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Urban Schools Have Turned Corner But Still Need Help, Report Says

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Urban school districts are making "steady progress" in raising student-achievement levels and meeting a vast assortment of special needs, but they "cannot do it all alone," a report to be released this week contends.

Based on a year of self-examination by 44 of the largest urban districts, "Challenges to Urban Education: Results in the Making," casts the future of inner-city public schools in terms far more optimistic than other recent assessments.

In particular, it rebuts the frequent criticism, contained most recently in a report released last week by the Committee for Economic Development, that urban dis6tricts have an "archaic school structure and unresponsive bureaucracy" that frustrates real school improvements.

The new portrait, scheduled for release at the annual meeting of the Council of Great City Schools, says urban educators are "rolling up their sleeves" and "doing a remarkable job of incorporating the realities of urban life into a rich and varied educational experience."

"The report is deliberately hopeful," said Michael D. Casserly, project director for the study, "because the districts themselves are really quite hopeful."

"We have a good handle on what works with the kids we serve," he said, "but we're not reaching nearly as many of them as we would like, and we need some help."

Despite its positive tone, however, the 105-page document graphically chronicles the consequences of failing to meet the needs of students in urban districts, who are far more likely than students elsewhere to be members of disadvantaged or minority groups.

Echoing a different theme of the recent ced report, Richard Green, president of the Council of Great City Schools, wrote in the report that "without massive public intervention, we are at a point in American history at which it is clear that we will indeed have the permanent underclass which was portended by the Kerner Commission report in the 1960's."

"If you are black, Hispanic, or Indian, and live in the inner cities of this nation, there is about a 50-50 chance you will never have a long-term, permanent career," said Mr. Green, who is superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools.

Scattered throughout the report are "Urban Indexes" that statistically detail the current problems and emerging trends in urban education.

The challenges faced by inner-city educators are compounded by the size, complexity, and demography of urban school systems, the report says, and by a variety of other obstacles, including inadequate support from other sectors of the community.

"Educational success stories are more often the result of energetic school leaders than of a collaborative effort," the report states. "All too infrequently do the critics of urban schools ask how they can help improve them."

The report also sounds a note of concern about the fiscal future of urban education, in light of the fact that the tax base in many cities is shrinking, and the competition for local, state, and federal resources is growing.

Social factors also work against the improvement of student achievement, the report says. It cites the following as among the most alarming: skepticism about the usefulness of education, peer pressure against excelling in the classroom, poor educational attainment within the urban family, and the lack of positive role models.

In addition, the report states, "the education-reform movement may prove an unwitting adversary in our struggle," because graduation requirements have been increased8without corresponding efforts to ensure that disadvantaged students can meet the new goals.

"Of the numerous states that have increased their graduation requirements," it notes, "only one has enacted a major new program focused on economically disadvantaged children to accompany these changes."

Ignored by Reform

But despite such obstacles, progress is being made, according to the report. "In nearly every one of the Great City school districts, average achievement-test scores are rising for all groups of students and are generally exceeding national norms for elementary students."

The document focuses on five key areas that council members have identified as the major issues confronting city school officials over the next few years: educational achievement; opportunities for graduates in postsecondary programs, employment, and training; community and parent involvement; health care; and buildings and facilities.

In many respects, the report stands as a blueprint for reform in urban education, because members of the council reject other reform reports as having ignored the special nature of the challenges associated with schooling in large cities.

It says, for example, that "suggesting we lengthen our school day is little help to a school district that must negotiate with 20 unions to keep a building open."

"Proposing we use more instructional technology in schools too old to have enough electrical outlets," it says, "is demoralizing. Recommending that our children simply 'say no' to drugs and sex when both are ever-present in cities is wishful thinking."

"There have been scores of reports written by people who don't run schools recommending changes to the people who do," said Mr. Casserly. "We want to move the debate back to the local level, where the changes are already occurring."

The report includes descriptions of more than 100 "model programs" currently operating in districts that are members of the council.

In addition, it contains some 250 recommendations for action that should be taken by local, state, and federal governments; parents; universities; churches; community-based organizations; the private sector; and urban districts themselves.

Among the "top 10 needs" of urban schools, as identified by member districts, are the following:

Higher expectations for children by educators, parents, and the community, including a greater emphasis on the value of an education and on personal responsibility for attaining it.

School size and organization that provide each student with personal attention and rewards for performance.

A teaching force that understands and accepts the diversity of students in urban areas and gives them role models from all racial and ethnic groups.

Access to gifted and talented programs for students from all backgrounds.

Staff-development programs and inservice training for teachers that stress the retention of qualified staff and the maintenance of morale, professionalism, and instructional effectiveness.

Long-range strategic planning by school boards, the central administration, and higher-education leaders on the goals, plans, and philosophy of the school system.

Better, more modern technology that allows students to become technologically literate and administrators to improve research and management.

Multi-cultural and multi-ethnic curricula that recognize the diverse needs of urban students.

More research and evaluation to improve teaching approaches and student assessments and to promote promising practices.

Increased funding, targeted to problem schools, that is consistent over time and flexible in its uses.

Copies of the report can be obtained for $14.95 (plus $2.50 for postage and handling) by writing the Council of Great City Schools, 1413 K St. N.W. Suite 400, Washington, D.C. 20005, or by calling (800) 327-7566.

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