Education

Reporter’s Notebook

March 05, 2003 4 min read

Cross City Network Marks 10 Years of Activism

Chicago

The Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform started in 1993 as a fledgling network of educators who wanted to make schools smaller, deeply linked to their communities, and freer of centralized control.

A decade later, the grassroots group has expanded in numbers and influence enough to draw U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige to its 10th-anniversary conference here.

In a dinner address to about 250 teachers, administrators, activists, and students from across the country, Mr. Paige said that the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, which imposes consequences on schools that fail to demonstrate enough academic improvement, shares Cross City’s goal: to ensure a top-quality education for the most underprivileged children.

"[The act] calls for transformation to a system that educates all kids, and all means all,” he said. “No society in the history of mankind has ever accepted the goal of educating all children.”

Comparing the difficulty and scope of that task to the conquering of the American frontier, Mr. Paige urged education activists of all stripes to respond to their nation’s need for an equitable school system. “This is our day in the sun,” he said. “America is calling on us now.”

Difficult as it may be to make sure every student has an excellent education, Mr. Paige said, President Bush believes that is “a civil right” of every child.

Education as a civil rights issue recurred throughout the Feb. 20-22 conference. One of the keynote speakers, Charles M. Payne, took issue with the title his own speech carried in the program: “Urban School Reform: The New Civil Rights Movement.”

Mr. Payne, a professor of African-American studies, history, and sociology at Duke University in Durham, N.C., said there is nothing new about the pivotal importance of education in the civil rights struggle. “Without economic justice and education, there is no freedom,” he said.

Teaching urban schoolchildren is a potent weapon in the struggle for equal rights, Mr. Payne said. He urged educators in such schools to focus not only on good academic programs, but also on building the trusting relationships with students that growing numbers of researchers contend are important to learning.

The Cross City Campaign recognized as its “dream team” eight people or groups dedicated to improving education for urban children. They included: Genethia Hudley-Hayes, a member of the Los Angeles school board who has worked to focus district resources on better curricula for minority students; Baltimore schools chief Carmen V. Russo for her work to establish more effective middle and high schools; Ford Foundation executive Janice Petrovich, for committing millions of dollars and mobilizing community support around school improvement; and the community-organizing group ACORN, which has helped parents press for better schools.

Also honored were: a group of parents in the “Little Village” neighborhood of Chicago who staged a hunger strike in May 2001 that persuaded district leaders to build a new school in their overcrowded cluster; the Texas Industrial Areas Foundation Network, which has formed community groups to work for better schools; the Teachers Union Reform Network, which is forging new models of teacher unionism; and the Public Education Network, a national group of local education funds that support schools.

Conference participants broke into small groups that explored a wide variety of topics. In one room, community organizers from Philadelphia described how they are working together to exert influence on their schools in a period of unprecedented change, as private organizations operate 45 schools and the state runs the district.

In another room, Seattle schools Superintendent Joseph Olchefske provided a detailed chronology of how his district overhauled its student-funding formula so that schools with the largest numbers of needy students have more money.

Other sessions explored ways to develop student-assignment systems based on economic status rather than race; how the district in Oakland, Calif., is working to give its schools greater autonomy; and lessons learned from attempts to create smaller schools here.

Some attendees boarded buses for visits to Chicago schools that have built good track records in improving achievement or strengthening leadership, some in partnership with local community groups.

Rambling through the deeply carpeted halls of the Hotel Intercontinental, where the conference was held, were a dozen or so urban student activists. In their sneakers and oversized jeans, the teenagers dropped in on small-group sessions that sparked their interest, and asked advice, such as how to build support for forming small schools within a big Philadelphia high school.

And they hosted a session of their own: Adults came to listen to them talk about what school can be like for them, and what they think needs to happen to make it better.

—Catherine Gewertz

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