Charting a course for urban public schools

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Eye from Albany
June 2006

Charting a course for urban public schools
by Paul M. Bray

Across from the State Capitol in Albany stands a classical temple built in the early 20th century to honor the notion of public education. This long colonnaded and distinguished building represents a time when public education was held in the high regard and represented the society’s highest aspirations for
the future.

I wish that was the case today when at best urban public education is a political football and at worst a failed institution in the nation’s cities when it comes to reaching low income students. (Suburban schools have more than their share of problems, but suburbanites are better able to cover up their
pathologies.) Notwithstanding the failures, I strongly believe public education is the finest symbol and institutional bedrock of American democracy and our hope for the future.

There is no quick and even commonly acceptable fix for what is broken. Proposed fixes like charter schools have in many places like Albany been more effective in undermining public schools than meeting the needs of students and the emphasis on testing has resulted in teaching for the test rather than teaching to learn.

Conservatives are now trying to shape the debate as between structural reform (what they see as the nasty liberal tendency to throw money at social problems) versus focusing on a cultural solution or what NY Times columnist David Brooks calls the importance of schools emphasizing “the moral and psychological traits that are at the heart of actual success”. In other words for conservatives, damn those unionized teachers for not helping students avoid distractions and develop good work habits. Besides it moves the focus from costly steps that will require wealthy suburban taxpayers from paying more money to support urban schools. (The suburbanites will neither have poor urban school children in their schools nor be willing to pay to see that these children have quality education in the cities.)

My take is we need to both spend more on our urban schools for teachers, technology and buildings, but also make sure our communities set the tone and create a culture that promotes and rewards academic engagement by all students. Of course, that is easy to say, but to stay on the hook let me offer some
suggestions on how to do this.

Marketing, Marketing, Marketing. Whether we like it or not, we are
overwhelmingly a consumer society and what gets marketed well usually succeeds whether
it is Nike shoes or Ivy League colleges. Recently a group of Cornell students
undertook a campaign to have their school better marketed as a premier member
of the Ivy League. Learning is fine, but what is it worth without the hype?
Harvard, Princeton and Yale get the recognition, why not Cornell? Increasingly,
schools like Albany Law School which just rebranded itself are devoting time
and money on branding, state of the art websites and other marketing steps. It
is a competitive world even between the ivory towers.

So, what are public school districts doing? I have noticed some increase in marketing material but there is no sizzle let alone feel-good in the message that must compete with media ready to blow up any incident of violence or failure in the urban schoolhouse. Believe it or not, there is top-notch education taking place in urban public school rooms like the International Baccalaureate and numerous advance placement courses at Albany High School and it is worth the investment for every urban community to hire the best pr people available to get the message out about quality and diversity. It is time for taxpayers to expect and be willing to pay for professional pr for their public schools.

Linkage, Linkage, Linkage. We all know the notion of it taking a village, but we have a long way to go when it comes to public k through 12 schools with their high walls and for the most part separate budgets. Just as we are increasingly realizing that education is a life long pursuit, we need to realize that education is not just a classroom activity. Instead of seeing themselves locked away in a classroom, urban public school students need to see themselves as part of a larger enterprise, there city, where once they graduate there will be a meaningful and desirable place for them. We need to increasingly see members of the community in school building and classrooms and young people pursuing educational activities throughout the community.

Linkage is getting better, but we have so much further to go. My wife mentors 7 year olds in the schoolhouse. The University at Albany shows off its campus to high schools students each year and developing other connections with Albany’s public schools. And so forth. But the physical and mental walls are still there and we need a much broader and concerted effort by the business, nonprofit, civic and governmental sectors to integrate what they do so that all k through 12 students see their city as a whole as a classroom.

Public entrepreneurialism. Public education has to move beyond thinking if you build a schoolhouse and there are children, they will come. First, urban public schools now have to be competitive with charter schools but urban public school administrators along with city leaders should also think more about being competitive with suburban schools-their real competitors.

Many public schools are offering a better education than their suburban neighbors. My wife heard two women talking at a tennis club about how they moved to an Albany suburb from the city when their children were in second grade. They were talking about how much more advance their children were than the suburban students because of the enrichment they got in the Albany schools. But, one said and the other nodded, “of course, we couldn’t stay in Albany”.

But city schools need to do more than just offer enriched courses, they have to strategically be competitive as former Mayor David Rusk was in Albuquerque, New Mexico. When he thought about the many office workers coming into Albuquerque from the suburbs and the declining central city schools, he got involved in establishing two mixed-enrollment downtown schools, Longfellow Elementary and Lew Wallace Elementary, that would draw suburbanites back to the city so that they wouldn’t need to do the commute and would be able to live and have their children go to school all proximate to where they worked. This is the kind of creative social entrepreneurialism we need in our cities.

Finally, Philanthropy, Philanthropy, Philanthropy. We have a great tradition of philanthropy in America. If you have any doubts, visit the many other nations where philanthropy is sorely missing. When it comes to public schools, for example, there is the “I have a dream” model where donors have supported inner city students in meeting the cost of higher education. By intervening early, like the 6th grade, this program with community support helps put inner city kids on the track of higher education. These programs are around, work and get publicity, but we could do much more to put them on the pedestal they deserve.

None of my suggestions will do the trick, but they and like ideas have the potential of creating a culture and will to move urban education from failure to shining example of what make America great.

Paul M. Bray is President of P.M.Bray LLC, a planning and environmental law firm in Albany, New York. His e-mail is