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May 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 8

Can City Schools Be Saved?

We must respond to the crisis in urban schools, not with cynicism and pessimism, but with commitment and will to change this corner of this school right now.
“Parents, Officials Scramble When School Doors Stay Closed”Education Week, Sept. 29, 1993
“Chaos Reigns as Schools Open 11 Days Late in New York City”Education Week, Sept. 15, 1993
Such headlines alluding to budget impasses and stalled teacher contract negotiations (in Chicago) and a fiasco in the handling of an asbestos inspection (in New York) likely discouraged and disgusted most citizens about the status of their urban schools. No doubt the posturing, the name-calling, and the opportunism of the ragged band of characters debating whether to open our schools turned people off.
Hearing about these incidents, we find ourselves sinking into cynicism and despair about both our cities and our schools. A healthier response might be to feel shame and alarm. We might then be provoked to look beneath the surface at the causes of these crises in our city schools and become more determined to take some kind of action.
Can our city schools be saved?

The Status Quo

Let's look at the current state of our schools. A profoundly inequitable distribution of educational resources leaves most city schools starved and desperate. A range of tangled and self-interested bureaucracies sit atop city schools, each capable of working its narrow will against any notion of the common good, and thereby rendering many schools lifeless, hopeless, and gutless. A culture of contempt for city kids, distant from communities and families, deadens school life for students and enervates teachers. If we continue this current course, then the answer to the question, “Can city schools be saved?” is “Certainly not.”
If, on the other hand, we create the collective capacity to imagine a dramatically different world, and organize the courage to sustain that vision as we work to make it real, then the answer is “Absolutely yes.” It's a tall order, to be sure, a complex matter of political will and social commitment, but it is possible.
Deborah Meier (1992), the pioneering principal of Central Park East Secondary School in Spanish Harlem, argues that what is required is tough but doable: generous resources, thoughtful and steady work, respect for the diverse perspectives of the people who work in and attend our schools, and, finally, sustained public interest in and tolerance for the process of reinvention. This is a good framework to begin our work.

Challenging Key Assumptions

Take the question of respect. Speaking recently to a gathering of urban school principals, I asked, “What is it, particularly, about the presence of poor, African-American, city kids in your school that makes the place wonderful?”
The response was disbelief. A stunned silence. And then some nervous laughter. And some anger. Was I mocking them? “Come on,” a man spoke steadily from the front row. “Our jobs are hard enough without ridiculing us.”
My opening question was not meant to ridicule, but rather to challenge a key assumption that sits heavy and dogmatic on most city schools: there is nothing about the presence of African-American youngsters—especially now, black boys—that is deemed valuable, hopeful, or redeemable. Their very presence is construed as a problem, an encumbrance, a deficit. The overwhelming message in these schools is that the institution would function better if the kids simply didn't show up.
And yet when I asked several suburban administrators to explain the value of having wealthy white kids in attendance, their response was entirely different. “They bring an openness and curiosity to school,” one said enthusiastically. “They think they can conquer anything, which makes them a joy to teach,” said another.
And when a group of students in a social studies class at Harper High School in Chicago discussed some of the strengths of people they knew in their economically isolated community, they described a wide range of positive qualities: intelligence, creativity, compassion, wisdom, stick-to-itiveness.
The difference is telling, because it is virtually impossible to develop a sustained and vital learning project if everything about students is deemed deficient, if everything students bring to school represents (to school people) obstacle and impediment. What experiences, skills, and know-how do kids bring with them to school? How shall we respond to their hopes and dreams? A school organized around the belief that students (and their families and their communities) are unworthy will surely fail—and the motivational posters of Michael Jordan in every classroom are merely a cruel joke.
The late Ronald Edmonds, a researcher at Harvard University, long ago asked a penetrating question: “How many effective schools would you have to see to be persuaded of the educability of poor children?”
He went on: If your answer is more than one, then I submit that you have reasons of your own for preferring to believe that basic pupil performance derives from family background instead of school response to family background.... Whether or not we will ever effectively teach the children of the poor is probably far more a matter of politics than of social science, and that is as it should be.

The Selective Crisis

The crisis in the schools today is selective. There simply is no teacher shortage in Winnetka, but in Chicago we are desperate for qualified, outstanding teachers. There is no huge command-style bureaucracy in Glencoe, while in Chicago its presence is unmistakable. And on and on: the crisis of school resources is particular; the crisis of school culture is specific; the crisis of school management is distinct.
Similarly the school crisis is not a natural phenomenon. In this time of catastrophic earthquakes, devastating hurricanes, and biblical floods, it is well to remember that the schools we have are neither acts of God nor freaks of nature, neither accidental crack-ups nor natural disasters. We have got the schools we built, and we are reaping the crisis we ourselves have sown.
Not surprisingly, this unnatural, selective school crisis is a crisis of the poor, of the cities, of Latino and African-American communities. All the structures of privilege and oppression apparent in the larger society are mirrored in our schools: Chicago public school students, for example, are overwhelmingly children of color (65 percent are African-American, 25 percent are Latino) and children of the poor (68 percent qualify for federal lunch programs). More than half of the poorest children in Illinois and more than two-thirds of the bilingual children attend Chicago schools. And yet Chicago schools must struggle to educate children with considerably fewer human and material resources than neighboring districts.
Illinois in effect has created two parallel systems—one privileged, adequate, successful, and largely white; the other disadvantaged in countless ways, disabled, starving, failing, and African American. When former Governor James Thompson called Chicago schools “a black hole” as he rejected appeals for more equitable support, he excited all the racial justifications and tensions inherent in that situation. And when current Lieutenant-Governor Robert Kustra called Chicago schools “a rat hole,” he was merely following suit.
The artist and social critic Jules Feiffer captures this tragedy perfectly in a cartoon (The Chicago Tribune, September 20, 1993). We see voice bubbles coming from the TV news: “How do you feel about being back in school?”“We get no books. The books they give us are out of date. Classes are overcrowded. They closed the library. We got more weapons than we got teachers. The teachers are threatening to go on strike. And they cut the school budget.”“And you feel this is unfair?”“Damn right it's unfair. I'm WHITE!”

