Amid Funding, Teacher Shortages, Urban Educators Find Hope
Urban school leaders took a decidedly upbeat tone at their annual fall meeting here, even while contending that teacher shortages, funding inequities, and looming privatization threaten to undermine reform programs currently under way in their schools.
Most of the sessions at the Oct. 14-18 conference of the Council of the Great City Schools, which attracted about 700 attendees, addressed ways in which urban school leaders were working to turn their systems around.
At one such seminar, Superintendent Arlene A. Ackerman of the District of Columbia schools, and Robert Booker, the Baltimore district's chief executive officer, said parental support and good media relations are crucial starting points.
In the nation's capital, Ms. Ackerman said, surveys revealed that parents and local residents were particularly concerned about safety and the soundness of school buildings. She quickly realized that she needed to make those issues a priority when she took over the 77,000-student district in May. In Baltimore, Mr. Booker said, parents wanted to know how he intended to improve the city's lagging reading scores.
Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Washington-based council, who moderated the discussion, noted that when Ms. Ackerman took the job in the long-troubled Washington schools, she sought help from other urban leaders whose systems were showing glimmers of success.
Those collaborations were far less expensive than hiring outside consultants would have been, Mr. Casserly said. And, he added, they "gained instant credibility from people in D.C. who couldn't say, 'You don't know what it's like,' because they did."
One of the liveliest sessions explored big-city school systems' relations with the news media. Terry Abbott, the director of communications for the Houston schools, stressed the influence that television news in particular has in shaping a district's image. "If it's not on television, it's not on," he said.
Mr. Abbott bolstered his argument by noting that while the Houston Chronicle reaches about 540,000 people every day, local news broadcasts there reach nearly 3 million.
"To gain public support, aim at television," Mr. Abbott advised. "Because that's where people are. Fight back [at negative publicity] with positive news that tells a story and captures an audience."
Mr. Abbott drew knowing nods and much laughter when he laid out his "Ten Commandments of Making Television News." Among the highlights were:
- Thou shall not be seen smiling or laughing at sad or troubling moments.
- Thou shall not put thy hand up in front of the television camera, angrily demand that the reporter turn off the camera, or otherwise look guilty as sin.
- Thou shall not be seen wearing sunglasses while on camera.
Mr. Abbott also recommended that school leaders take note of his district's top 10 banned words and phrases and urged them to make a list of their own.
Houston's, he said, are: implement; maximize; pedagogical; bifurcated; initiate; facilitate; hands-on, student-centered activities; text-based instructional device; positively reviewed multidisciplinary products; and enhanced in-home academic regimen.
At seminars on standards for teachers in urban schools and the projected teacher shortage, presenters stressed the connection between well-trained teachers and student achievement.
Clifford B. Janey, the Rochester, N.Y., superintendent, said teacher quality is "the most critical issue facing public schools." He noted that administrators in his 37,000-student district have broadened recruitment efforts in several ways. The district has expanded the search beyond education schools to draw new teachers from business and industry. It has helped support-staff members earn teaching credentials, and it has begun a "grow your own" program by developing programs that entice students to go to college, get certified, and come back to the district to teach.
Martin Haberman, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, warned at one session that recruitment alone is not enough. He cited the high attrition among teachers as a particular problem for urban systems. "Urban schools lose 30 to 50 percent of new teachers in the first few years," he said. "Many don't belong. But many are leaving because they don't have the support systems they need."
At a special luncheon, the council, a Washington-based organization of 51 big-city school districts, presented the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson with a lifetime-achievement award for his support of urban education and other equity issues.
In a speech after the presentation, the longtime civil rights leader and former presidential candidate hit on many of his favorite themes, harshly criticizing policymakers for failing to provide enough funds for urban schools and denouncing the funding priorities that shape policy in many cities.
"For the poor there is no floor," he said. "But everywhere I go I see two new buildings: a new ballpark and a new jail."
--KERRY A. WHITE
Vol. 18, Issue 9, Page 18