We can't even spell our own gangs right

The bleachers offered a view of the Rockies, forty miles west, and, against them, the towers and cranes of downtown Denver. But his focus soon drifted to the plank on which he sat, which had been freshly tagged with gang graffiti. Studying the elaborate red scrawl, he said to his friends, "The person who did this tag didn't know how to spell the name Chici." The Chici 30s, a local gang, were in ascendance at Manual now that members of their rival gang, the Oldies, had dropped out. "See," he said, "they think the word 'Chici' begins with a 'Q.' "

"So what's the right way to spell it?" someone asked. It was quiet then, until the girl with the ponytail protested, "Norberto, stop looking to me like that, like you're some teacher!"

"Well, I don't care to know," another boy said. "I don't like those dudes, remember?"

"No wonder the whole city thinks we're stupid," Norberto said, addressing a recent turn of events that some on the bleachers still refused to accept. "Like, that's our education in a nutshell--we can't even spell our own gangs right."
- from “Expectations”, by Katherine Boo in the Jan. 15, 2007 New Yorker, an account of Denver, Colorado’s Manual High School, its mostly Mexican student body, and the unsuccessful efforts of the exceptional (former editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal and self made millionaire) Denver Superintendent of the Schools Michael Bennet to change it.

Manual is a terrible school:
“Last year, Manual High was one of the worst schools in Colorado. “Nine out of ten students failed the state writing test; ninety-seven of a hundred failed the math test; one in five freshmen graduated. This wretched showing belied the fact that, for a decade, Manual High had been the object of aggressive and thoughtful reforms. The most recent was a million-dollar intervention by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, begun in 2001, which turned each of Manual's three floors into an intimate mini-school, with its own principal.”
Many of the boys at Manual High are in gangs. The Norberto quoted above is a former gang member and convicted drug dealer. Many of the girls are pregnant. The photos illustrating the article suggest nearly all of the boys and girls are fat.

Attempts to help Manual’s students go beyond the class room:
“Aides rode the bus with pregnant girls, showing them a school where they could bring their babies, and argued with parents about the value of a high-school diploma. A band of outreach workers, the educational equivalents of repo men, arranged part-time jobs and night-school curricula for other resisters.”
The considerable effort does not translate into results:
"Last year, on the tenth-grade math test, only thirty-three African-Americans in the entire district passed," [Bennet] resumed flatly..."Thirty-three--in the entire city and county of Denver, Colorado. And only sixty-one Latinos."
The decision is made to close Manual High, and its students are given the opportunity to attend their choice of the other, better (i.e. less Mexican) Denver schools. Those who think vouchers a cure-all take note: this causes most of them to drop out of school entirely (which seems to make no sense, but think about it from the teens’ perspective):
“A hundred and sixty-eight Manual students were scheduled to attend South [a “large and racially diverse school...which offered courses ranging from Japanese to Advanced Placement music theory”] that fall. A hundred and five of them hadn't shown up.”
“Expectations” is not currently available on the New Yorker website, for the time being at least the text can be found here.


  1. It's amazing to think how much money the Gates Foundation has flushed down the toilet with similar Blank Slate-inspired schemes.

    Imagine poor Bill, who's a techno-nerd-genius but knows little about how the world functions, surrounded by all these sycophants with letters after their names telling him how to spend his billions.

    The money goes in their pockets, and Bill is left with Manuel High school.

  2. I'm not impressed with Gates charity either.

    The thing is he knows about IQ, at least when it comes to his own business.

  3. Even if Manuel High produced a couples heniuses, Bill would still prefer the Indian H1B for less.

  4. Could be. Who can say what motivates that guy?

    I keep meaning to write about the time I ran into him at a bar...

  5. My guess is that Mr. Gates is primarily interested in 'looking good', improving his social stature. In this, his charity is producing excellent results. Real-life impact just isn't very important to his payoff.

  6. My guess is, Mr Gates believed that these kids could be turned around with better opportunities and more resources. The foundation may have failed to take into account the overwhelming influence of the kids' lives outside of school, their own parents' low expectations of them, the self-perpetuating sense of alienation from mainstream culture, and the widespread availability of drugs. I'd rather people err on the side of optimism and try the experiment than do nothing at all, though.

  7. I'm frankly a little unclear as to what the societal benefits are supposed to be of educating gang members. Perhaps a few will leave gang life, but for the most part, we're likely to wind up with a more sophisticated and competent criminal class. No thank you.

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