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Toxic Schools

High-Poverty Education in New York and Amsterdam

Toxic Schools

High-Poverty Education in New York and Amsterdam

Violent urban schools loom large in our culture: for decades they have served as the centerpieces of political campaigns and as window dressing for brutal television shows and movies. Yet unequal access to quality schools remains the single greatest failing of our society—and one of the most hotly debated issues of our time. Of all the usual words used to describe non-selective city schools—segregated, unequal, violent—none comes close to characterizing their systemic dysfunction in high-poverty neighborhoods. The most accurate word is toxic.

When Bowen Paulle speaks of toxicity, he speaks of educational worlds dominated by intimidation and anxiety, by ambivalence, degradation, and shame. Based on six years of teaching and research in the South Bronx and in Southeast Amsterdam, Toxic Schools is the first fully participatory ethnographic study of its kind and a searing examination of daily life in two radically different settings. What these schools have in common, however, are not the predictable ideas about race and educational achievement but the tragically similar habituated stress responses of students forced to endure the experience of constant vulnerability. From both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, Paulle paints an intimate portrait of how students and teachers actually cope, in real time, with the chronic stress, peer group dynamics, and subtle power politics of urban educational spaces in the perpetual shadow of aggression.


"Based on six years’ ethnographic research as an insider teaching in failing urban schools on both sides of the Atlantic, the author provides us with a remarkably detailed, deep and often disturbing exploration of inner-city school life which uses the groundedness of everyday school realities as a basis for advancing academic debates around traditional race-based analyses of urban schooling challenges."

European Politics and Policy

“[T]he book’s strength is in its nuanced and intimate examination of power dynamics, micropolitics, and conflicted daily negotiations in these almost uninhabitable school settings. . . . The ethnographic depth of this book is so rich that the reader can almost experience the trusting relationships the author has established with the book’s youth through his stories and deep descriptions.”

Comparative Education Review

“Paulle’s Toxic Schools is an often-riveting transatlantic comparative ethnography. . . . His novel approach to toxicity offers rich material and insights for planning scholars and practitioners who work at the intersection of public health, education, and poverty studies.”

Berkeley Planning Journal

Toxic Schools provides a deep and unsettling glimpse of life in urban schools. Paulle is not proposing a solution, and therefore the outcome of the book is somewhat bleak. However, the book’s purpose is not a quick-fix remedy, rather, it is an invitation to approach the extremely complex problem plaguing urban schools in an original way.”

Journal of Youth and Adolescence

“In Toxic Schools, Paulle invites us to pause for a moment and take a close look into the moment-to-moment social interactions that occur in nonselective, high-poverty schools. . . . His ethnographic study of a high school in the Bronx and a similarly situated high school in Amsterdam offers a deep and focused analysis of life inside and outside of our most troubled schools. He gathered data during a 3-year stint as a teacher in the Bronx and almost three more years as a teacher and coach in Amsterdam. The result is a study that is both theoretically and data rich.”

Journal of Urban Affairs

“A bare-knuckled, gut-wrenching, and frankly heart-breaking intimate portrayal from an insider teacher-ethnographer who worked for years on the front lines of the violent mayhem of poor urban schools in both the United States and Holland.  Like most of his colleagues, Bowen Paulle fails to teach his out-of-control classes, but he dares explain why and how and propose solutions.  He opens up the black box of the structurally imposed failure of public education for the urban poor on both sides of the Atlantic, revealing its micro-interactional processes.”

Philippe Bourgois author of In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in EL Barrio

“Insightful and evocative, Toxic Schools takes us inside troubled schools on both sides of the Atlantic. Bo Paulle’s six years of teaching in the South Bronx and Southeast Amsterdam shows. Cutting through stale debates about high-poverty education with detailed, clear-eyed accounts of the lives of teachers and students confronting poverty and violence, he offers a refreshing and highly original perspective on the brokenness of our schools and what can be done to fix them. If you thought you understood the depths of the problem, this book will make you think again.”

Matthew Desmond, author of On the Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters

Toxic Schools is an ambitious and original treatment of violence in inner-city schools, distinguished by Bowen Paulle’s sophisticated integration of theoretical constructs throughout the discussion of his empirical materials. This highly instructive cross-site comparison will appeal not just to scholars of education and school administrators. And it is relayed in such visceral terms that it will likely appeal to a broad readership as well.”

Peter R. Ibarra | University of Illinois at Chicago

“Rather than addressing, as so many studies do, the ways in which schools facilitate their students’ underperformance on tests and their inability to acquire the necessary knowledge to prepare them for college, ToxicSchools focuses on students’ visceral, daily lived experiences navigating chaotic and stressful school environments in the South Bronx (New York) and the Bijlmer (a predominantly black neighborhood in southeast Amsterdam). . . . Offering an innovative educational reform, Paulle suggests that schools implement stress-reduction programs for students. This suggestion is a keen insight that, if taken seriously, could drastically alter the culture of urban schools. . . . The strength of the book lies in its in-depth illustration of a school environment in which students must develop coping mechanisms to ‘succeed,’ both emotionally and intellectually.”

Contemporary Sociology

“Paulle performs a considerable service just by reminding us that the first fact of life in the worst of these nearly abandoned schools is the atmosphere of chaos, threat, and intimidation. This takes us much closer to the lived reality of teachers, students, and parents and explains why both policy discourse and research discourse often seem perfectly irrelevant to those in such schools.”

Social Service Review

Table of Contents


Chapter 1: Introduction—Getting Situated
Chapter 2: Recognizing the Real, Restructuring the Game
Chapter 3: Episodic Violence, Perpetual Threats
Chapter 4: Exile and Commitment
Chapter 5: Survival of the Nurtured
Chapter 6: The Tipping of Classrooms, Teachers Left Behind
Chapter 7: Conclusion

Appendix: Research Methods and the Evolution of Ideas


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