Children at Risk: The Neighborhood

By Lawrence Hardy

His mother shouldn’t have been gambling, Antonio admits. But she didn’t have to get shot.

The seventh-grader didn’t see it happen, didn’t see her win $50, or hear the subsequent argument, or see the losing player raise his handgun and fire at her head as she tried to leave. But in his dreams he can see her falling on the sidewalk, and then he has to watch cartoons until the image goes away. He’s 14 years old, with round eyes and a sweet smile. He could easily pass for 11.

“After [the dream] I would wake and turn on the TV because I won’t be able to go back to sleep no more,” Antonio says softly to a school social worker. “It’s like, if I go back to bed, it’d be starting back again.”

Antonio’s mother is now brain damaged and living in a group home. Antonio is a student at Charles Hart Middle School in Washington, D.C., and he’s failing.

People who work in schools know that children -- even kindergarten and preschool children -- don’t come to them as blank slates ready to be filled with knowledge. They come from families and neighborhoods; in the case of children like Antonio, families that are troubled, neighborhoods with histories of unspeakable violence.

And if there is any hope of saving children from the most troubled neighborhoods, poverty researchers say, it will require not just the sustained effort of public schools (though school reform is key), but a national will to confront a host of needs -- education, housing, health and safety, employment -- of communities lying in the shadow of prosperity.

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