Turning Around Urban Schools
By Mary Branham, CSG Managing Editor
When Barbara Cooper was a teacher, she made sure she knew the parents of her students.
That’s especially important in urban schools, she said, where children have to worry about crime in their neighborhood as much as learning their ABCs.
Cooper should know: She taught school for 42 years—35 of them in Memphis City Schools—before she was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives 14 years ago. But her interest in schools, especially urban schools, remains high.
This year, she sponsored legislation to require parent training for those people who have children in pre-k through third grade and receive state assistance.
“We take it for granted that the parents know what to do,” about their children’s education, Cooper said. Many parents of students who may need help dropped out of school themselves, she said.
That’s not the only thing she’s targeted for helping urban schools. She’s proposed Promise Zone legislation—similar to ones in Michigan and the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York—to offer wraparound services to families in those areas.
Half of the country’s failing schools are in big cities, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told Capitol Ideas.
Urban school students have special needs, and those must be taken into consideration in judging their success and the success of the schools they attend, argues Indiana Rep. Vernon Smith, an education professor at Indiana University Northwest in Gary, Ind.
“You’ve got to understand there are social problems that have to be attacked in order to meet the needs of kids,” Smith said.
Missouri Commissioner of Education Chris Nicastro agrees. “You tend to have some characteristics that are concentrated that you might not have elsewhere,” she said.
That includes high incidences of poverty, high rates crime and poor housing, she said.
“That’s not to say that every urban school is poor and it’s certainly not to say that there’s not poverty in rural areas,” she said.
But the high concentration exacerbates the problems, she said.
The Missouri Department of Education is working closely with the St. Louis and Kansas City school districts, both of which have experienced high turnover in leadership and poor performance in educating students. Both districts have applied for federal School Improvement Grants, which target Title I schools identified for improvement, corrective action or restructuring for assistance in reaching adequate yearly progress on testing.
Nicastro believes strong leadership at the top—the superintendent and principal—is a key to success in urban schools. Both districts have new superintendents, Nicastro said, but the needed change won’t happen overnight. She said it takes seven to 10 years to turn around a failing urban school district.
“It’s a very complex task,” she said. “It requires significant partnerships with community groups and with others, particularly if you’re dealing with the socioeconomic issues.”
Joseph Johnson, executive director of the National Center for Urban School Transformation, suggests schools should be actively monitoring progress of students, not waiting until end-of-year tests to measure learning.
“A lot of (successful urban) schools have recognized that if they wait until the end of the year to determine if their students have learned what the state wants them to learn, that’s too late because then it’s not at all diagnostic,” he said. “It’s like an autopsy.”
Elizabeth Kozleski, director and principal investigator at the Arizona State University National Institute for Urban School Improvement, said successful districts also build networks of schools. “Principals and leadership teams can learn from other buildings about practices that work in the political and social context of the districts,” she said.
That’s important for policymakers to remember, she said. Larger districts interpret and manage policies based on whether the policy has utility for the district, Kozleski said. “You have a push-pull between state policy and the regulation of what goes on in individual districts,” she said.
On the other hand, smaller districts don’t have the capacity to interpret policies, so they turn to the Department of Education. That means policies aren’t implemented equally across all contexts, she said.
“The best kind of policy is one that creates an open architecture that sets standards and sets the bar for the kind of practice and allows the local practitioners and local leaders to find their path to implementing a particular practice,” she said.
Top 4 Tips for Urban School Success
While half of the failing schools are located in big cities around the country, some are starting to turn things around. Successful urban schools share similar attributes, according to Elizabeth Kozleski, director and principal investigator for Arizona State University’s National Institute for Urban School Improvement. They:
Establish a network of schools in a district that allows principals and school leadership to learn about practices that work in other buildings.
Implement a professional learning strategy that identifies, prepares and supports principals, as well as a system to help principals examine their own strategies.
Monitor throughout the year to understand where kids are to help teachers adjust their instructional strategies to meet the particular needs of their students.
Place their best teachers in schools that are struggling.