One of the best-kept secrets about big-city school systems is the breadth, depth, and scope of the instructional programs they offer individual students as a matter of daily routine.
Criticism of urban public schools too often throws the baby out with the bath. And failure to ask what would replace them, what could replace them, shortchanges the inherent resources their diversity, size, and urban locations afford.
Without playing down the serious, often intolerable problems far too many urban schools experience, the following underlying strengths must not be overlooked when discussing urban education:
* The city itself: Its museums, art galleries, theaters, businesses, corporations, universities and colleges, with all their concomitant cultural and people resources are part of the landscape in the urban center.
Elite, private pre schools have known for years that the city is its own best classroom and especially so far high school students. This is now accepted wisdom in urban schools across America.
* Financial: City school budgets are big enough that "some" money can always be found to implement innovative curriculum and enrichment programs when significant numbers of students are involved.
With more and more states moving to equalize per-pupil expenditures for education and not using property taxes as the only source of revenue, well-run urban schools have substantial "discretionary" moneys for special programs.
The successful innovations that smaller school systems may only read about (i.e. magnet schools, bilingual education, vo-tech programs, computer-science centers,) are already funded in most large cities.
The city of San Diego has an extensive magnet school and desegregation program that are classic examples of the inherent advantage lage budgets allow. [see related article on B20]
* Parental choice: From pre-school to 12th grade, city schools offer parents a much greater opportunity for finding a particular program, or an entire school , to fit the individualized needs, interests, or talents of their child.
Specialized programs which would be beyond the financial resources of many middle-and lower-middle-income parents if they were to seek them in private schools exist in every city. For the parent who is knowledgeable about the total spectrum of what is offered in their city public schools, a unique and quality education can be obtained.
Los Angeles and San Diego offer (as do many others) parental workshops on evaluating the appropriate learning style of a child as well as magnet-school selection.
* Teachers and curriculum: In any urban system, there exists a cadre of talented, exceptional professionals and master teachers who know and love their business. Imagine the educational treasure the 57,000-plus teachers and administrators in the New York City schools represent.
For most city schools, the experienced personnel to sustain innovation and guality education are there, and in large enough numbers to make a difference. Their teaching skills can be and are systematically communicated to schools throughout the system.
Dr. Ted Alexander is director of the L.A. unified distric's RIM (racially isolated minorities) program of 264 schools serving over 300,000 students. He asks, "Where else will you get the concentration of experience to provide the necessary overview for not only dealing with a large school system, but for creating programs that deal with the urban society students live in?
He goes on to say, "In a climate where school budgets will have a difficult enough time maintaining level funding and with no budget increases in sight, it is in larger systems that the ability to offer continuous staff development and support services to update and train teachers both old and new already exists."
* Central administration: Often the whipping boy for what is wrong with city education, central office personnel can provide services in ways smaller systems cannot.
City central offices provide the administrative expertise to consolidate resources, from districtwide publishing departments to high-powered computer centers; expert staff not only to conduct quality curriculum and textbook research but implement it; a myriad of programs to meet the local needs of a specialized nature.
The high-tech industry in Massachusetts calls for an expanding labor force -- somewhere in Boston's $240 million plus annual budget programs targeted to this end can be established; New York City's August Martin H.S. near Kennedy International Airport already offers a magnet program in aerospace education.
A central office administrative intern program in San Diego passes along the skills of senior administrators to junior personnel belived to be tomorrow's building principals.
In San Diego's program women and minorities can acquire management skills that would otherwise take years to learn in smaller districts. The size of city school systems partially offsets the lack of opportunity for women and minorities due to declining enrollments.
The recent appointment of Dr. Ruth Love at a record salary of $120,000 as Chicago superintendent of schools will be a case study on whether or not the central office can turn an urban system around.
Collective bargaining, government mandates from not only the local but state and federal level, as well as court-ordered desegregation, are part of the educational scene. It is in the central office of city school systems that the professional expertise to deal with these realities can be found.
"Because we deal with these matters on a daily basis, we are much more capable of dealing with them than smaller or decentralized systems," says San Diego Superintendent of Schools Thomas L. Goodman.
One of the best examples of how central office intervention can improve city schools at the classrom and basic skills level is occurring in Milwaukee. It is called Project RISE (rising to individual scholastic excellence).
Under a 1979 school board directive, the city's 20 elementary schools (out of 111) with the lowest test scores in math and English were required to participate in a three-year program to improve basic skills. At the end of the program in June 1982, 50 percent of the students in these schools must score at the citywide average in math and English or the principals will be replaced.
The 20 schools were not given extra money for the RISE program, but each school was given wide latitude to allocate existing moneys as it saw necessary. [see related story opposite page]
* The American ideal: More than 10 percent (4 million) of America's public school students attend school in the 20 largest cities. Nowhere in the world are more children of cultural, ethnic, or racial diversity than in US urban schools. The children in these city schools represents the world in microcosm.
Grant Gordon, special assistant to Milwaukee's superintendent of schools, likens society's stake in public urban education to a classroom teacher's expectations about children. "Just as it is unacceptable for a teacher to believe that some students cannot learn, it is unacceptable for society to think some school systems are not worth saving."
The real test of the American ideal -- that all children, regardless of race, color, creed, or economic status, have the right to a quality education -- occurs in these schools. It is not hyperbole to suggest that the mission of public city schools is a litmus test of American democracy. Anything less than the best, is unacceptable.