School Daze

A photo essay points to the inequalities in school districts.

Friday, October 31, 2008 4:28 PM EDT
By Adam Grybowski

RANDALL Hagadorn was thrilled.

In 2006 he was asked to complete a black- and-white photo essay about New Jersey children educated in poor inner-city schools. Mr. Hagadorn has been a professional photographer for some 40 years, and though the venues for them have shrunk considerably, photo essays are his specialty.

He was then told the subject would focus on a series of court rulings surrounding the Abbott v. Burke case, regarding education funding.

”Frankly, I felt like the bottom fell out,” Mr. Hagadorn says. “Laws are abstractions. How can I illustrate a law?”

He contacted friends and colleagues familiar with Abbott until he had a broad overview. “I treated it like layers of an onion,” he says. “I kept asking questions. I worked backward from the law to the need for the law until I got back to the children. Then I had a concept.”

The Promise, a photo essay on New Jersey’s struggle to realize educational equality for its children, is on display simultaneously at the Brodsky Gallery in Lawrence and the Bernstein Gallery at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School.

The exhibit portrays the history and implications of Abbott v. Burke, the case that resulted in the New Jersey Supreme Court ruling that schools in poorer areas must receive the same funding as wealthier districts. Thirty-one Abbott districts now receive state aid calculated to level their school budgets with those of the wealthiest districts.

The decision was based on an 1875 amendment to the New Jersey state constitution that required the legislature to provide a “thorough and efficient” public education to children between the ages of 5 and 18.

”New Jersey has been one of the most progressive states in the union in using the equality provisions in the state constitution to make access to public goods more equitable,” says Stanley N. Katz, director of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at the Woodrow Wilson School.

Real estate taxes have traditionally funded schools, resulting in better-funded school districts for wealthier communities. The effort in the Abbott ruling is to transfer state funds to poorer districts and place caps on what some of the wealthy districts can spend.

That notion bucks certain democratic traditions. The state, intervening to balance inequalities, wrests local control of schools through publicly elected school boards. The debate rests on the proper way to provide a “thorough and efficient” public education.

Whatever the means, the end is defined.

”The goal is to motivate them, to wipe out their disadvantages, as much as a school district can, and to give them an educational opportunity that will enable them to use their innate ability,” New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Wilentz wrote about students in the 1990 Abbott v. Burke decision.

The Promise restores children, who can be abstracted from the debate, to the center of the decision.

”I hear a lot of people say that things aren’t that bad, that money’s being squandered,” Mr. Hagadorn says. “Which it could be. We all know the government’s not totally efficient.”

But take a look at a photo from the Cleveland Street School in Orange. A former custodian’s closet serves as a kitchen and food storage facility for 350 students. The exercise room doubles as a cafeteria. For lunch, portable tables are set up. The lunch line extends into the basement hallway.

Many photos present a student or groups of students engaged, with a script, with a science experiment, with the computer. See students weighing a beaker, their safety goggles perched atop their heads. See a small auditorium, its seats filled with children thrusting a hand in the air, their mouths open and shouting, responding to their principal.

But take a closer look and you will see subtle and not so subtle ways students are shortchanged, such as the antiquated computers and equipment.

”I believe in democracy, the survival of our democracy, and that depends on an educated and informed public,” Mr. Hagadorn says. “To squander such a large part of our society is such a waste.”

At nearly every school Mr. Hagadorn had an escort who, he says, wanted to show him how money was being spent to improve education. The escort would bring him to a new auditorium, for example. “The new facilities have been an inspiration to these kids,” Mr. Hagadorn says. “The attitudes I encountered were incredibly upbeat and positive.”

Still, he wanted to see kids being spontaneous — a “real time thing.” Walking from room to room he began casting his eye on the hallways. “I began to work in between classes in the hallways and during recesses and gym classes and special activities like theater and art,” he says. “I gave up on the cafeteria because too many grapes were bouncing off the back of my head.”

At no point did Mr. Hagadorn simply show up and shoot whatever was in front of him. He began with meticulous research and planning, noting that only the last 10 or 15 percent of each photograph was left up to fate.

”There are basically two kinds of photography,” he explains, using a jazz analogy. There’s Paul Whiteman jazz, where a large orchestra always plays the same notes. Then there’s Louis Armstrong jazz, where the performer plays from the heart.

”Professional photography today is more the Paul Whiteman type — it’s prearranged,” says Mr. Hagadorn, who is based in Titusville and whose work has appeared in Time, Newsweek and The New York Times. Although the 30 images presented in The Promise were “carefully orchestrated,” they relied on an element of fate as well.

For example, Mr. Hagadorn drove to Newark’s Belmont Runyon Elementary School in March. For the first time that spring he rolled down his car window to let in the warm air. “I knew the first warm day of spring the kids would be going crazy out there (during recess),” he says.

Composing an image in his mind, he chose a spot skewed to the playground’s corner, hoping to capture an event with a dilapidated factory in the background.

”I wanted that element of the looming rust belt right outside the kids’ safe haven,” he says. Two hours passed. Finally a scene developed Mr. Hagadorn found compelling. Two boys squared off, as if about to fight. A third student intervened to diffuse the scene. “That was just fate,” he says of the event, “but the shot was blocked out two hours in advance of that.”

Not every photograph is set at a school. One photo presents two gravestones from the cemetery for Trenton State Prison. A caption accompanying the photo reports that 82 percent of American prisoners are high school dropouts. “I’m not so foolish that I believe if we educated everybody we wouldn’t need prisons,” says Mr. Hagadorn. Humanity has its monsters, but there are societal reasons, such as lack of education, why people wind up in prison.

He then ticks off a few worrisome trends — the sheer number of Americans in jail, the outlandish fiscal cost of incarceration. Such notions are unavailable to someone viewing the photo of the headstones, which is just as well.

”One of the things about a photo essay, it’s not just to deliver a number of facts,” he says. “There’s an emotional impact.”

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