To Heal Cities, Start With the Schools

Greater numbers of inner-city children can be kept in the classroom only if education is rethought bottom to top and the old bureaucratic structure is jettisoned

By , Scott Thompson, editorial associate at the Institute for Responsive Education, is co-editor of Equity and Choice magazine

THE rhetoric surrounding the aftermath of the South Central Los Angeles riots has rightly focused on "root causes" of social upheaval. The question now is whether communities individually and the nation collectively will back words with action by seriously dealing with the underlying causes that can make communities so flammable.

What are these entrenched causes, and how are they to be uprooted? A web of factors is sewn into the social fabric of large inner-city communities like South Central Los Angeles, including poverty, violence, drugs, racism, inequities, bad schools, gangs, crushed hopes and expectations, welfare dependency, children having children, and the influence of media.

A multifaceted strategy must be brought to bear if we are even to begin rooting out the causes of the recent anarchy in Los Angeles. Enterprise zones and community policing might be effective components of an overall strategy, but alone will not suffice. Digging out the interwoven roots of the urban crisis requires an "ecological" solution - i.e., paying attention to the network of families, churches, schools, businesses, and government agencies that passively or actively, positively or negatively, affec t the well-being of the community.

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A critical strand in the network is schools and the need to change and restructure them. I don't mean here simply the school reforms of recent decades, which only effected change at the margins. Fundamental educational restructuring, while by no means a "silver bullet" that can eliminate the crisis of our cities, nevertheless is vital.

New structures for educating our children are needed if we are to see the end of a system that routinely fails huge numbers of children, especially in urban and rural communities. The old structure, the centralized bureaucracy in which children are tracked through teacher-centered classrooms like so many products on an assembly line, was devised for a somewhat different purpose in a radically different social context. In fact, the old bureaucratic school system has always failed a considerable portion of

the population.

Both for social stability and future economic well being, the United States can no longer afford to see so many children failing. But more than national self-interest should motivate us. The equitable education of our children should be a moral imperative. Who can deny the "savage inequalities," to borrow Jonathan Kozol's recent book title, that exist between the kinds of educational experiences our children are being offered? We have a constitutional and moral obligation to better serve all of our child ren.

Experience shows that a new structure imposed in top-down fashion will ultimately lead to new bureaucratic rigidities, instead of the kind of innovation and flexibility that enables schools to respond to the individual needs of their particular communities. "It takes a village to raise a child," according to an African proverb. If education is a whole village affair, restructuring needs to take shape and root locally. The motto also suggests what is now becoming more and more broadly recognized: Schools can't do it alone.

If restructuring involves "altering systems of rules, roles, and relationships," as Louisville school reformer Phillip Schlechty suggests, then there are a number of relationships that need to be rethought and recast in school districts across the country, including: the relationship between the central office and the schools, the relationship between teachers and students, and the relationship between schools, families, and communities. In order for these relationships to change, rules and roles need to

change as well.

In the traditional, bureaucratic school - and most public schools at this time could comfortably wear that label - crucial decisions affecting children's learning are made at the district level and delivered to the principal, who then holds teachers accountable for carrying out the edict. The voice of parents is limited to the PTA or PTO. In the large classrooms of such a school, you find students at desks in rows facing the teacher, who stands in front of the blackboard, attempting to transfer pieces of

knowledge to the class. Children who don't retain and regurgitate these pieces of knowledge are placed in remedial, or lower track, classrooms.

There are a lot of assumptions built into this picture, including: (1) that district-level bureaucrats know best (as opposed to parents and teachers who care for the children most directly and know their needs and abilities most intimately); (2) that the education of children can be processed within a bureaucratic hierarchy; (3) that children who learn well under a uniform, teacher-centered approach deserve to succeed, and others are justly failed; (4) that remedial classrooms, where children inevitably fall farther and farther behind their peers, are of some benefit to these children (who in fact are most likely to drop out, having been intellectually stifled and socially stigmatized).

There are many schools that are cutting themselves loose from bureaucracy to effectively reshape children's educational experience. They are now overshadowed by the mass of public schools that remain mired in a dysfunctional inner-city system, but their innovations deserve notice:

* At Graham and Parks Alternative Public School in Cambridge, Mass., a combination of strong parent involvement, progressive or "open" classroom practice, and a dynamic Haitian Transitional Bilingual Program have made the school such a popular success that its programs are being replicated at a spinoff school to accommodate all the families seeking admission for their children.

A full-time parent coordinator orchestrates the activities of parent volunteers and reaches out to parents reluctant to take an active roll in their children's education. One is hard pressed to find a class in this school where students are lined up in rows listening to the teacher hold forth.What one can find at Graham and Parks are classrooms designed and decorated for individual and group exploration, hands-on fashion, of the full range of core subjects, all focused thematically. The atmosphere is cre atively alive. Hence, it's not surprising that daily attendance is 97 percent and that on state Basic Skills Tests, 90 percent of the students are scoring in the 90 percent and above range. This is an urban school where more than half the students are nonwhite and about 40 percent have special needs.

* New York's Community School District Four is located in East Harlem, a community that faces about the same intensity and complexity of social challenges as South Central Los Angeles. Contrary to bureaucratic tradition, the central office in District Four has been assisting teachers, often with the active involvement of families and communities, in the creation of new, small autonomous schools. The most celebrated of these, Central Park East Secondary School (CPESS) is described by its originator, Debor ah Meier, as a high school in the "kindergarten tradition." It is one of three small schools sharing a building on the corner of Madison Avenue and 106th Street.

In a recent interview with a colleague, Ms. Meier explained that "Kindergarten is the one place - maybe the last place - where you as a teacher were expected to know children well, even if they didn't hand in their homework, finish their Friday tests, or pay attention. Kindergarten teachers know that learning must be personalized, just because kids are idiosyncratic. Kindergarten teachers know that helping children learn to become more self-reliant is part of their task."

New York City high schools as a whole have a graduation rate under 50 percent. But only two out of every 72 students who started at CPESS as ninth graders in 1987 have dropped out. Of the graduates, 45 are in college at such places as Columbia, Cornell, Brown, Hunter, and Smith.

It's not difficult to see why the possibilities in education are tremendously relevant to the LA riots. Who is more likely to smash a storefront window, someone who dropped out of school because the message of inferiority and failure was all he or she got there, or someone who is engaged in learning because the message to this child is: "You have a capacity for learning that we value"?

Who - 10 years down the road - is more likely to be confronting community challenges through consensus-building and innovative collaboration, the child who was lower-tracked into decreasing expectations, or the one who was engaged in cooperative learning in a school where administrators and teachers were involved in a dynamic partnership with families and the community?

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