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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
March 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 6

The School A Community Built

An urban community forces the issue to get the school that it wants—and that its children rightly deserve.

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On May 19, 2001, 14 parents in Chicago's sprawling and predominantly Mexican American neighborhood known as Little Village erected a makeshift tent city on a vacant lot. They declared their intention to occupy the site and conduct a collective hunger strike until the Chicago Public School System resurrected its abandoned promise to build a new community high school there.
Schools in Little Village, or La Villita—the most densely populated area in Chicago—had been overcrowded for decades, and for years community members had pressured public officials and the administration of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to open a new one. After lengthy negotiations, CPS pledged to build a new, state-of-the-art high school in Little Village in 2000. Although CPS subsequently built four new selective-enrollment high schools in other parts of the city, it never started construction in Little Village, eventually informing the community that the funds had “dried up.”
That's when the parents decided to seize the site and hold a hunger strike. Their focus and determination shook the city and struck a chord. The community had endured failing, overcrowded, and underresourced schools for too long. The hunger strikers renamed the site Camp Cesar Chavez in honor of the famous labor and civil rights activist. Support groups organized parish by parish, church by church, block by block. Local churches held services, and candlelight ceremonies took place nightly. Under the vigilant eye of local and national media, the community staged regular marches and rallies in support of the hunger strikers.
The school system pled poverty and offered its sympathies to Little Village, but the hunger strike endured. Members from the central office, including the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, visited Camp Chavez to negotiate an agreement. The hunger strikers wouldn't budge. At the end of the school year, the CEO resigned to run for governor of Illinois. The new CEO promptly found the money, visited the strikers, and agreed to begin construction of the high school for Little Village.
The lesson learned from this powerful experience? Parents and community are natural allies in the struggle for better education. Too often, the divide between teachers and parents is wide. In the presence of cultural, linguistic, racial, or ethnic differences, it can seem unbridgeable. But the combined energy of teachers and parents powers successful schools, and wise school leaders tap into that energy to create a culture of respect and common purpose.

A Hopeful Frame of Mind

“What is it about the presence of large numbers of poor, African American, or Latino city kids in your schools,” we ask gatherings of urban schoolteachers or administrators, “that makes those places”—and here we pause dramatically—“wonderful?”
There is always a stunned silence and some looks of disbelief. The question is meant to unravel an unexamined and glib fiction about city kids. It's true that the last word, wonderful, sounds a decidedly discordant note. Until then, the question hums along quite comfortably, like a recurring melody or a familiar narrative. But when we don't deliver the anticipated final bar—something like “terrible,” or “difficult,” or, at best, “challenging”—the whole statement sounds out of tune.
An assumption sits heavy and dogmatic on most schools today: that nothing about the presence of African American, Latino, or immigrant youngsters is valuable, hopeful, or important. These students are considered an encumbrance, and any recognition they get targets their perceived deficiencies. Schools tend to focus on the least interesting and most simple-minded questions: What don't these kids know? What skills do they lack? What can't they do? School becomes entirely a matter of remediation and repair. Good intentions notwithstanding, feelings of hopelessness and despair define these places for kids and teachers alike.
We have repeatedly asked groups of teachers about the biggest obstacles to their teaching. A surprising number of them answer, the kids. They don't just blurt it out. Some say, “I used to be a better teacher, but kids today have so many problems.” Others complain, “If these kids could only speak English!” But it still adds up to a powerful message: that schools and classrooms would function much better if certain kids simply didn't show up.
Picture the perfect school: The classrooms are always quiet, the cafeteria calm, the hallways orderly. No fights, no hassles, no graffiti. Bells ring, photocopiers hum, paychecks are delivered. The place is efficient, clean, and peaceful. Why? Because there are no kids, and consequently, no problems.
Most city teachers struggle mightily to do a good job in spite of inadequate resources and difficult circumstances. But the structure of many urban schools—the strict schedule, the division of knowledge, the press of time, the pretense toward rational efficiency, the meager resources, and the huge numbers of students—leads to a factory-like operation characterized by hierarchy, control, and anonymity, which turns teachers into clerks and students into objects to fear and coerce.
Although the city is full of real reasons for sadness and anger, it also offers inspiration and hope. We invite educators to consider the surprising gifts that students bring to schools within the shifting demographics and social and economic realities of the contemporary world. We ask teachers to consider what it takes to teach kids who have traditionally been —alized or written off. We ask schools to refuse to give up on kids in an environment that affirms acquiescence within a history of abandonment.
We begin in this different place by recognizing the value of historically underserved or excluded kids. We reject the notion that kids can be defined as all deficit and danger. Instead, we see a sense of life, energy, freedom, and hope in the city and in the families in poor, immigrant, and African American communities. We see conflicts, contradictions, and complexities, but we also see an unmapped future whose core demand will be learning to live together, diverse yet united. The model that is currently being rehearsed in our cities is relevant to the United States as a whole.

