School and Community: Repairing the Bridge

Ghetto Schooling: A Political Economy of Urban Educational Reform by Jean Anyon. 217 pp. New York: Teachers College Press, 1997, $18.95

Waiting for a Miracle: Why Schools Can’t Solve Our Problems – And How We Can by James P. Comer, M.D. 261 pp. New York: Dutton, 1997, $23.95

Community development strategies have stressed rebuilding the whole community. But schools are rarely part of the mix. That’s bizarre on the face of it, because they may be the only substantial public institutions left in communities of concern. These huge capital investments have facilities (gyms, auditoriums, computers) that are used a few hours a day. They are often the biggest employer. And they shelter the community’s economic future – its children.

Renewed communities could make a big difference for schools, even though most educators can’t see it. Damaged or vacant housing, crime, absent services, a destroyed economic base, and other problems affect schools: they create health problems for children (that may lead to costly special education), increase security costs, cut enrollments, and make it hard to compete for good teachers. Schools have almost as much to gain from renewed communities as the people who live in them, and would be eager community development partners.

But the same barriers that too often lead to failing inner-city schools also exclude them from the development equation. Too often, educators and administrators drive in in the morning and drive out as soon as the school doors close. While they’re in the school, they talk in pedagogical gobbledygook. And they see the community’s residents (and its children) as problems, not assets. Too many educators look everywhere else but their own classrooms for the reasons why their students fail. The first place they blame is the community they serve.

There have been some cracks in these barriers to school/community collaboration. The community school movement, as one example, shows what could be. Each community school is different, depending on the needs and interests of its community, but typically, they are open at night and on weekends. They’re busy with programs for the whole community – recreation and tutoring for their students and siblings, day care, training programs for parents, senior programs, family health clinics, legal services, community meetings. Those activities give the community ownership of the school. The school also gains, because parents are more comfortable about participating in “regular” school activities, and kids with safe places to spend the hours after school are better learners.

Jean Anyon and James P. Comer have written books that, in different ways, try to breach the school/community barrier. Each is deeply involved with schools in communities of concern, and both passionately believe that better communities are the key to better schools. Each of these books has something valuable to say about the intimate link between school and community, though they each have their flaws as well.

Tracing a District’s Downfall

Jean Anyon, Education Department Chair at Rutgers’ Newark campus, was so appalled by what she saw when she tried to improve teaching at one Newark school (before the state took over the Newark school system), that she set about to find out how Newark – and its schools – got that way. Her chilling portrait of a school where children are slapped and insulted, teachers are convinced that their students are hopeless causes, and the principal presides over chaos in the halls amply justifies her search for reasons why.

She found answers in a thorough search of the public record. Newark was once a big, bustling engine of the nation’s industrial might. Its schools were richly endowed and highly regarded. But that was a century ago. Anyon charts a spiraling decline as industries closed or moved away, federal and state governments disinvested in cities, suburbs mushroomed, political power was vested in rural strongholds, and corruption flourished in collapsing cities with declining tax bases. She makes clear, in references to Detroit, Chicago, and other cities, that Newark’s story is the story of urban America. Riots and takeovers by African-American politicians who were also sometimes corrupt were not the beginning of that process (as popular mythology maintains), but its inevitable outcome.

Waves of immigrants passed through Newark, and Anyon shows that the schools failed to educate them, although at first Newark schools developed some of the nation’s most innovative strategies for meeting the needs of these “new” children. In part, that was rooted in corrosive race and class stereotypes – a conviction that “those” children were not as smart, or diligent, or ambitious, or capable as “our” children. In part, it reflected the increasing corruption in schools, which had become an important employment and patronage base for the declining city. In part, it stemmed from increasing reliance on uncertified substitute teachers as schools found it harder and harder to get (and pay for) experienced teachers.

Anyon’s solutions emerge from the history she uncovered. She believes “successful educational reform, leading to improved achievement by students, is not only dependent on a revitalizing city, but is itself a crucial component of more comprehensive change.” She calls for massive federal and state reinvestment in cities. She believes (unhappily for an educator skilled in effective teaching strategies) that “without a city’s economic and political revitalization, educational revitalization in the ghetto is unlikely to occur. Both must be undertaken together.” She urges educational reformers to join with community development organizations and coalitions.

Unfortunately, most of Ghetto Schooling reads like a dissertation, with annoying citations in parentheses sprinkled about. Certainly Anyon is capable of more. Gorgeously clear, chilling “excerpts from field notes” about her experience in a Newark school are a refreshing counterpoint to awkwardly presented statistics. But the effort is worth it, if only to see more clearly how schools and urban communities got that way.

Prescription for Renewal

James P. Comer is a child psychiatrist at the Yale University Child Study Center and creator of the “Comer model,” a popular school improvement strategy. Waiting for a Miracle is part autobiography, part essay, and part prescription for school renewal. An idealized memory of a childhood guided by strong working-class parents in a supportive community in the steel town of East Chicago, Indiana inspires his professional search for ways to help struggling children. His remedy comes from child development theory, and his school improvement model stresses intervention to help children and their families repair the damage inflicted by a hostile world.

Like Anyon, Comer stresses issues of race and class. He defines two American cultural myths that corrode public education and public policy: that “the life outcome of an individual is due almost entirely to genetically determined intelligence and will,” and that “whites have been successful, and blacks have not.” The first myth plays out in a preference for individualism and a belief that success is due to individual talents and efforts, rather than the nurture of community, the accident of luck, or the benefit of public policy. It creates a culture that demands winners and losers. The second myth obscures or denies extraordinary African-American accomplishments and leads to race-based assumptions – for example, that most welfare families are African-American when they are actually white. Much of his book is a struggle to define different cultural rules – a “Win-Win” strategy.

Comer and Anyon both see promise in the community development movement fragments they have stumbled onto. Comer’s interest stems more from nostalgia for the world he remembers and a passion to repair the damaged children who have been his life’s work. Anyon understands the powerful economic and political forces that have sapped urban communities and their schools, and argues more desperately for structural change. But both reach out hands from the schoolhouse door, seeking a partnership for school and community renewal. Their books are worth reading for anyone with an interest in reaching back.

 

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