Determining Our Fate as a Nation

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Every day, one in every 100 American schoolchildren goes to school in a classroom in Los Angeles.

Like an advancing army, they overflow their classrooms and overcrowd their schools. Their sheer numbers require campuses to be open year-round, operating on three calendar tracks, two on, one off, like factories trying to keep up with demand. To find open space in classrooms, children ride buses across the city, sometimes for more than an hour each way.

More students are on the way. Projections place the population of California in 2000 at 36 million, up 21 percent from the 1990 census, an addition of more than 6 million people.

The majority of these children, those here now and those on the way, are poor. For many, English is not their native language. Their access to health care is limited, if they have health care at all. Some live in families broken by the stresses of poverty; many live in communities broken by a lack of economic opportunity, in a residue of crime, violence, and despair.

These are the children of our urban neighborhoods. They live in Los Angeles, but also in Texas and Florida, New York and Chicago. They are everywhere, or they will be. These children represent the demographics of a new America, and our success or failure in creating a quality education system for them may determine our fate as a nation.

Every one of these children deserves the opportunity to learn at high levels. But to achieve this goal will require changes that are as dramatic in their scale and nature as are the differences between wealthy suburbs and urban neighborhoods.

In Los Angeles, we have taken the first steps by modeling new approaches to urban schools and by creating learn, a plan for district reform and restructuring that has made exciting progress. But if Los Angeles and other urban communities are to succeed in meeting the needs of their students, we need to go beyond these important beginnings. We need to do more. And we need to keep doing more.

At the Los Angeles Educational Partnership, a nonprofit public education fund, we believe that more means dramatic improvement in the quality and practice of classroom teaching, comprehensive efforts to meet the health and social-service needs of children and their families, and far-reaching changes in how schools are managed and governed.

Our primary focus must be on improving classroom instruction. Teachers in urban schools need the time, opportunity, and incentives to deepen their knowledge of subjects and to develop new instructional strategies. We must provide ongoing opportunities for continual learning. We should also establish teacher networks to provide teacher-to-teacher support for improved instruction.

Teachers should have the opportunity to be innovators on campus and in the community. They also need the resources to do their jobs, including high-quality curriculum materials, access to educational technology, and, perhaps most critically, the time to learn, observe, reflect, and change. Good teaching should be highly compensated. There may be no more important job in America.

Changes in teaching must be accompanied by efforts to better meet the health and human-service needs of children and their families. Schools need to develop strategies to link students in need with available resources and develop the capacity to work with their communities to develop solutions to the challenges facing urban students and their families.

For example, at the Vaughn Family Care Center in Pacoima, a poor pocket of California's San Fernando Valley, community connections with the school begin with prenatal care. The school-based center trains "promotoras" that counsel low-income mothers in the surrounding neighborhoods about the health needs of their developing children and ensure access to proper medical care. The center also works with a local agency to establish licensed child-care providers.

These child-care centers are linked with the school and are aware of the preparation children need to succeed in school. The center also provides access to health and dental care, an overwhelming need in urban neighborhoods. Parents govern and help run the family center, a process that has greatly increased parent involvement in all school activities. Centers like this need to become the norm, not the exception, in urban communities.

Urban schools also need to consider radical changes in the management and governance of schools. School administrators, not central-office administrators, should have budget and administrative authority. School management needs to be driven by the needs of these urban students. Administrators must let go of old roles and responsibilities that serve the central administration and state and assume new roles that promote the success of all children. Principals and other administrators will be asked to become collaborative managers. As such, they will enlist the participation of other members of the community in the continual improvement of schools. They will need the skills to draw their communities around them in support of their students.

Sadly, I know of no urban school system where the level of change I describe is the norm, nor even where attempts to forge such change are pervasive. But if collectively we expect to meet the needs of the children of our urban communities, we must care about them as if they were our own.

We must develop the public will to make these changes a reality. We can no longer tolerate failure among urban students just because the kids are poor or members of a minority group, or because they have parents who are not politically powerful.

Making these changes will require an intensity of effort and a commitment of resourcesfrom the entire communitythat I have not yet witnessed in the education-reform movement.

In particular, we need to make a significant investment in the professional development of the people who will have to make these changes a reality--teachers and principals. And we must provide them the resources and support to do the job.

To do any less is to fail the children of our urban communities. In doing so, we will fail the future of our nation.

Vol. 15, Issue 04

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