Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Challenges and Opportunities in Urban Education

Eileen S. Johnson, Ph.D.
Department of Organizational Leadership
Oakland University
Rochester, Michigan

President, NCPEA

As the state affiliate, Michigan Association of Professors of Educational Administration (MAPEA), works diligently to prepare for the 2016 NCPEA conference in Detroit, I find myself reflecting more frequently about the challenges and opportunities of urban education – challenges faced by Detroit schools as well as urban schools throughout the United States and beyond.  In particular, school closures have plagued urban school districts across the country, especially in low-income communities (http://www.aefpweb.org/sites/default/files/webform/Closing%20Schools%20Engberg%20Gill%20Zamarro%20Zimmer%20201103.pdf). 
While declining school-aged populations is often cited as the primary reason for school closures, broader concerns of school funding and resource allocation inequities, a movement away from neighborhood schooling options, and market-driven approaches to schooling challenge the ideals of public education.  For example, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder recently presented a strategy for reducing and ultimately eliminating the debt now carried by Detroit Public Schools by creating a new entity – Detroit Community Schools http://www.michigan.gov/snyder/0,4668,7-277-57577_60279-353475--,00.html.  The idea is to keep both the millage and the old debt encumbered with DPS and shift operational funds to the new DCS entity.  However, the plan does not adequately address reasons for the debt incurred by DPS in the first place – nor does it address issues of funding and resource inequity and quality of the teaching/learning environment.    Indeed, there are significant social justice issues at play when considering the issue of school closures and those populations most affected; urban school closures affect primarily low-income Black and Latino students and families, creating “ school deserts” in many urban communities in which families are now hard-pressed to find viable educational alternatives for their children.  http://www.msnbc.com/melissa-harris-perry/what-happens-when-kids-lose-their-schools.  And despite the common assumption that privatizing “failing” schools based on for-profit business models will provide a viable solution to the problem, this assumption has generally not borne out.  For example, Muskegon Heights Public Schools, a district that served primarily low-income Black students on the west side of Michigan, was the first instance in the nation of an entire school district being shut down and reopened under private control as a charter district.  The for-profit company that won the lowest bid dissolved the five-year contract after only two years due to a lack of profits among other issues.  http://www.mlive.com/news/muskegon/index.ssf/2014/04/mosaica_out_as_manager_of_musk.html.  If such market-driven solutions are not working in most cases, how do we restructure schooling to meet the needs of those communities withstanding the greatest impact of school closures? 

The Flagstaff Seminar: Educational Leaders without Borders http://www.educationalleaderswithoutborders.com/ has as its primary objective to ensure that children world-wide have the right and means to attend school.  A second objective is not to make schools as they exist more efficient at what they do, but to call into question what schools do in the first place and how they work or should work to provide greater equality to all children and their families.”  This brings us to the question: what are education leaders to do when the commonly accepted model of schooling fails to work effectively in urban settings?  While this question initially formed the basis of the charter school idea in the 1970s, through which teachers were given “charters” or contracts by their local school boards to explore new approaches to education, the charter school reform movement in the 1990s too often resulted in schools that operated in exactly the same way as public schools but with fewer state-level mandates and the freedom to choose which students to admit and not admit.  The result has been competition among schools for students and funding, and in many cases, for-profit companies taking over schools without long-term investment or commitment to the communities they serve.   http://wgnradio.com/2014/01/23/charter-schools-problem-or-solution-for-chicago-students/.  Currently, wide-spread and increasing disinvestment in public education is a driving force behind educators seeking alternative means and resources for operating schools.  The failure of charter schools to significantly improve the educational opportunities and outcomes of those communities most impacted by public school shut-downs may lie not in the idea but in the failure to adopt truly innovative and meaningful alternative approaches to education. 

However, there is some movement toward greater flexibility and innovative models of education taking place in cities across the nation that have been hardest hit by state mandated school shut-downs.  One example is Youthbuild Philly Charter School, http://youthbuildphilly.org/, a non-profit organization dedicated to operating schools designed to allow students aged 18 – 21 to complete the high school diploma after having dropped out of the traditional high school https://www.youthbuild.org/content/eros-macto-voco.  The schools, which operate world-wide, provide students with mentoring, individualized instruction, and on-the-job training opportunities.  Many of the schools operate by leasing space within existing facilities. Other examples include innovative operating models that involve public-private partnerships or connect public schools to community development. http://www.bostonfed.org/commdev/c&b/2005/winter/Public.pdf.  Ultimately, the challenges faced by urban schools are driving new strategies designed to break out of traditional ways of thinking about schooling and providing new opportunities for educational innovation.  It is my sincere hope that, as NCPEA gathers in Detroit in 2016, we will have the opportunity to engage in substantive dialogue about the future of public schools in urban areas and the role of educational leadership in pushing the boundaries of traditional approaches to schooling to better meet the educational needs of students world-wide.