Special Report

School Climate

By Lynn Olson & Craig D. Jerald — January 08, 1998 2 min read

Parents want their children to go to school in a place where they will be safe, and where the environment is focused on teaching and learning. Many such schools exist in our big cities. But not enough.

Size alone is one problem. Both schools and classes tend to be bigger in urban areas than in nonurban areas, even though the needs of the children are often greater.

High school students in the 74 big-city districts examined by Quality Counts are 25 percent more likely than the average U.S. teenager to attend a school with more than 900 students.

Many of these giant school’ resemble vast warehouses where students float anonymously through what passes for an education. Where they can skip school and no one will notice. Where the first sight to greet them when they walk through the door each morning is a metal detector or a police officer checking for weapons.

In November, the principal of a Baltimore high school suspended 1,200 of the school’s 1,800 students after they refused to return to their homerooms to pick up their report cards. Observers described a school in which discipline was almost nonexistent.

But problems are not limited to the high schools. In her book Ghetto Schooling: A Political Economy of Urban Educational Reform, Rutgers University professor Jean Anyon describes a 2nd grade classroom in Newark, N.J., that reeks of urine, where children bounce in and out of their seats, out of control. She argues that the sense of hopelessness and anger that pervades such schools mirrors the economic and political devastation of America’s inner cities.

Compared with their nonurban colleagues, urban school officials are far more likely to identify a lack of parent involvement as a moderate or serious problem in their schools. And urban teachers are more critical of the caliber of their students and of the schools they work in.

Faced with such conditions, many students simply stop coming to school every day. More than a third of Baltimore’s students were absent more than 20 days in 1996. The average Chicago 10th grader is absent six weeks of instructional time per year. At one particularly troubled school, the Consortium on Chicago School Research reported, the average student missed about half of his instructional time in at least one major subject. “In these schools,” the researchers wrote, “norms have disintegrated to the point that class attendance appears optional.”

Teachers in urban districts also are much more likely to report that weapons and physical conflicts among students are a problem. In New Orleans, a majority of teachers and students surveyed last year said drugs and weapons were present on campus. And members of the Memphis teachers’ union rated safety and discipline as their No.1 concern in a 1996 survey for the first time in 20 years.

A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 1998 edition of Education Week as School Climate