What If?

“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.

Alex Brown, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Randle Highlands Elementary School


2 thoughts on “What If?

  1. I enjoyed reading this post. I am a special education teacher with DCPS. Prior to my tenure with DCPS, I was a special education teacher with Friendship Public Charter Schools in Washington DC.

    In my field of work and my chosen urban demographic of students, I have experienced firsthand many of the issues this post speaks to.

    I agree that many of the discussed issues exist however I feel that these issues exist due to the LACK of compliance, structure, responsibility, and discipline in urban schools.

    In today’s society, school districts nationwide are abolishing reprimanding actions for students who do not comply with provided school rules, regulations, and morale codes. As a result, students are rarely if ever held accountable, in school or by their parents, for their lack of interest and effort in school.

    Funding for education in urban areas, or the lack thereof, perpetuates a non-evolving system that is producing a demographic of children who are unequipped and under-prepared for a higher level of education. These students have rarely if ever been challenged academically and they have rarely if ever been held accountable for their actions in and out of school.

    These students derive from communities where their schools and educators lack the necessary tools, supports, and resources needed to properly provide grade level instruction and a clean, organized environment for students to call their own.

    When these students are placed in a higher education environment that is structured and based on personal responsibility, students from urban demographics typically are unsuccessful because they were never properly prepared.

    Self-responsibility, consequences, organization, and rigor are needed in grade school if a student wants to be prepared for higher education and societies expectations. If these things are not provided by the homes, schools, and communities of all students, how will they ever thrive?

    -Audria McClure


  2. I am a 29 year college grad, a military veteran, and a black male. I started my education in a suburban middle class neighborhood and due to hardships I wound up moving to a low income area where I attended school in the inner city. Even as a child I noticed the difference in my peer group as well as the quality of my education shifting. My suburban education was filled with young and middle age professionals that were very engaging as teachers. However my inner city was filled older teachers who could not relate to the shift I was going through from a child to a teenager. Unable to cop I began to act out. My mother was losing control of me as out home environment became more unstable. As a result school became necessary for strictly my survival. It served as a baby sitter, gave me breakfast/lunch, and a place to escape from the turbulence of my home life. I was passing, but only because I was showed up everyday. My defiant and oppositional behaviors increased as things became more turbulent. I was the boss at home. I was providing for my family and making choices as to how things needed to get done for my family. Then I would have to come to school and relinquish all my power to someone who I was sure did not care and was just trying to pay off their student loans. School was not a priority when I just wanted to eat and I had to think about what I had to do to make sure I could eat again before the school bus came in the morning.

    The turbulence of my home life continued to spill over into my school life. i was truant and at risk of being of having the state intervene in my life. The relationship dynamic of between myself and my mother had completely collapsed. I was a man already in my mind due to my choices. I was a step away from joining a gang, distributing narcotics, and being placed in a group home before my father stepped in. He had to reshape me. Not only reshape me into being a kid, but being a kid with a male figure in the house. I left the inner city and attended a rural suburban middle class school. In the inner city I was labeled and placed in classes with kids that fit the same label as me. It was chaos. Here I was given attention and they interacted with me. Specifically, female teachers guided me and insured that I put forth my best effort. My father was involved and openly communicated with my teachers regarding my behavior. My father ensured that I received the discipline I needed to achieve. I made the honor roll, received awards, published poems, and painted.

    When I got to college I had no issues with learning and/or applying myself. However, I watched as others could not make it. They got upset when they could not “skate” pass the classes. I watched them my professors not care and/or dumb down the lessons so others could “keep up.” Am I saying that they were wrong… that is yet to be determined. Honestly, are we living in times where traditional means apply to success? Is the professor wrong for meeting the students where they are? Or is it the students fault for not being able to step up to the plate and step out of their comfort zone?

    I said all that to say that change can happen for those who are willing to. Though I work with children that present a “high risk” of dropping out and incarceration to name a few. There is always something to be done if the child presents the ability and the need for change. Though my experiences are unique to my situation I understand that its a choice. What many don’t know is that these choices will impact us for the rest our lives.

    Our culture is shifting and it is now an age of knowledge. The entire world is being influenced by knowledge and innovation as well as above average work ethics. Anyone that cannot assimilate/adapt to this culture will be “locked out,”


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