This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Often, the roots of the “dropout problem” are identified as poor parenting, teen pregnancy, criminal behavior, and students’ academic deficiencies. But five local scholars and activists interviewed by the Notebook argue that such discussions effectively blame youth and families for a crisis that is largely caused by shortcomings in how schools and districts relate to local communities.
“We’re asking the wrong questions,” says Marc Lamont Hill, assistant professor of urban education and American studies at Temple University and a graduate of city public schools.
“Instead of asking why so many students are leaving school, we should be asking why schools are pushing so many students out,” he says.
High school is often “four years of continuous trauma” for low-income urban students, Hill argues. “That’s when [young people] realize that their opportunities are limited and that they don’t matter nearly as much as they thought they did. They go through a process of being stripped of their sense of possibility.” No amount of effort can successfully push students to engage in such a system, he cautions.
A failure to affirm
The people interviewed, all of whom have been vocal about school-community relationships, make the case that many urban schools and school systems devalue students and their cultures and are disconnected from the communities they serve.
“You can’t teach me if you don’t understand who I am,” says Dolores Shaw, a parent organizer with the Eastern Pennsylvania Organizing Project. “Teachers don’t know what urban life looks like, so how can they teach in an urban environment? Students are not interested in structured academics because it doesn’t speak to what they’re about.”
Margaret Beale Spencer, professor of psychology at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees. “You learn a lot more about an idea if it’s linked to what you’ve experienced.” She says that not enough is done to train educators “to be comfortable about other people’s experiences that may be different” from their own.
Eric K. Grimes, founder of S.E.E.D. Concepts, an organization specializing in African American male youth development, goes further. “Plain and simple, Black youth are not affirmed in school,” he says. “From kindergarten through 12th grade, their history, their image, and the ways they dress, talk, and relate to each other are denigrated and devalued. They are taught that their success is defined by their ability to ‘break away’ from their peers, parents, family, community, and color.”
Grimes and others say that such failure to affirm students’ cultural identities and basic humanity contributes heavily to student disengagement. This failure is evident not only in the curriculum, but also in the fractured relationships between schools and students, parents, and the surrounding community.
As an example, Shaw says that she is often patronized during her frequent interactions with school and District staff with comments such as “That Dolores, she speaks so well.”
Schools “need to stop thinking parents are idiots,” she says. “There are a lot of smart, motivated parents, but the District doesn’t take advantage of them as a resource.”
Condescension, unwelcoming physical environments, and parents’ own negative schooling experiences all contribute to a gulf between schools and their students, families, and communities, and this gulf sets in motion a host of complications, says Nancy Santiago-Negrón, a longtime community activist who worked with ASPIRA, Inc. and the District before her current post as director of policy and planning at the Philadelphia Youth Network.
“Schools and districts need the information that youth and parents can provide,” Santiago-Negrón says. Parents of immigrant students, for example, may possess important information about how their children learn, which can vary greatly depending on the family’s country of origin. But schools rarely create opportunities for such information to be shared.
At the district level, she says, “large urban systems often purposefully keep parents out” of key deliberations regarding school governance and policy development. Such exclusion can cause a backlash.
“We need to engage folks before they come to the School Reform Commission to complain,” she adds.
Those interviewed raise a number of ideas about how schools can change to keep students engaged.
Grimes and Hill say that beyond changing how they relate to individual students, schools must re-evaluate the institutional role they play in socially and economically oppressed communities. To truly be effective, schools must be engines of community empowerment.
“Schools should help students to solve the problems that they, their families, and their communities face,” Grimes argues. More than providing social services, Grimes feels that schools serving poor African American students must focus on developing a sense of purpose and the skills they need to help themselves and improve their communities.
He says a totally different concept of school and education is necessary, one that breaks free from the current structure. A “factory school” model in which alienated, often angry students are “herded into dank, old, ill-equipped prison-like structures…by security guards and police officers” is “clearly a mismatch” for urban communities. “I can tell you that school shouldn’t look like that,” he says.
Instead, effective education that prepares Black youth to solve their people’s problems must be “eclectic, [combining] some aspects of what exists with grassroots efforts…that utilize community-sanctioned networks and institutions to deliver what the community determines is needed,” Grimes says. While such an education may use the formal existing structures, it should “definitely not [be] based, centered, or reliant upon them,” he maintains.
Shaw emphasizes that the economic and social consequences of schools’ failure to engage and educate children have the greatest impact on the community, not on the people who work in schools. She recommends that more schools hire staff from the surrounding community and adds that until administrators and teachers feel consequences when schools don’t work, the dropout problem is likely to persist.
Grimes is wary of having the same people creating more of the same kinds of programs that have not worked well in the past.
“If our strategy to cut the dropout rate in half is centered on empowering and giving resources to school professionals and paraprofessionals, it will fail,” concludes Grimes. Without true community empowerment, such a strategy could be more about “keeping selected social service, educational, and charitable practitioners engaged in a money grab that diverts people away from addressing the real issues. The idea that we can somehow produce great schools while maintaining the social and economic oppression of their communities is ridiculous.”