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Op-Ed: Our Schools Are Broken -- Do We Have the Courage to Fix Them?

Schools as traditionally organized do not meet the needs of poor people of color who make up the bulk of our urban population

richard c. ten eyck
Rich Ten Eyck

Created in the 1890s, the Committee of Ten offered recommendations for both content and structure that continue to limit the impact of our educational system, and nowhere is this more evident than in our urban centers. We persist, however, in maintaining schools as we have experienced them. We tinker, we reform, we blame. And we do more of the same. School remains school. The latest version of this is seen in the governor’s “fairness” plan, a plan focused on finance not improvement.

Recent response to the governor’s plan for school funding has generated a number of comments here. Included in these is a repeat of a frequently heard response to such articles. What are some concrete options for improving the situation? What can be done to improve Newark schools if the large influx of state money during the time of state control has yielded results that most characterize as disappointing?

Readers are right to ask for suggestions, recommendations, plans, etc. to address the failure of many of the schools in Newark to successfully meet the needs of Newark’s students and their families.

The current strategy of stripping resources from the public schools as a part of a longer-term strategy to move to a more charter-based solution has not worked well in other urban areas, most notably New Orleans and Detroit. In both cases, the introduction of a portfolio approach -- i.e., free-market investment in multiple school organizations in the hopes that a superior model would emerge -- is most frequently described as an outright failure that has left the public school systems of these cities in shambles and the students and their families as commodities to be courted prior to the annual funding count.

So what might be done?

Disclaimer: What follows may be perceived as an attack on our nation’s public school system. It may be perceived as an attack on the many dedicated educators who labor in incredibly difficult conditions. It is intended as neither. It is based on observations that we have remained committed to a system of schooling that no longer matches the needs of all of the children it serves. It is based on a number of years of on-site visits and observations of caring, dedicated teachers and school staff struggling to make a difference in conditions that are defeating, depressing and soul-draining. It is based on data that supports the notion that schools as we have designed and organized them are not serving the needs of communities in too many urban areas.

First of all it is important to recognize that the situation in places like Newark Trenton, Camden, etc. are not fertile ground for school structures that were designed for a different time and in response to different needs. Schools organized as most of us have known them serve best those who find/found comfort in the structure.

Robert Curvin’s “Inside Newark: Decline, Rebellion, and the Search for Transformation” describes a city that is a result of intentional and systematic manipulation of voting districts, neighborhood projects, resource allocation and urban planning coupled with the greed and power needs of city political leaders.

With similar conditions in urban centers throughout the country, it is apparent that these intentional patterns of policy have created cultures in which success in schools designed for a different time and for different circumstances is improbable at best.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his highly acclaimed book, “Between the World and Me,” notes that as a young boy growing up in Baltimore, he was confronted at a Seven-Eleven on his way home from school by a group of middle-school students who pointed a gun at his head. From that point on, he spent considerable time each day planning his route home. He notes that he found that his teacher’s exhortations that he have a No. 2 pencil for his work and learn his times tables had little to do with his day-to-day concerns for survival and occupied far less of his thinking.

The picture of the American Dream is not in Technicolor. It is in stark black and white and it is painfully clear with each new report of fatal interactions between police and black males, that it is only the white part of the dream that matters. We continue to measure the progress and achievements of poor students by the same measures as the affluent. We continue to believe that this will work and blame the students and their families when poor urban students do not respond to the schools we have created for them. It is as if the sales at Wal-Mart fell dramatically under expectations and the response were to blame the consumers and await a more enlightened clientele.

But there are successes … one of this site’s regular commenter’s, ACCLlark, frequently exhorts readers to search for models of success and to replicate these rather than continuing to throw resources at improvements that are either unproven or have been demonstrated not to work.

While there are a number of “one-off” places that have high success rates with challenged populations, here are a few that have already moved to the replication phase with significant success.

The Cristo Rey Schools – Catholic schools in the Jesuit tradition, designed to serve urban students of color in high-poverty areas. The Cristo Rey Network comprises 30 high schools in urban centers throughout the country. The schools utilize a Corporate Work Study Program to help cover tuition costs, at the same time giving students real-world job experience, greater self confidence, and an increased sense of the relevance of their education. Their program includes a longer school day and year. The Big Picture Schools – Schools begun as an outgrowth of Ted Sizer’s Effective Schools movement, with the first being the MET school in Providence, RI. Much like Cristo Rey, the Big Picture Schools rely heavily on out-of-school work experiences in real-world situations. Each student at a Big Picture Learning school is part of a small learning community of 15 students called an advisory. Each advisory is supported and lead by an advisor, a teacher that works closely with the group of students and forms personal relationships with each advisee. Each student has an internship where he or she works closely with a mentor, learning in a real-world setting.

YES College Prep Charter network (Houston) – The schools were designed from the ground up to address the lack of post-secondary enrollment of Hispanic students in Houston. What makes the YES system unique is that (a) they focused on grades 6-12, noting that this grade/age range was what the founders understood best and that this provided ample time to help students prepare for success in college and (b) they intentionally designed highly focused support programs to allow students to be successful in more rigorous academic environments. They did not force the students to adapt to a rigid school structure but rather structured the services of the school to intentionally address the needs of the target population. Their success rates in retention, graduation, and post-secondary completion have been exceptional.

Closer to home, one might take a look at St. Benedict’s in Newark. Profiled both locally and nationally on various PBS specials, St. Benedict's represents another unconventional approach to responding to the unique needs of students of urban poverty. While not a replicated model, it represents a significant departure from typical school organization.

So what’s the point?

If we, as a nation, do not have the will, the consensus, the belief, or the commitment to address the root causes of poverty, our collective responsibility for its existence, and the impact of this condition on our people, we will have to commit to doing a better/different job of leveraging the time children of poverty spend in our schools into much better experiences. This demands “doing school” differently.

The acceptance and implementation of the models that I’ve shared here, however, have proven almost as disconcerting to many as attacking the root problem. Why? Nowhere is our preoccupation with improving “schooling” more obvious and harmful than in our steadfast adherence to the concept of school. It is not an issue of traditional vs. charter, of free-market vs. state support, etc. It is an issue of mistakenly defining education as schooling and fighting to maintain that structure in spite of the negative impact it is having on learning in too many places of high need.

Since it appears that consensus regarding the commitment to the eradication of poverty is elusive, perhaps we can begin with a smaller root-cause issue… the fact that schools as they have traditionally been organized do not meet the needs of poor people of color who make up the bulk of our urban population. It requires a commitment by our political leaders to encourage, implement, and support learning places and experiences that place the needs of young learners ahead of ego-driven, agenda-based preservation of their careers and ahead of the comfort of familiar school structures and practices.

The discussions surrounding the appropriateness/legality of the current or new funding formulas, the question of fairness of various funding schemes are theoretical and intellectual distractions at best and, at worst, they represent a continuation of the intentional practices that reflect our distain for the poor.

From a teacher to superintendent of schools, Richard C. Ten Eyck has spent more than four decades in education. In 2005, he retired from the New Jersey state Department of Education as an assistant commissioner. Since his retirement, he has worked as a senior consultant for the International Center for Leadership in Education and the Successful Practices Network. He is co-founder and a partner in R & R Education Consultants.

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