Starting With the Student

Some school reforms never work, yet these are often the first ones that we pick up from the toolbox of change: ever-increasing levels of bureaucracy, systems of command and control, zero-tolerance policies.
We can do better.
There is a manifest danger that the lessons taken by suburban and exurban schools from the experiences of urban schools in recent decades will be all the wrong ones: the sharp and ugly stereotypes that attach like barnacles to “these kids”; the normalization of failure, accompanied by low expectations and acceptance of inadequate effort; and the conflation of low skills with lack of intelligence. Unfortunately, schools may respond to the false lessons by adopting what Martin Haberman (1991) calls the “pedagogy of poverty”: a set of acts and behaviors—handing out information and directions and tests, monitoring work, punishing noncompliance—that, taken together and performed to the systematic exclusion of other acts, disable students.
Not only does the pedagogy of poverty not work, but it also practically ensures failure. Haberman contrasts this approach with good teaching: involving students in issues of vital concern to them, allowing choice and active engagement, and helping students see major concepts, big ideas, and general principles in their work.
The first lesson learned urges us to tap into the power of parents and the community. The second lesson learned has a different thrust: Powerful, hopeful learning projects always begin with learners. Knowing students as learners—discovering them as multidimensional human beings—is an important starting point for all teachers. What resources do kids bring with them to school? How can schools build bridges of understanding between students' experiences, knowledge, and skills and deeper and wider ways of knowing? And how can schools create an environment for learning that is wide enough and deep enough to nurture and challenge the huge range of students who actually walk through the classroom door?
The open-enrollment community high school in Little Village, which is under construction and scheduled to open in September 2005, purports to offer such an environment. The new school draws on several hard-won lessons of successful city schools: It's small, it's connected to the community, and it has a focused and rigorous curriculum.

The Small Schools Approach

The Little Village high school is based on the small schools approach. One building will house four small schools, each of which will enroll approximately 360 students. The high school will begin with a freshman class and add a grade each year until each of the four schools reaches full capacity.
The small schools approach will enable the high school to put into practice several strategies that research and experience have shown to be essential. Because anonymity in school often proves to be a recipe for disconnection and even disaster, the school will encourage close relationships between students and caring adults. Smaller class sizes, with a teacher-student ratio of 1 to 13 for freshmen, will enable teachers to make the necessary curricular adjustments for students who are ahead or behind in coursework. Supported by a problem-based and project-based curriculum, teachers will make it their business to know the talents that students bring to school as well as the literacy and math skills that these students routinely use in their daily lives.
The knowledge that students bring to school is rooted in their self-knowledge, their families, their survival, and their interaction with others in the world, and all are elements crucial to the learning process. To effectively explore this knowledge, the school will hold weekly seminar advisories during which students meet with advisors to address topics of their choice that relate to the community or the school. This will help provide the school with the knowledge necessary to assess intelligences and skills often overlooked in mainstream school settings.
Good schools need good teachers, and several teachers in the new high school are design team members—people who took on the task of creating the curriculum and infrastructure for each theme school—who have recruited their peers to teach there. These teachers see their efforts as intellectual work. They bring strong knowledge and engage in ongoing learning. They read and come ready to teach material that they find valuable. They also exercise adult authority—specifically, moral authority. Kids know the rules; they know the difference between right and wrong, and sometimes they want to know whether teachers know the difference. Because the school cannot offer monetary incentives, shared leadership will be crucial to retaining such teachers.
The small schools approach also encourages the formation of a purposeful professional community in which teachers and staff members engage in an ongoing conversation about the content and conduct of teaching, including curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment. The school will structure these discussions into weekly sessions.

The Community Connection

The reluctance of the central office to address historical structural inequity in public schooling has been profound, ranging from issues with school funding to the lack of basic necessities. The Little Village example teaches us that a key underused resource is the community itself, which the schools are there to serve.
It has been abundantly clear in the Little Village story that communities are not only able but also eager to determine their own most pressing education needs. An advisory board made up of community members—some of the original hunger strikers along with members of various community organizations—recruited the design team members for each of the four theme schools and thus helped establish the direction the schools would take.
An authentic and powerful work process in Little Village brought a wide range of people to the table to engage in an open conversation. The “experts” engaged community members as equals and in ways more meaningful than parent bake sales and booster club meetings. Members of the community are considered experts on their own lives and primary stakeholders and decision makers when it comes to their own children. Consequently, standard setting has become everyone's work.
The high school will help sustain the community connection through a proposed on-site community center, which will provide students and parents with services that are generally external to schools, such as health clinics and English classes for English language learners.

A Focused and Rigorous Curriculum

The Little Village high school will boast four theme schools: the Greater Lawndale School for Social Justice; the School for Multicultural Arts; the Infinity Math, Science, and Technology School; and a school that will target world languages. Big ideas or questions—such as “How can one lead a disciplined life?” or “What is an educated person?”—will power curriculum and teaching at every level.
One of the authors of this article—an active supporter of the strike—became a member of a design team for the school for social justice. Responsibilities for drafting a school proposal have been centered in curriculum, staffing, budget, and governance. The greatest and most important challenge has been remaining faithful to the principles and values of the hunger strike.
One such principle is accountability. To remain continually accountable to community members, the school is organizing parents and students into committees that will review school policies and budgets and ensure a rigorous curriculum. Once a student or parent joins the committee, he or she will have oversight power. An on-staff parent liaison will also keep parents updated on new developments in the school.
Student differences should not imply deficiencies. True multicultural and collaborative school design and implementation cannot occur without the explicit recognition of such differences as race, class, and gender in our schools. The language of “at-risk,” “urban,” “behavior-disordered,” or “low-achieving” students is conveniently coded to stigmatize African American and Latino students. In combating such assumptions, schools must continue to develop resources—such as critical friends, seminar advisories, and frequent staff meetings led by teacher leaders—to create collaborative, constructive, community-centered approaches to education.

A Common Effort

These lessons are neither manifesto nor 10-step program, neither blueprint nor map. Instead, they may serve as points of departure and dialogue. There is simply no substitute for an engaged community of parents, teachers, citizens—and, yes, students—coming together to build the schools that they desire and need. Creating an authentic community capable of identifying obstacles and opportunities, setting standards and expectations, grappling with the question of what knowledge and experiences are of most value, and deciding how best to provide students full access to such a curriculum is the indispensable feature of successful schools in a functioning democracy.

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