Book Review

Hope and Despair in the American City

Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh

by Gerald Grant, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2009, 226 pp. with index, $25.95 softcover

In the late 1980s, I spent a significant amount of time studying for my graduate degree at North Carolina State University. I visited schools, worked with principals and superintendents, supervised student teachers, ate lunch with teachers and students, and came to know the schools in Raleigh, N.C., well — or so I thought.

Hope and Despair

Having spent time with Gerald Grant’s book, Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh, I wonder how I missed seeing what he saw and how I could have avoided hearing so many important stories about the sociology and economics of schooling, about the significance of visionary leadership and about the powerful connection between successful schools and community leadership.

Grant’s work is a beautifully written account of two different but closely related histories of schooling in America. He has woven together a wonderfully smooth narrative, a personal history, a well-researched study on desegregation and a compelling discussion about why some schools work and others fail.

What I found especially evocative, if not frustrating, is Grant’s delineation of social, legal and community practices whose confluent forces often have virtually permanent consequences on the likelihood, or not, of a successful school system. But his work does not leave us helplessly disturbed with the notion that some schools and some districts are simply destined to do poorly. He has avoided the stereotypical rationalizations for why schools fail and provided insights to the real possibilities that may come with diverse perspectives and diverse people.

Grant’s work gives me hope that our differences, our diversity, are the key to our shared successes. And in a day where diverse perspectives are often met with outrageous, uncivil and otherwise inappropriate “shout backs,” he offers a grounded, well-reasoned perspective where we can begin to sense there indeed is hope.

Reviewed by Zach Kelehear, associate professor of educational leadership, University of South Carolina, Columbia, S.C.