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Strategies for Change

rachaelkoone's picture


Strong Community, Strong Commitment: Strategies for Change in Urban Schools


            As educators, students, and observers of the urban public school system, it can be easy to fall into the trap of looking at things through a damage-based or deficit-based viewpoint. We can be far too quick to focus on what is wrong with urban schools rather than looking at what they are doing with what they have. Strong, successful urban schools not only exist, but also excel without the resources that wealthier suburban public schools have. Throughout the examples that we have examined in this class such as George Washington Elementary School in Improbable Scholars and Garfield High School in Stand and Deliver, there are two key components to these (and other) successful urban schools: community and commitment. With a strong community presence within the school, a surrounding community that supports the school, and teachers within the school who are truly committed to their students, urban students feel thoroughly supported and truly cared for by their peers, their parents/neighborhood, and by their teachers. If we refer to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1954), it is really only when students feel safe and supported in schools that they can continue to pursue higher knowledge. Urban schools themselves are not the problem, and neither is funding. Support does not necessarily mean financial support. As educators, we need to focus on building community strength – inside schools and out. As students ourselves, we should empower other students to demand teachers who are truly committed and prepared to teaching urban students. As citizens, we should demand that our government at federal and local levels support teachers to the best of their abilities. While it is true that resources aren’t unlimited, we can accept this fact and still continue to look forward with a desire-based view of urban schools.  Successful urban schools are often still poor in terms of wealth, but they succeed because they are rich in community and teachers committed to teaching their students.

            The first step to strengthening communities outside schools is encouraging and increasing parent/guardian involvement in schools. Throughout my experience in three very different field placements, I have heard the same complaint from each teacher, and from teachers my classmates have worked with: “The parents just don’t care.” While it may be true that a student’s parents are not particularly active within the school, it seems like an incredible generalization to say that it is truly because these parents don’t care at all about their child’s progress in school. Shuang Ji and Koblinsky (2009) performed a study in which they interviewed a number of Chinese immigrant families in Washington DC, asking about their involvement in their children’s school. Many parents expressed that they wanted to be more involved, but because of their limited English, their lack of time due to working several jobs in order to make ends meet, or the fact that they could not help with homework, among many other reasons, they were unable to become involved to the extent that they wished. These parents also expressed that they worked hard at low-paying jobs because they wanted their children to be able to get a good education and go to college. Though some parents in the study had access to a bilingual teacher, it is likely that most parents probably would either not have access to a bilingual teacher, or would not have time to consult the teacher due to work demands. When we discussed Shuang Ji and Koblinsky’s study in class, several brought up the idea of a mentorship program, where Chinese families who were more involved in the school could help other Chinese families become more involved, either by assisting with translation, or simply by being someone to ask for advice. Many ELL and ESL students require IEPs, which often include highly technical language that could be difficult for a person with limited English to decipher, further preventing parents from keeping up with their child’s education. I personally work for an organization that assists refugees in starting their own farm business, and I have been asked to convey the general messages on report cards and IEPs, proving that while immigrant/non-English speaking parents may not understand the words on the page at first, they have every intention of learning how their children are doing in school. Washington D.C. is a wonderfully diverse area and if there is a large Chinese population, perhaps a high school or college could start a program where students volunteer as translators so that all may understand what is happening within schools. This model could be adopted for any other population/language. We can see the example of a successful urban school system in Union City, with George Washington Elementary School. Parents are supported by the public school administration, with a tireless superintendent, a practically omnipresent mayor, and a bevy of bilingual teachers and faculty. Parent involvement is encouraged, and made accessible as it possibly can be. It is impossible to for a community to be strengthened while excluding certain members. At the very least, communication between parents and school faculty and administration should be made accessible.

            It can be, and often is argued that the idea that the title of “urban teacher” is problematic. It can be used as a self-righteous, pat-on-the-back of a title adopted by someone who chose to teach in urban schools for the implication that they are so brave, so self-sacrificing, truly a blessing to those poor students in urban schools. I want to challenge this notion with the statement that someone who acts like this likely does not last long as an urban teacher, and likely washes out within a year or two, if that. Some could also argue that the ideal “urban teacher” would be one that came from the community and could relate to students on a highly personal level. However, one of the roles of teachers is to share their social capital and cultural capital with their students. For example, when there are questions on the SAT, a supposedly standardized test about things present in elite societies such as regattas, perhaps an outside perspective is helpful. In Tough Fronts, Dance writes about Mrs. Bronzic, a teacher in an urban middle school. Mrs. Bronzic is an older, white, Jewish woman, yet her students thought the world of her, calling her “magic”. She was not from the community, but that was irrelevant to her being an effective teacher. She was an effective teacher simply because “she was able to establish a relationship with her students that compelled [them] to work hard and do ‘better than the best’” (Dance 72). She was committed to her students through any number of challenges, and that was what made her a good teacher. When interviewed, Malcolm, a black, urban youth that was a previous student of Mrs. Bronzic explained that hearing her stories of her very different life was interesting to him. “He was convinced that due to Mrs. Bronzic’s commitment to the relationship, she would, in Malcolm’s own words, be able to teach [him] what [he] had to know”. As a contrast, Alina Bossbaly in Union City is very much a local, who went to college close to the area, and returned to teach students of her same social background, namely Cuban immigrants, and is an extremely successful teacher because she shares this background with her students and can directly relate to the things they go through. She is able to communicate effectively with the parents of her students, and serves as an inspirational example of someone who found success in an urban school. There is no cookie-cutter, ideal “urban teacher”. Urban teachers are simply teachers who happen to teach in urban schools. Good teachers are teachers who are interested in teaching the students they have, and are prepared to commit their time and energy. It’s also important to note that schools themselves should be supporting their teachers and helping them to continue being as great as they are. Unfortunately, very recently I was notified that my field supervisor was fired from her current position, and while I’m not sure what led to this, myself and other students who have worked with her at my placement are shocked that she was let go. Some of her students are aware of what has transpired, and it frustrates them. Even if we hire the best teachers possible, it is also important to reinforce the structure of schools so that teachers feel supported in their roles as educators. I believe it is also important for the district to support the oft-overlooked staff members at schools, because my placement school and most others wouldn’t be able to function without their administrative staff, hall monitors, or cafeteria workers. 

            When schools offer access to parents who previously felt unimportant, or invaluable to the school to participate fully, and when schools choose committed, driven teachers, it is much easier to motivate students and strengthen the community within the school, due to the bond of the community outside the school and the faculty within leading by example. We strengthen the community among students the same way we strengthen the community outside the school: promoting access, inclusion, and agency. Bullying, discrimination, and an aggressively competitive environment can all foster unhealthy interactions within the school community, and can cause students to feel unsafe at school, hindering their chances of learning. When students unite through learning, their bond is incredibly strong. In Stand And Deliver, Jaime Escalante’s AP Calculus students commit to an extremely difficult course of work in order to catch up on an additional two years of math and pass the AP exam. By supporting each other and working together tirelessly, all the students are able to pass. Garfield High School is poor and the students must work extremely hard, and these are things that must be accepted. However, these students are able to find success because they have this support system among each other, along with their extremely committed teacher. In addition to being able to rely on each other for support, students in urban schools deserve to have support from their teachers. Their opinions should be heard in terms of not only what they learn, but also how they wish to learn. Urban public schools often feel the choke of standardized tests, and as a result, teachers may be fearful to stray from the typical curriculum due to the threat of having accreditation taken away because of a failure to cover competencies. However, my current placement for this course proves that urban schools can adopt a radical, project-based approach and produce successful, vibrant students that know how to communicate what they desire and deserve. While many of the students have acknowledged that it has been a hard first year for the school, they also emphasize that they appreciate the agency that they have been allowed in terms of choosing how they produce projects, and the topics they are allowed to choose in all of their classes. Their classes are often largely culturally relevant to their population as Black students. For example, in a history class at this school, they have studied events such as the Haitian Revolution, Bloody Sunday, recent events such as the Trayvon Martin case, and frequently discuss current events in the news. Teachers ask the students what they want to study, and how they want to study it. The idea that urban students should be able to control how they choose to learn should not be a radical one. Unfortunately, while many students at my placement school enjoy the agency they have been given over the past year, they still worry considerably about if they will be prepared for the standardized tests they must take later in their high school careers.

            At the risk of erasure through an excess of optimism, urban schools are not suffering due to a lack of funds. While it is true that they would benefit greatly from equal amounts of funding as rich suburban schools, they can also benefit greatly from increasing the strength of the community of the school, whether it comes from within from a stronger bond among its students, or support from their neighborhood and parents, schools are an integral part of the neighborhood and community that they are surrounded by. It is pointless to dwell on the fact that urban schools are poorly funded, and this is a harmful, deficit-based viewpoint. Urban schools must be looked at with a desire-based view for real change to happen. Urban schools have so much potential to be rich in their community because they are often located in diverse, multicultural neighborhoods, and interacting with the community in a positive way is the best way to strengthen this bond between many different types of people and families. When great teachers arrive at urban schools, whether they are locals of the community or transplants from far away, they can all root deep within the school and create growth of knowledge among their students by promoting unity among their students and reaching out to the parents of their students. Administrators of schools should promote an atmosphere of community by supporting not only their students, but their teachers and other staff members as well. When these conditions of community and commitment come together perfectly, we see the great success stories like Stand and Deliver, we see teachers like Alina Bossbaly at George Washington Elementary. I see urban students working extremely hard to change the lives of people in their community every Monday when I go to my placement and they work to find shelter for the homeless people of Philadelphia. It isn’t instantaneous, and not every urban school will come together perfectly, but when urban schools are able to find that unity, their students are unbelievably influential, successful, and powerful.



 Works Cited

Dance, Lory Janelle. Tough Fronts: The Impact of Street Culture on Schooling. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.


Ji, C. S., and S. A. Koblinsky. "Parent Involvement in Children's Education: An Exploratory Study of Urban, Chinese Immigrant Families." Urban Education 44.6 (2009): 687-709. Web.


Kirp, David L. Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America's Schools. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.


Maslow, A. H. "The Instinctoid Nature of Basic Needs1." Journal of Personality 22.3 (1954): 326-47. Web.


Stand And Deliver. Dir. Ramón Menéndez. Perf. Edward James Olmos, Estelle James Harris, Mark Phelan. 1988. DVD.



jccohen's picture


Your use of Tuck’s desire-based approach to frame your strategies for change paper highlights what is possible, which is itself (and in the spirit of Noguera’s “pragmatic optimism”) a way to promote positive change.  And in that vein, your specific recommendations such as ways to bring in (diverse) families/communities and ways for (diverse) teachers to support their students are thoughtfully conceived and offer an approach to such questions that schools could tailor to their particular strengths, populations, and so on.  I especially appreciate your good thinking on the range of ways we could look to partner with community members.

On another note, I question the binary between strengthening community and equitable funding; I’d suggest that it’s “desire-based” to put both resources and community on the table.  And while your point that lack of resources should not mean that schools don’t do everything they can with what they have, still it seems to me that resources are critical in supporting teachers and communities in just the way your outline here.  What if one of the ways school communities came together was in organizing for that equity?  I could imagine this in suburban as well as urban schools…