Typical Responses to Chaos

The cities are an easy target and a convenient euphemism. Adrienne Rich, poet, critic, and teacher, describes the ways in which white middle-class people choose to live in our cities: they become “paranoiac,” constructing a vision of the city-as-mugger, dangerous and unpredictable; or they choose to be “solipsistic,” “to live, if [they] can afford it, on one of those small islands where the streets are kept clean and the pushers and nodders invisible, to travel by cab, deplore the state of the rest of the city, but remain essentially aloof from its causes and effects.”
These responses lead to a collective carelessness, a social torpor that is stirred to inadequate activity only in the heat and flame of an L. A.-type riot, and then, clotted with amnesia and easy denial, we slip slowly back to sleep. We steadily erect barricades to keep our city problems away from us, but this is costly and risky: ask the South Africans about the long-term viability of building walls to keep “the other” out.

Becoming an Ally to the Possibilities

Rich also posits an alternative to these responses to urban problems, a possibility she herself struggles to discover, “a relationship with the city which I can only begin by calling love.” This is ... a love not unmixed with horror and anger ... more edged, more costly, more charged with knowledge.... Love as one knows it sometimes with a person with whom one is locked in struggle, energy draining but also energy replenishing, as when one is fighting for life, in oneself or someone else (1979).
Toni Morrison elaborates this same sense in her dazzling novel, Jazz, where the city itself becomes a major character: Nobody says it's pretty here; nobody says it's easy either. What it is, is decisive, and if you pay attention to the street plans, all laid out, the City can't hurt you.... you have to be clever to figure out how to be welcoming and defensive at the same time. When to love something and when to quit (1992).
In order to live in the city, Adrienne Rich decided, she must, above all, ally herself with human possibilities; she must not run from, but seek out the webs of connection, weave them thicker and stronger and tighter. This may be helpful for those of us who believe in a future for city schools. Can we develop a relationship with the schools that we might call love? Can we develop that love—energy draining and energy replenishing—in a struggle for human possibility, for life itself? Can we learn to be decisive?
It should be added that the problem is not one for city-dwellers alone. Wherever we live—suburbs, exurbs, mountaintop—we depend upon and are connected to one another. The notion of complete separation and isolation is an illusion. Just as a city without any relationship with a countryside will starve, a suburb without a city will die. Our destinies and our fates are linked. Our only hope is to survive together.

Finding a Common Cause

The purpose of education in a democracy is to break down barriers, to overcome obstacles, to open doors and minds and possibilities. Education is empowering and enabling; it points to strength, to critical capacity, to thoughtfulness and expanding capabilities. It aims at something deeper and richer than accepting codes and conventions, acceding to whatever common sense society posits.
Education asks “Why?”—which is beyond “What?” or “How?” Education is linked to freedom, to the ability to see, to alter, to understand, to reinvent, to know, and to change the world as we find it. Can we imagine this at the core of city schools?
If city school systems are to be retooled, streamlined, and made workable, if they are to become palaces of learning for all children (Why not? Why does it sound so provocatively extravagant?), then we must fight for a comprehensive program of change: Educational resources must be distributed fairly. Justice must be our guide. All children deserve a decent life; the greatest need deserves the greatest support.
School people must find common cause with students and parents. We must remake schools by drawing on capacities in communities rather than exclusively dwelling on difficulties. We must focus on problems as shared and social, and solutions as collective and manageable. “Saving” our urban schools, then, is not the right word at all. We must see people as self-activated problem solvers rather than passive and pacified “clients.” We must note that the people with the problems are also the people essential to creating the solutions. We must talk of solidarity rather than “services.”
We must, all of us, stop defending the system as it is. Of course, many wonderful people, many wonderful programs work in our schools, but we can't let that stop us from getting angry at the injustices and the obstacles. We must become proactive in opening new possibilities. Anyone who is waiting for someone else to get it right (the union, the school board, the legislature, the mayor) before taking action, will wait forever. The challenge is to act now, to build whatever alliances we can, to change this corner of this school right now.
References

Meier, D. W. (1992). “Get the Story Straight: Myths, Lies, and Public Schools.” The Nation 255, 8: 272.

Morrison, T. (1992). Jazz. New York: Penguin.

Rich, A. (1979). On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966–1978. New York: W. W. Norton.

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