smart journalists observe a phenomenon long enough, they often experience an epiphany. Those epiphanies can sound deceptively simple when described in writing because readers have not been present for the years-long quest.

Certainly the epiphany achieved by journalist Susan Eaton while studying what are euphemistically termed "inner-city schools" sounds deceptively simple. In fact, it can be summarized in one word: isolation. More specifically, Eaton realized that the mostly poor, mostly minority children in the school she studied longest knew almost nothing outside their neighborhoods. A well-to-do suburb six minutes away seemed akin to Disneyland when she chaperoned a visit there.

When Eaton began her research for what became "The Children in Room E4," she intended to focus on one public, so-called "inner-city" school in Hartford, Conn. Simpson-Waverly Elementary School consists of all black and Latino students. An unusual journalist, given her doctorate in education policy, Eaton approached the principal with what she labels in retrospect "a predictable, heartfelt and naive inquiry." Given the students' extraordinary test scores, Eaton asked, "How might we transfer your successful model to other urban schools?"

The book she wrote goes way beyond that question, which Eaton learned was too narrow. Eventually, she built the book around this question: "Is what politicians call 'school reform' — the contemporary, bipartisan goal of quantifiable standards and better test scores — a just, effective replacement for integrated, equal opportunity classrooms?" The answers, plural, turned out to be complex, giving the book incredible richness and power.

"Everybody knows" that urban public schools are failing to teach the children well. It is an easy statement to make, and then put out of mind — unless you are one of those children, or her parent, or her teacher, or her principal, or her neighbor.

Eaton has examined urban education in such a manner that no reader will soon forget what she writes. To build narrative rather than just sling depressing statistics about poverty levels, Eaton entered the daily life at a relatively successful grammar school in a low-income neighborhood that is home to numerous blacks and Puerto Ricans, and almost no Caucasians. Although Eaton introduces hundreds of characters — villains and heroes alike — she wisely focuses on a few: an extraordinarily advanced student named Jeremy; a steadfast teacher named Lois Luddy; and an optimistic, tireless civil-rights lawyer named John Brittain. It's the stories of Jeremy and his fellow students, of Luddy and her fellow educators, that dominate the heart, if not the mind.

This is a book about subtleties, not miracles. The factors that made one elementary school with minimal resources a good place to learn are not easily identifiable, nor does Eaton ever suggest they are. The biggest factor to a reader thousands of miles away comes back to the teachers — teachers who choose to instruct children without advantages in a less-than-pleasant neighborhood; teachers who never seem to lose their optimism that every child can master science, math, reading and other subjects; teachers who reach out to parents and grandparents and guardians; teachers who think of the building they inhabit as "school," not "work"; teachers who seem tireless in their devotion.

Although I have never reported in Hartford, I started my newspaper career in 1970 as an education beat reporter in East St. Louis, Ill., one of the lowest-income, highest-crime cities anywhere in the United States. Most of the schools failed to qualify as a place I would send my children. But a couple of them stood out, just like the school in Hartford chronicled by Eaton.

In Columbia, Mo., where I reside now, my children attended a kindergarten-through-fifth-grade magnet school, drawing students from across the city and from all-income strata because the kids are selected by lottery, not merit. Granted, many of the parents had earned advanced degrees. This is a university town. Still, the kids from less-advantaged backgrounds tended to perform well, too. The school is in a crumbling old building in a high-crime, low-income neighborhood.

But the principal cared, handpicked his teachers and created an atmosphere that caused parents to marvel, year after year. The principal is now retired, and so are most of the teachers who instructed my children. Some of the greatness lives on, however. Success begets success.

Call it institutional chemistry, and for sure call it less than permanent, but definitely call it worthy.

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