Toxic Schools High-Poverty Education in New York and Amsterdam
by Bowen Paulle
University of Chicago Press, 2013
Cloth: 978-0-226-06638-7 | Paper: 978-0-226-06641-7 | Electronic: 978-0-226-06655-4
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226066554.001.0001


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.


Bowen Paulle teaches at the University of Amsterdam. A native New Yorker, he lives in the Netherlands.


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

“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

"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

"The most interesting book I have read recently..."
— Rebecca Cheung, Principal Leadership Institute, University of California-Berkeley

“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

“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


- Bowen Paulle
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226066554.003.0001
[Access, Fieldwork, South Bronx, Southeast Amsterdam, Bijlmer, Dominant approach, Alternative framework]
This chapter contextualizes the two schools in New York’s South Bronx and Southeast Amsterdam (or the Bijlmer) and demonstrates how Paulle got access to them. This chapter also reveals how Paulle began identifying what gradually evolved into the main themes taken on in each of the chapters at the heart of the book. Chapter One provides a detailed discussion of both the leading social scientific approach to troubled urban schools and the alternative conceptual framework upon which Paulle relies most heavily. Although an expanded discussion of data collection methods is offered in the Appendix, this chapter also offers a preliminary account of the fieldwork techniques upon which the comparison is based. In the interest of illuminating what students and teachers saw and felt when they entered the two settings, Paulle gets underway by fleshing out some of his initial encounters with and reflections on Johnson High and the Delta School. (pages 1 - 32)
This chapter is available at:

- Bowen Paulle
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226066554.003.0002
[Interactions, Rituals, Peer dynamics, Ghetto fabulous, Code of the street, Adolescent society]
Chapter Two brings to life the highly ritualized ways of thinking, feeling, and interacting within the overall status hierarchies that entrants into both adolescent societies soon come to experience practically as the natural order of things. This chapter’s main goal is to depict students’ moment-by-moment lived experiences of coping with peer group transactions centered in spaces where the “real” actions tended to unfold: outside classrooms. This chapter also begins revealing why some students had far greater access to (and tended to be more easily seduced into) ultimately self-destructive ways of being than others. Even those seemingly most enchanted with their school’s version of the “ghetto fabulous” life did not buy into some kind of situation transcending ideology or “code of the street.” Yet while immersed in “real” mini-events both reflecting and reinforcing the two broader pecking orders, doing what could otherwise appear as the “right thing” often become nearly impossible. (pages 33 - 66)
This chapter is available at:

- Bowen Paulle
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226066554.003.0003
[Aggression, Threats, Embodiment, Stress responses, Violent elites]
Chapter Three investigates what students let behind are often forced to care about most: the power of threats and the practice of violence. This chapter shows not only why toxic stress crept beneath the skin of all involved, but also how certain especially dominant students skillfully manipulated the gendered roles and interactional channels leading towards physical aggression. Chapter Three demonstrates how potentially belligerent interactions governed even the violent elites who often appeared to master the two anxiety-ridden universes with the embodied ease of the naturally gifted. If we really want to understand how students deal and self-destruct in our most troubled schools, we need to get a grounded sense of the degree to which students remained pre-discursively intimidated no matter what they consciously thought. Achieving this can help us see that all observable behaviors in such anxiety-ridden environments should be construed primarily as body-based, visceral, and immediate responses to stress. (pages 67 - 104)
This chapter is available at:

- Bowen Paulle
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226066554.003.0004
[Pride, Shame, Emotional investments, Friendship, Urban space, Social space, Race, Class divisions]
Chapter Four explores how stigmatized positions in overall urban spaces contribute to emotional investments in friendships and peer group affiliations that even the students making them at times understood to be self-defeating. More specifically, Chapter Four delves into how feelings of shame experienced outside what the students assumed to be their natural habitats reinforced desperate feelings of pride related to even the most debilitating of in-school coping practices. Paying close attention to the myriad and at times (ambiguously) racialized ways in which students experienced inequalities within the two broader urban realms (and, relatedly, within the two broader fields of education), the chapter helps reveal why the same core communication could seem at once built into the basic physical and social spaces of the two divided cities and cemented into the students’ mental structures and unconscious minds: You and your kind will never belong outside the ghetto. (pages 105 - 130)
This chapter is available at:

- Bowen Paulle
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226066554.003.0005
[Habitus, Second nature, Cultural capital, Success, Failing schools, Emotional contagions, Self-control]
Chapter Five begins with how once promising students get knocked off successful trajectories and propelled towards tragic outcomes. The chapter then details how two male students self-identifying as black not only overcame setbacks (such as being evicted or homeless) but avoided invitations to continue self-destructing and, in one case, used a “failing school” as a springboard into the Ivy League. This chapter shows how habitus formation processes rooted in the past undergirded here and now in-school coping processes shaped by orientations to likely futures. Along with revealing the keys to successful trajectories through overwhelmed schools, this chapter shows why so few of the students ever acquire them. The core finding is that (early) socialization based most fundamentally on socio-emotional networks and body-based learning can contribute not just to comparatively high levels of cultural capital but, even more importantly, to extremely stable, self-disciplined, and coherent second natures. (pages 131 - 166)
This chapter is available at:

- Bowen Paulle
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226066554.003.0006
[Classroom dynamics, Disruption, Social dramas, Burn out, Effective teachers, Natural authority, Charisma]
The final empirical chapter addresses the incalculable inefficiency and patterned social dramas emerging inside classrooms. While zooming in on how students get swept up in (or are forced to witness) bouts of disruption and the events that often push less effective teachers over the edge, a central theme is the “natural authority” embodied by the minority of teachers who regularly smooth the way for constructive bodily movements, helpful emotional states, and sustained learning. Largely because it is so difficult to become and remain a seemingly charismatic pedagogue, hoping for more “super teachers” would be wrongheaded. Increasing teachers’ emotional compensation and improving the somatic experience of being on the front line through thoroughly stabilizing the daily interactions of poorly born students—and through helping adolescents manage stress levels that can durably damage their bodies and minds—is the best way to attract and retain significantly greater percentages of (potentially) excellent teachers. (pages 167 - 198)
This chapter is available at:

- Bowen Paulle
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226066554.003.0007
[Race, Oppositional, Interpretations, Situation, Embedded, Primordial feelings, Failing ghetto schools, Toxicity, Healthy cities]
The Conclusion attempts to change the basic terms of the trans-Atlantic discussion about “failing ghetto schools.” While recalling several of the book’s core empirical findings, the main goal here is to demonstrate how we can confidently and collectively move beyond debate defining assumptions about unambiguously racialized, highly explicit, and somehow oppositional interpretations. Fleshing out further his Elias, Bourdieu, Katz, and Collins-inspired framework, Paulle argues that situationally embedded and primordially felt responses to toxic stress fuel the devastation of high poverty schools and threaten the health of our cities. If we finally stop dodging and mischaracterizing what we are up against—if we arrive at nothing less than a new way of thinking and speaking about the ongoing suffering and occasional victories in the worst of our worst schools—we can reduce the risk of more pseudo-solutions and deal more wisely and compassionately with the educational experiences of the poorly born. (pages 199 - 214)
This chapter is available at: