A LYS Reader submits…

“In my career I can now say I have worked in just about every type of school in Texas. I have worked in 1A, 2A, 3A, 4A, and 5A schools. I have worked in schools that served a wealthy population, and I have worked in schools that are 90% low SES. I have worked in suburban schools, rural schools, and urban schools. These schools have been spread around north Texas, east Texas, and south Texas. That leaves only west Texas that I have yet to experience, but I have about 10 to 15 years to go, so I will probably make it there too.

I was somewhat worried when I went to my first urban school, having spent my career up to that point in rural and suburban schools. You drive to work the first day and see the gang graffiti and you are worried. You see the kids walk in the first day with their hard appearance and you are more worried. And then the myth starts to unravel.

The verdict: Kids are kids everywhere, period. Urban students certainly have a lot to overcome, but when it comes to culture, music, and dreams, I have found kids everywhere remarkably similar. I have found very few kids anywhere that I can’t talk to, relate to, and get through to. Yet urban schools are the proverbial “tough nut” to crack. Why?

Certainly attendance is a tougher issue in urban schools, but not tremendously so. Other than attendance, urban schools have few problems that Foundation Trinity can’t cure. Other than attendance, I have not found the issues in low SES urban schools to be tremendously tougher than low SES suburban or rural schools, regardless of school size.

So why the “urban myth”? That is, most people I meet are convinced beyond a doubt that urban schools are tougher places to succeed in than other schools. I propose the urban myth of schools exists as a convenient excuse for leaders and teachers who can’t get the job done. Get a good curriculum, teach it using high yield instructional strategies, keep the game honest with common assessments, and urban students will do just fine.

There is one caveat: You have to truly care about the kids. Low SES students will write adults off quickly if they sense the adults don’t care. Unfortunately, my experience in urban schools is that too many adults don’t truly care about the kids that poison the well for the rest of us . Of course this is true in every low SES school I have worked in, regardless of size. I suspect urban districts get the “tough” title due to the huge number of kids they fail to adequately educate. A 2A low SES school doesn’t fail enough kids to cause an outcry. Sort of like killing: when does murder turn into genocide; one death, ten deaths, ten thousand deaths? How many low SES kids have to be under educated before we point a finger and say that’s wrong? Fifty is not enough, but five thousand in a concentrated area causes a noticeable problem for society. Are the fifty any less of a travesty?

So there it is. Give a damn, teach your kids, seek ways to make kids succeed, and I bet you the urban myth will vanish.”

SC Response
There is an essential truth at the center of the myth and it is not the kids, as you have observed. The truth to the myth is scale. And the issue of scale works both ways. Let’s take scale as it is generally considered, “Big.” As you increase in size, you increase not only the number of problems that you deal with, but as those problems interact with each other you magnify their effect and complexity. Yes, the campus may have more staff, but personnel equations are linear. Complexity equations are exponential. What occurs at your typical, large urban school is that the adults are attempting to manage complex exponential systems with antiquated linear practices. When the inevitable failure occurs, institutional myopia focuses on the “obvious” problem – students. This makes about as much sense as blaming the piece of paper when I can’t solve a calculus problem using only algebra strategies.

Scale also causes issues when it is, “Small.” Most small urban schools were once large. But for any number of reasons, the bulk of the student population has moved to other schools. Instead of recognizing the reality of the current situation and changing, the school stubbornly clings to the big school model, trying to be everything to everyone. This quickly turns into being “nothing to nobody.” Sadly, the more eminent this particular fate, the more desperate the adult battle becomes to not change.

For the small urban school model, take a look at the truly successful charter schools (and there are a number of them). What the good and great charters understand is something that escapes the typical educator. It is this, “Know your niche, exploit your niche, be expert in your niche, but most importantly, ignore anything that is not your niche.” This is how you make small urban schools work and work exceedingly well.

I believe the issues of scale are leadership issues. To expect teachers to rise up and overcome every issue the machine throws at them is a fool’s dream. You can not spend all day, everyday in the classroom, teaching at full speed and have the time to come up with the big and mid-sized picture solutions to system problems. That is the responsibility of leadership. And when leadership does not engage at full speed and with conviction, the urban school myth becomes ever more entrenched.

Think. Work. Achieve.

Your turn…