The Atlantic

How High Schools Shaped American Cities

Public education and its traditions united communities. But “school choice” could put that legacy at risk.
Source: Kim Steele / Getty

In 2016, shortly after she was appointed to the position, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos declared American public schools a “dead end.” Instead, DeVos advocates for “school choice,” code for charter schools, vouchers, and other privatization efforts.

Families who have watched their local schools struggle might agree with DeVos, but her characterization is still troubling. It reflects a distrust of education as a communal goal, not just an individual one. That’s a big change from the objective of American public schools during their first two centuries. Far from being a “dead end,” for a long time the public school—particularly the public high school—served an important civic purpose: not only as an academic training ground, but also as a center for community and activity in American cities.

From curricular offerings to extracurricular activities, shared milestones to cultural traditions, high schools have been remarkably consistent across the country and even across generations. Many Americans can remember the awkward school dances that memorialized the best (and worst) music of the day. Or bumping past different teenage archetypes on their way to classes. Or the pep fests and rallies they may have loved, or loved to hate. Football games that captured the attention of entire towns.

Public schools

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