Category Archives: urban schools

The Realities of Urban Schools and Communities, Part II (Solutions)

As promised, I will try extremely hard to not harp on problems without also exploring some viable solutions. As such, I offer two which I believe hold great promise for turning around some of our most difficult urban schools. As a school leadership professor most of you probably won’t be surprised that I start with leadership. Urban superintendent’s must make a top priority of placing a highly effective principal in every school school building. Whether you’re talking about schools, supermarkets, or restaurant, there is absolutely no substitute for effective building leadership. There are a myriad of reasons why these buildings aren’t always led by effective leaders, district-level politics being primary amongst them. Seniority and conyism are the root of too many  Principalship appointments. I am absolutely opposed to anyone being given a position because of the number of years that they have worked in a school district. That makes absolutely no sense, and our children’s education is too important to continue playing those types of games. My solution calls for eliminating the consideration of everything in the principal selection process that is not directly related to determining how capable a candidate is of providing high needs schools with highly effective leadership.

Second, with that effective pricincipal in place, s/he must be given the the authority to make decisions, real decisions. One of the things that perplexes me most is that we have dramatically increased the level of accountability of our school leaders, but in many cases have restricted their discretion to the point where very little of what goes on in their buildings is under their control. Principals in too many of our highest needs schools are no more than middle-managers, carrying out orders from district administrators who don’t truly have a grasp of what the needs are at the school-building level. My solution calls for continuing to hold school leaders accountable for the success of their schools, but in turn giving them the authority to make real decisions in their buildings. I’m talking about budget decisions, curriculum decisions, selecting their own staff, negotiating salaries, and yes, having the power to remove staff if need be. 
I believe that getting the right people in leadership positions and then giving them the power they need to do their jobs would result in school leaders rising to and above expectations. Throughout my career I have worked with so many incredibly intelligent, passionate, and creative educators, and I know that we have the human resources to turn some of our most challenging schools into shining stars. But we have to stop getting in the way of student learning with outdated policies and practices that have nothing to do with providing all children with a first-rate education. 

The Realities of Urban Schools and Communities, Part I (Problems)

I read a comment this morning made by Dr. Steve Perry on AC 360 producer David Puente’s blog. Dr. Perry is the founder/principal of The Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Connecticut and a CNN education contributor. in response to a question posed by David of whether the federal government should take a response similar to that taken in the 1950’s with school desegregation in response to urban youth violence in and around schools. Dr. Perry said no, and responded by saying, “The kids who kill in Chicago don’t kill because they have no regard for the life of others. They kill because they have no regards for their own life. They don’t value their life. They have no plans no goals no future. Part of the solution are teachers who really teach, parents who get involved and male role models who don’t go missing.” My training is not in psychology so I don’t feel qualified to comment on why children kill, but I do feel qualified to offer some commentary on Dr. Perry’s recommendations. Dr. Perry’s recommendations are wonderful. If we could pull those things off, I have no doubt that urban schools and urban communities would be transformed. Unfortunately, however, making those recommendations a reality is difficult to say the least.  Let’s talk about them.

Good teaching. Well who can argue with that. Research has consistently shown that the classroom teacher is bar-none, the most influential person to affect student learning at school. Classroom teachers for better or for worse make huge impacts not only on learning but on the lives of their students. So why don’t we have quality classroom teachers in every classroom? Well, there are lots of reasons. First, it shouldn’t be no surprise that filling teaching vacancies at high-needs urban schools is not easy. Especially in this era of high-stakes education accountability, highly-skilled teachers are not beating down the doors to teach under some of the most difficult circumstances, with fewer resources and oftentimes for less pay. The result is that these schools are often left with disproportionately high numbers of low to no skill teachers in some the most challenging classrooms. Take it from someone who spent his first year in one of those schools, it doesn’t work out too well.

Additionally,the reality is that even for experienced teachers, teaching under those circumstances wears on you; I am talking about financially, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. For anyone who doesn’t believe me, go try it for a couple of years and come back and tell me how your disposition changes. Year after year of leadership and teaching turnover, new and improved “save your school” programs, real or perceived danger, and in many cases corruption often wears teachers down. I’m not making excuses for anyone who doesn’t do their job, but this is the reality. And that’s we’re charged to deal with, reality.

What about “parents who get involved?” Sounds great! Let’s do it! But wait, the reality is that all parents will not be involved. In fact, in many of our highest needs districts the majority of parents will not be involved in school, at least not in the way that educators typically think of involvement. Reasons include  parents not having adequate transportation or childcare to attend school meetings, parents’ perceptions (and their perceptions are their reality) that they are not welcomed or respected at the school, and yes, some parents are just indifferent to whether their children get a good education or not. It’s sad, but again, we’re telling the truth here. Does that mean that all hope is lost? No. In future posts, we will talk about strategies for engaging parents who traditionally have not been involved in schools. Let’s be honest from the start, we will not engage them all, but we can do a hell of lot better than we’ve done in the past.

The tragic loss of young life in Chicago and across the country is heartbreaking, but the harsh reality is that we are not going to fix the problem of urban youth violence this month simply because there are more people paying attention to it than usual. Our problems did not escalate to where they are over night and they will not be fixed over night either. Dr. Steve Perry is absolutely right in his contention that our schools remain our best shot at making a difference in the lives of high-needs urban youth, and he is no stranger to the dealing with the problems that plague so many urban schools. He is the founder and principal of the very successful Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Connecticut. At Capital Dr. Perry has done a tremendous job graduating and sending to college children who statistics say should be dropouts. But the models that have been successful for charter schools, magnet schools, and private schools will not bring the same results to traditional public schools. The urban high-needs traditional public school is unlike any other institution and requires unique consideration.

Anyone who knows me knows that one of my pet peeves is dwelling on problems without offering solutions. So over the next week, the education policy matters blog will be dedicated to thinking through some realistic strategies for keeping kids safe and improving learning in our urban centers. We must get this generation of inner city kids graduated from high school and on to some form of post-secondary training. When I say we, I’m not just talking about educators. I’m talking about educators, parents, and community members. The problems that we face are too big and too complex for even one of these groups to be left out of the solution. We can make things better, but we must come together, put selfish interests aside, and work toward the common goal of helping OUR kids to make a better life for themselves and a better future for all of us.