We think of public schools in rural areas and those in our nation’s inner cities as being two completely different animals, but in several crucial ways they are in fact remarkably similar. Both are generally staffed and funded in ways that favor the haves over the have-nots, and both share the considerable challenge of needing to figure out how to meet the needs of children raised by parents who do not feel connected to the education system.
For students from these schools what happens after high school graduation is often disappointing, with students opting either not to attend college or training programs at all, or going for a semester or two and then dropping out. The end result is the perpetuation of a highly stratified class system, with many students from these schools taking their place on a rung toward the lower end of the socio-economic ladder.
Things don’t have to be so unequal. We could re-imagine our schools. We could prioritize equity the way people in many other countries have done in recent years. We could change the funding of schools so that those most in need receive not less than an equal share – but more. Think how different it would be if students in a small town in New England, or South Dakota – or in urban Philadelphia or Chicago – were educated with resources enough to allow them the same programs as those provided students in Westchester County, NY, or Newton, MA. The whole ball game would be different. The student who arrives at school in ill-fitting shoes and the same jeans day after day would receive the same instruction in science, music, languages, and theater as his wealthier friends. The American dream could come alive.
Many teachers in both rural and urban schools say that in ways other than financial their schools are not working in the best interests of some of the students they teach. They have some pretty good suggestions for how their particular schools could be improved to help reach hard-to-reach students. Those suggestions include but are not limited to: project-based learning; time in the day for teachers to collaborate on curriculum development and also share insights on reaching students; programs aimed at involving parents in the life of the school.
School boards and school administrators need to call together interested teachers to begin a constructive dialogue about what needs to be done to reach students whose needs are not being met. Teachers definitely don’t have all the answers to the thorny question of how to really make things work for all our students – no one group of stakeholders does – but I think they do have some. They are an invested group whose expertise has not been adequately tapped in the movement to reform schools.