Education Opinion

Lessons of an Inner-City Independent School

By Daniel Corley — October 11, 1989 6 min read

The notion that placing power in the hands of teachers, administrators, and parents will enable schools to respond effectively to the needs of the families they serve is not new. For many years, independent schools have entrusted responsibility to those at the school level. Our experience at Community Preparatory School suggests that the principles of accountability and involvement can be applied successfully in addressing the educational challenges of tremendously diverse inner-city neighborhoods.

Community Prep was founded six years ago in Providence, R.I., as a middle school for children in grades 4 through 8. Our focus on these years was born of our conviction that--in the words of a recent report by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development--"middle-grade schools are potentially society’s most powerful force to recapture millions of youth adrift.”

With the support of corporate grants and individual donations, Community Prep can accept students without regard for their ability to pay. Applicants must, however, demonstrate at least average intelligence. The school serves primarily inner-city neighborhoods: Forty percent of our 80 students are black, 30 percent are white, and the remaining 30 percent are mostly Hispanic and Southeast Asian. Eight are hearing-impaired. Most of these young people come from single-parent households.

Community Prep is an independent school with a public-school population. It is a voice from the middle.

Parents and students recommit to the school each year only if it is meeting their needs. A dozen years ago, as an inner-city public-school teacher, I often heard such complaints from my colleagues as, “We can’t make silk purses out of sows’ ears” and “If those people were really concerned about their children, then they’d do something about their neighborhood or move out of it.” Such attitudes could not survive in a system that allowed parents to choose their children’s schools--to vote with their feet.

When schools cultivate parental involvement, quality of instruction and expectations for students rise. For example, at Community Prep, parents have helped me tailor my teaching style and homework assignments to best fit the needs of their children. Though not every issue can be handled to parents’ satisfaction, schools of choice that ignore their concerns eventually fail. But interdependency breeds respect and trust.

“Show me these concerned parents,” says the public-school educator. “For our last set of parent conferences, only 5 percent of our parents came to the school.” There is no simple formula for involving parents in their children’s education. Many may be too embarrassed or timid to step boldly into a school that may hold unpleasant memories for them.

But--as the existence of Community Prep testifies--a significant number of inner-city parents have faith in education as a way for their children to succeed. Educators must visit parents in their homes if they aren’t coming to the school. They should be invited into classrooms to observe and help, to share in the work and the frustrations of meeting their children’s needs--not merely given lunch duty and a pat on the back.

At Community Prep, parents are encouraged--in some cases, required--to come in every two months and set goals with their children and their teachers. Four goals are identified in each subject area, and a plan for accomplishing them is written. Seventy percent of the parents take advantage of these opportunities, and the contracts that result are evolving into the backbone of the Community Prep education. One painfully shy Hispanic boy, on his mother’s and teacher’s suggestion, set a goal of asking two questions every math class. Though he did not meet this goal in the first marking period, he ended up doing so well that he was nicknamed “Gene the genius” by his classmates.

To develop such processes, schools must have the power and flexibility to determine their own course. The sense of ownership that results when decisions are made at the school level rather than imposed from a central bureaucracy translates into a willingness to think and rethink each area of difficulty until it becomes an area of success. When problems arise, those involved do not immediately blame “the system” and give up. They are a vital part of the system.

During the past year, for example, Community Prep teachers and parents recognized that the school’s advisory system was not working smoothly and together developed a strategy for improvement. Under the old system, each staff member was an advisor for 10 to 12 students and their families. Teachers tried to fit their advisory responsibilities in the cracks of the day--between periods, at lunch, or after school. They were not communicating effectively with families or other teachers about the students in their charge. This year, teachers plan to devote two class periods a week to their advisory groups: one hour to discussing issues of growing up or learning how to learn, the other to working together on neighborhood service projects.

By basing power in the schools, the independent-school model underscores the key role of teachers. “Dramatically improved outcomes for young adolescents require individualized, responsive, and creative approaches to teaching that will occur only when teachers are able to use their intimate knowledge of students to design instructional programs,” the Carnegie Council observes.

When teachers are establishing goals for themselves and the school, and observing and coaching one another, their professionalism and competence will grow dramatically. Teachers at Community Prep schedule one coaching session with a peer every month. Some of the most constructive feedback I’ve ever received came from a first-year writing teacher who observed my math class last year. By focusing on elements I specified in advance, she helped me discover that one of the best ways to teach mathematics was to have students write math “chapters.” In this exercise, students describe step-by-step how to solve a problem, give examples, and write a quiz.

The “coach” listened to my ideas and gave me the opportunity to think aloud. We then combined some writing and math classes to integrate the idea within the curriculum. In their end-of-the-year evaluations, many students rated the “chapters” one of the most successful elements of the class.

In addition to parents and teachers, students in such schools will feel an increased sense of responsibility and can help effect change. Three years ago, for instance, the Rhode Island School for the Deaf thought our approach might work well for some of its students. At that time, Community Prep’s student body was not nearly as diverse as it is now: It was 95 percent minority and 100 percent from the inner city. With some misgivings, we admitted three of the school’s brightest 5th graders. These youngsters were not only deaf but also white and suburban. Would our students accept them?

The transition went well in the classrooms affected, with several Community Prep students learning sign language as a part of their studies. Three months into the school year, the older students, who didn’t share any classes with the deaf children, demanded at a school meeting that we offer them sign-language classes after school. A parent of one of the deaf students taught the class. Our fear of cultural clash turned out to be more our problem then the students'; we were educated by their example that diversity is an important educational tool.

While successful educational communities of the present and future will look very different from one school to the next, most will be small enough to guarantee that each member plays a vital role. Eventually, Community Prep will expand to about 150 students--at which point, rather than continue to grow, we will encourage the creation of new schools.

Education will only change on a school-by-school basis. When parents and students are given the power to make schools accountable and teachers are given the freedom to approach challenges flexibly and intelligently, reform will take hold.

A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 1989 edition of Education Week