It is easy to read only the headlines regarding K-12 education in urban public schools and to see those school districts as entrenched bastions of ongoing despair.
Given the fact that many of the problems are considered universal to the urban school environment, it is easy to suggest that all urban schools fail or do so in the same way. There are comparisons of urban districts with the same funding challenges, similar demographics and infrastructure problems that show significant achievement disparities. It is clearly not always about the dollars or demographics.
Many urban districts are demonstrating agility amid an evolving environment that has surfaced new and unique needs. For example, when it comes to resources, urban schools also may benefit from outside support from universities, foundations and corporations — more so than rural or suburban districts.
In addition, the largest of America’s big cities often have successfully incorporated charter schools into the public school system, an undertaking that hasn’t yet taken root in rural districts that also may benefit from alternative education choices. What’s more, urban areas may have other education choices afforded by religious and private schools.
While we think of these problems as endemic to large urban centers, both the problems, and some of the solutions, will come from smaller urban districts. One such district is Salt Lake City, Utah.
If you asked most uninitiated Americans what a third-grade public school child would look like in Salt Lake, they might see a white child of the Mormon faith in an immaculate community surrounded by desert air and a view of the mountains.
Only some of that is true. Lexi Cunningham is the superintendent of Salt Lake City School District (SLCSD) and knows the demographic reality is much different for her 24,000 students.
“Almost 60 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. We are a minority-majority district with 835 students who are refugees. More than 75 languages are spoken by our children and 28 percent of our students qualify for ELL services,” Cunningham said.
If you are a refugee student in a public school, getting oriented is far more than adapting to a new language or making new friends. That’s true in Salt Lake, where Cunningham suggests they were making the assumption about refugee students and how they were performing in school.
“We discovered that many of our refugee students did not know how to function in our schools.”
Lexi Cunningham, Superintendent, Salt Lake City School District
“We discovered that many of our refugee students did not know how to function in our schools,” she said. “In order to help students who were new to the country, we created a three-week refugee student orientation program called ELIMU — Swahili for education — to teach them how to ride the bus, go to the cafeteria, work the drinking fountain, greet their teachers and classmates and to function in a classroom with their peers. They also make connections with their principals and counselors.”
While, at this writing, Cunningham is hopeful about increased funding from a ballot initiative this November, she has found more innovative ways to provide both equity and opportunity for Salt Lake students. That means partnerships and community outreach.
Cunningham insists the district “couldn’t even begin to meet those needs without our partners.” SLCSD has a strong partnership with Head Start. There are three Head Start classrooms in three schools that work collaboratively with district programs, so that they can serve more pre-K students. In another school, two Montessori classrooms are funded by a grant and a partnership with the University of Utah.
Through the hard work of the Salt Lake Education Foundation, students receive dental care, glasses, summer field trips, after school care, adult learning and programming for emotional support. That foundation also supports music programs, a literary magazine and, through a corporate grant, an elementary robotics program. “We want to meet the basic needs of all students, as well as their differing academic needs,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham doesn’t see deficiencies based on biases or student background. What she sees are opportunity gaps. “We have to close those opportunity gaps so that all students can receive the same high-quality, rigorous education. We have to believe that all means all,” she said.
Evidence Found in
the country’s large
In Philadelphia, often identified as the poorest of America’s 10 largest cities, new teachers now go through a week-long program featuring sessions on aiding students in trauma, engaging multi-lingual families and creating inclusive classrooms.
In Denver, the school district is closing the opportunity gaps by bringing truly competitive school choice to every neighborhood, including charter schools and self directed learning programs. There are more charter and other alternative models than traditional schools in Denver. The district’s goal is to have 80 percent of students attending a high-performing school by 2020. Denver scored in about the middle of the 27 participating urban districts that are a part of the Trial Urban District Assessment of the NAEP. District students did slightly higher than average in reading and a little lower than average in math. English Language Learners performed well but, according to the results, there are still large gaps between groups of students by race and income, higher than most other districts in the assessment.
In Chicago, a program targeting support for ninth-grade students is making progress toward high school graduation rates. In 2018, graduation rates were 78.2 percent, up more than 37 percent since 2011 when about half of all students graduated. This year’s progress was greatest among African-American and Hispanic male students.
The outdated funding source for public schools through real estate taxes has been the U.S. model since the 1600s. In neighborhoods where taxes are very high, the taxpayers want those revenues to go to their schools, rather than to impoverished communities. A new universally accepted funding model has been slow to come. However, some states have adopted a weighted student model of funding that is not dependent on local property dollars but rather, allots funding based on student need and allows the funding to follow the student.
Yet, there is evidence in the country’s large urban districts that a more targeted application of resources and a commitment to equity is changing school systems, neighborhoods and biases.
The caution is that not everything works immediately and not everything works everywhere. It is clear, though, that commitment, research and targeted resources make a difference.
To build on current educational momentum will require more than the right educational template. In a large study of more than 180 schools as far back as 2004, the University of Washington concluded that, “To date, we have not found a single case of a school improving its student achievement record in the absence of talented leadership.”