Changing the Perception of Urban Schools
By Hilderbrand Pelzer III
Author of Unlocking Potential
You have surely seen news stories that color the public’s perceptions of urban public schools: Students cannot read, write, or perform math at grade level. High schools struggle to graduate students. Teachers are ineffective. Failing schools lead to the school-to-prison pipeline. Don’t forget the one that is all the rage, and the one on which I focus this article: violence and crime are rampant in schools.
It is time to stop acting like this emphasis on negative perceptions will generate academic growth among struggling urban public schools. The question is, how do we get the national storyline changed from a focus on the ills of public schools and onto the quality teaching and learning found in public schools?
While we constantly read national news stories and listen to the analysts on major media outlets, I have concluded the public is fascinated with and attracted to the ills of public schools, especially with the colorful perception that urban public schools are violent places. Selected news stories about a fight between two students, a second-grader with crack, a third-grader carrying a gun in his book bag, or a parent smacking a teacher because she reprimanded her daughter for running in the hallway color the public’s perception that schools are in crisis.
Let’s step back a bit. In 2011, five Philadelphia Inquirer reporters wrote an exhaustive and extraordinary seven-part investigative series, “Assault on Learning.” The five reporters devoted a year to examining violence in Philadelphia’s public schools and conducted more than 300 interviews with teachers, administrators, students and their families, district officials, school police officers, court officials, and school violence experts. In addition, the reporters created a database to analyze more than 30,000 serious incidents - from assaults to robberies to rapes - that occurred during a five-year period. That information was supplemented by other data sources on suspensions, intervention, and 9-1-1 calls. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the reporters also examined police reports, court records, transcripts, contracts, and school security videos. Even more, the Inquirer enlisted Temple University to conduct an independent survey of the district's 13,000 teachers and aides. More than 750 teachers and aides responded to questions about violence and its impact on students' education. Furthermore, the newspaper obtained internal district documents detailing violent incidents during the period in question.
If I did not know any better, I would think that the public schools in Philadelphia were not making any significant progress in the classroom. Just consider the words used to describe the schools: climate of violence, young and violent, attacks, assaults, 9-1-1 calls, and so on. I cannot ever recall seeing such an extraordinary and exhaustive series on teaching and learning. Philadelphia’s schools, like so many other schools in urban areas over the years, have shown growth in academic performance. The results, obviously, are due to effective teaching and learning and the efforts of students, teachers, principals, parents, and community partners. It would have been really nice if the Inquirer had chosen to share the stories of schools’ academic progress and student achievement gains just as exhaustively and extraordinarily as they did stories about violence.
Now, I will be the first to say that there are more than a few challenges facing urban public schools. I know firsthand how poor student behavior can impact the quality of teaching and learning efforts, but I also know firsthand that students all across the nation are striving for excellence. They excel in core academic subjects. They get accepted to and attend colleges and universities. They are productive citizens. They go from schools to careers. They are making it in this world. They know that their success was supported by their school's confidence in them and the school’s efforts to make certain that they were prepared to be the best that they could be. I know these students, and so do you! Great students can be found in urban public schools all across the nation.
Surely, I am no fool! I clearly understand why the topic of violence and crime in schools is important. Our children deserve a safe learning environment. Over the years, I have committed serious time and effort to helping shape and lead sectors of the school violence and crime prevention movement. However, the best of us are insightful enough to know the answer to reducing violence and crime in schools lies in having strong academic infrastructures and a non-forgiving focus on teaching and learning.
Schools must go from managing their social climates to creating an academic learning environment. As I wrote in my book, politicians, business professionals, private individuals, and organizations frequently place burdens on urban public schools by pressuring them to execute convoluted, competing, and redundant initiatives, including demands to eradicate violence and crime. One could make a compelling case that these external partners thrive on the violence and crime in schools. Many scholarly articles have been written about school violence. Local and national organizations have been created to research school violence. Government funds have been set aside to create safe schools. Curricula are written for schools to implement violence prevention classes. Principals and other school administrators are required, in many instances, to have in place school violence prevention teams. School boards have approved “zero tolerance” policies all across the nation. Safety training is mandated, leading to the contracting of safety and security consultants. Private education management organizations are contracted to warehouse “bad” students. Schools purchase and install millions of dollars worth of video surveillance cameras. In fact, schools are required to write and submit school safety plans, oftentimes before they are required to write and submit their school action plans. There is even national talk about placing armed police officers inside many urban public schools. I could go on and on, citing examples of the many responses to school violence and crimes in schools.
These initiatives have educational value. However, we must ask ourselves if they should displace the academic mission of our schools at a time when educators need to focus on students’ academic development? I think not. Excessive violence and crime prevention programs and services cannot continue to be the center of attention for urban public schools.
I was first intrigued by school violence and the factors associated with it in 1991. At that time, the breaking news from the educational front was about violent eruptions at South Philadelphia High School. I wrote an editorial for my local newspaper, just to express my point of view on the incident. Soon thereafter, I was catapulted into instant fame (for five minutes!). I was sought out by local talk radio stations to share my opinion with callers and invited to serve on the City of Philadelphia’s Health Department Committee on Violence. The committee, formed to tackle violence, aimed to bring community groups together to create a vision, mission, and strategy, and launched an initiative known as Operation Peace in Philadelphia (OPP). The tag “OPP” was a play on the now-classic 1991 rap song of the same name by the group Naughty By Nature. We achieved very good results. However, violence continued in the city; it continues to remain a thorn in the side of the city today. South Philadelphia High School returned to the national news in 2009 when violence, once again, erupted between students.
So, what is the answer to violence and crime in schools? I don’t know. Violence and crime in schools continues to grip the headlines. As a result, it holds hostage the genuine efforts of urban public schools to showcase student achievement. Are we placing too much attention on this issue and the other ills of public schools? Are we not giving equal or greater attention to the extraordinary accomplishments of students, teachers, and principals as they focus on overcoming the imposing array of issues facing urban public schools in pursuit of academic excellence?
What do you think? I am sure there are other opinions out there. Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.
by Hilderbrand Pelzer III
Recently I purchased and watched one of the year's best films: "Waiting for Superman." While I wasn't shocked about the film's look at public education in the United States, I was drawn to Anthony's story. As a young boy living in Washington, D.C., he had a will to learn and a belief in school. When asked if he was good in school, he quickly replied YES! However, he was once held back in the 2nd grade. What school does not have strategies to work with a 2nd grade student? All across the country, schools are failing to teach and engage 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade students. As a result, they soon fall behind academically and socially, and often times do not ever catch up. Once they reach middle and high school levels, they have lost their zeal for learning. That is not to say that they don't want to learn. They do! In fact, they dare teachers to teach them.
In the movie, Anthony was eager to learn. He participated in class. He wanted to excel. His family wanted the best for him despite their circumstances. Anthony and all the other children profiled in the movie inspired. Their stories are the reasons why public education in the United States must get better, today! Did you see the movie? What is your thought? Please share.
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