Reawakening the Vigor of Urban Schools

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Prior to the middle of this century, the schools in America's largest cities were the exemplars of American public education. Talented teachers and administrators sought positions in the large-city schools and the achievements of the students were legion. Generation after generation of immigrants could look forward to educational opportunities in our cities that were undreamed of in their places of origin.

However, after World War II major highway systems began to interlace cities and suburbs and developers constructed large, tract housing and regional shopping centers to attract young and expanding families. And as business firms saw their labor forces moving to the suburbs, new plants and expansion of employment followed the suburban trend. Those who moved to the suburbs were replaced in the cities largely by poor migrants--often minorities--from other parts of the nation.

By the late 1950's, most of the large cities had begun to face the litany of problems that continues today. Low levels of student achievement, teacher strife, conflicts over the racial composition of schools, and an eroding financial base are only a few of these troubles. Poor economic conditions, in conjunction with tax-limitation movements, and a new political conservatism have also reduced the fiscal commitments of state and federal governments to the large cities.

Any plan to rejuvenate the public schools of large cities faces many obstacles. There will be increasing proportions of poor, black, Hispanic, and other minorities in the cities as the outflow of majority families continues. Those white and middle-class families who remain will represent an aging population with low birthrates, while birthrates for minorities and the poor will remain high. For the foreseeable future, public schools in the cities will be composed of a very high proportion of children from racial-minority, low-income families. Middle-income families of all races will be more likely to choose private schools.

Problems of unemployment and a declining city tax base will persist as commercial activity continues to leave the cities. This situation implies a continuing future demand for other social services to meet the needs of low-income families. At the same time, federal and state commitments to integration, bilingual education, and education for disadvantaged and handicapped youths will be reduced substantially. In part, this will reflect changes in political ideology, and in part it will reflect limits of the public purse created by poor economic conditions in conjunction with an expansion of defense spending.

In short, within the cities public education will not have as high a political priority as it once held when the middle class was deeply involved in the public schools. Furthermore, it is not likely that financial assistance from federal and state governments will exceed current levels, unless events similar to the urban riots and fires that swept the cities in the 1960's force a shift in spending priorities. Nonetheless, there are steps that can be taken now to revitalize urban schools.

The organizational building blocks of a strong urban school system are smaller schools with school-site governance. Although this assertion may seem to fly in the face of the venerable movement toward school consolidation and closure, research in many areas has found that small schools are better than large ones.

There is no educational argument for primary schools larger than about 300 to 500 students, and smaller schools can be viable down to about 150 students if they share some services with neighboring schools. Likewise, four-year secondary schools can be as small as 300 to 400 students if they are able to cooperate through the use of some shared teachers and professionals in highly specialized areas. Indeed, one of the major attractions of private schools is the relatively intimate size in which the participants are known to each other and in which interpersonal accountability can be established through closer human expectations and relations. As a rule of thumb, any primary or secondary school is probably too large if the principal and teachers do not know most of the students by name.

In this context, school closures should be viewed with caution. The anticipated savings in closing schools are often exaggerated. Most of the cost of education involves teacher and administrator salaries and benefits, categories that are usually unaffected or reduced only slightly by school closings. Further, schools are rarely leased at market prices or sold in an expeditious way after they are closed. At the same time, the added costs of moving children away from a local neighborhood are high in terms of the political alienation of their parents and the transportation expenses that have to be assumed.

Accordingly, small schools ought to be maintained if at all possible. Large schools can be broken down into decentralized mini-schools with which individual teachers and students can identify. Under the mini-school approach, several district "schools" would operate in a particular building with considerable autonomy but share the overall facilities and such specialized educational resources and provisions for handicapped and bilingual students. Instead of closing schools whose plants are too large for existing enrollments, excess space should be leased, while maintaining school operations for the smaller student bodies. Every school should be viewed as a small educational community that caters to its young members, who are known individually to each other and to school personnel.

Research on effective schools suggests that an important element in obtaining the involvement and political support of neighborhoods is the successful interaction of parents, students, and professional educators in the educational process. Accordingly, each of the small school units should create a governance mechanism composed of parents, community representatives, and teachers who will work with administrators to meet educational goals for the school. Such a governing body might also include students at the secondary level. A portion of school expenditures should be placed at the disposal of the local governing board in order to implement its concerns.

