“Sometimes you don’t know where you’re going until you get there—but just because you get there doesn’t mean you have to stay there.” —Michael E. Reid
Arusha, Tanzania + San Francisco, CA + Seoul, Korea + Petersburg, VA = Washington, D.C.
I call the above the “me equation”—a series of experiences that led to an unyielding desire to teach African-American children in high-poverty areas. Each location represented a different idea: Arusha represented hope. San Francisco represented freedom. Seoul represented discipline. Petersburg, where I’m from, represented urban blight. Washington represented all of them.
My equation, though, isn’t quite equalling out in my classroom. Nor is it in my school, schools across the district, or the nation. Hope, discipline, and urban blight are present in many urban areas like Washington, D.C., but freedom is less so. Responding to the perceived need of urban environments, many schools have created authoritative school cultures where teams of behavioral and academic support specialists are strategically placed to ensure 100% compliance with rules, procedures, and expectations. But there are many, including myself, who are starting to question the lifelong benefit of this type of rigid and comprehensive support.
During the industrial economy, it’s safe to assume that this kind of heavy focus on procedural fidelity probably generated the needed outcome. But not anymore. In this economy, a knowledge economy, shouldn’t we despise concepts that don’t lead our students to being better self-governing citizens?
On a few recent school visits to LA and Chicago, though, that’s exactly what I saw—and what many people believe is the appropriate prescription for disengaged black students who are at risk for becoming disconnected youth (a term used to describe young people ages 16 to 24 that are neither working nor in school). One particular standout was Urban Prep Academies in Chicago, a growing network of schools that prides itself on having 100% college acceptance rates year over year, accomplished through intentional cultural programming and wraparound services. But can they (or other educators facing similar challenges) truly make attending college the end goal? I’m not so sure.
The weeks following my return from Chicago, I made a few phone calls to friends and family that either attended, still attend, or work for some of the universities listed on Urban Prep’s brochure. They all highlighted similar post-secondary struggles for students with like-backgrounds:
- Sense of community and belonging:
Our kids who aren’t identifying with fraternities and sororities are creating their own affiliations based on dormitories, hometowns, and interests. Some of these subgroups are adopting gang-like tendencies in relation to territory, protection, recognition, and basic needs survival. One story from a university police officer detailed how last year’s homecoming events were marred by a dispute between members of rival affiliations, which resulted in a second-year student being stabbed in the leg.
- Preparedness and responsibility:
Simply put, in many cases, our academic supports and wraparound services act like crutches and wheelchairs. And because these supports haven’t been fully removed prior to high school graduation, many of our kids are facing academic probation and/or suspension in their first year of college. One university employee told me about a program the university had implemented where academic counselors contacted students and professors daily to ensure students went to class and submitted assignments. Another friend, a recent college graduate, told me how students would threaten teaching assistants and financial aid officers for not taking material after a missed deadline.
- Thought resourcefulness:
Much of the secondary learning taking place currently focuses on basic skills acquisition and retention. But it lacks aspects like how to identify the necessary skills to solve a problem, organization of applicable skills, and how to synthesis the skills into one product. Thus, the majority of my conversations highlighted how students are finding themselves unprepared, overwhelmed, and unable to keep pace.
Truthfully, there’s no easy solution to the above problems. And although I do have a few ideas that I would like to propose (which I’ll do in a future post), I would much rather hear from you. Please share your experiences, perspectives, and what-ifs.
I also want to be clear that I’m encouraged by Urban Prep’s current victories and the exhaustive conversations about race and perception that result from their tireless work. Whether you agree or disagree with my point of view, I encourage you to keep the conversation going.