In addition to the overall district criteria on such matters, school-site governing boards should set "local" policies for educational accountability, information availability on school and student performance, and student behavior. These policies would be implemented by the professional staff of the school. The school-site board would also make any extraordinary personnel decisions, and certainly could select the school principal, who would be hired with a multi-year contract and evaluated on the basis of performance. The emphasis would be on a deep community involvement that would enable each school to overcome the depersonalization of education and to marshal higher expectations, support, and resources for school improvement.

Though it appears that new financial resources for schools will be difficult to obtain, there exists a plethora of human and material resources that have been underused by traditional approaches to education. Senior citizens represent a unique source of human talent for tutoring students and for providing assistance on special projects, field trips, language instruction, and so on. Often such people languish in isolation with little challenge or social involvement, and they feel very distant from the schools in their outlook and political support. Not only will a systematic program for involving senior citizens in the schools increase the available resource base, but it will also increase the group's political support for education--a not inconsequential by-product.

Likewise, students can more fully be a part of the educational process by tutoring fellow students and by helping with other tasks such as clerical and logistical duties. Research on peer teaching suggests that both cross-age tutoring and same-age tutoring enable the schools to improve instruction for students in need of extra assistance, while also raising the skills of the tutors. Such a process also encourages students to help each other. For example, nonhandicapped students can assist handicapped ones, a process with important social and educational benefits for both groups of students.

In Japan, students spend a part of the day cleaning and maintaining the schools, a collective activity that gives them a sense of ownership and pride. Parental resources might become more available in smaller, more highly personalized schools that welcome participation and identification with the needs of the school. Such participation could also raise the commitments and expectations of parents and their offspring with regard to the importance and legitimacy of the educational process.

Finally, it is important to draw upon local businesses and other community resources to provide various types of support for the schools. Businesses must be convinced that the schools are capable of producing graduates with the skills to meet employment demands. This can best be accomplished by maintenance of close contacts with firms in an attempt to understand employment and skill needs. Schools would consult with those firms and collaborate in meeting labor-force needs. Firms might provide part-time and full-time jobs to students and graduates, and plans might be made to coordinate educational activities with the needs of the firms that would establish operations or expand if an appropriate labor force was available.

Firms might lend consultants, instructors, and equipment to assist in job preparation or permit some instruction on their own premises to provide specific skill training to students for job development. Managerial and organizational advice for improving school operations might also be contributed, as well as funds and equipment. Tax incentives currently exist for such donations.

Churches might also provide needed facilities, and the museums and park areas could make enormously rich contributions to the education of students in the arts, sciences, and environment. The overall aim is to draw in new resources in a spirit of commitment and enthusiasm so that the entire community identifies with its schools or mini-schools and sees their success as being important to its present and future. In this way, urban schools can become centers of community activity and sources of pride.

The central administration for the school district would continue to have an extremely important role in a number of major areas. However, its focus would shift to coordination and provision of support services, rather than central decisionmaking. Overall financial administration of the schools would be the responsibility of the central unit, though many of the spending decisions would be made at the local level. Similar responsibility would be vested centrally for the maintenance of accurate records on students and personnel. District administrators would be responsible for overall negotiations on salaries and working conditions with the various employee organizations, and would provide technical assistance to local schools on matters of governance, decisionmaking, training, curricula, and so on. Finally, the central administration would maintain a citywide program of testing and information the results of which would be available to the constituents of each of the local schools and their governing boards.

The main consequence of smaller schools for teacher organizations would be to shift their bargaining from the central level to a two-tier process of participation. Salaries and basic working conditions would be determined through negotiations with the central administration for the entire city. The fine details at the local level would be worked out through negotiations with the local governing boards of schools and the principal. That is, there are funding and salary issues that can only be resolved at the central level, but the particular details of work at any specified site would be negotiable at that site. The unions could protect the basic interests of their members with respect to salaries, employment, and working conditions, while contributing as a progressive force for improving education by considering the issues most pertinent at each school.

These are not trivial changes. They will require agreement and consensus on both principles and forms of implementation as well as a strong political commitment to reverse the present decline. Perhaps the most important requirement will be the need for strong leadership and the dedication of the major political interest groups in the cities to rally around educational revitalization as a crucial priority. If citizen groups, taxpayers, business groups, political parties, educational organizations, and universities all commit themselves to invigorating the schools, the first steps of study, planning, political discussion, and negotiation can be initiated.

Vol. 02, Issue 34, Page 24, 19

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