It took me a week, but I finally returned a call to a woman who works at the ed policy advocacy organization for which I used to work. She asked my opinion about a school I’d visited. Then she asked about my school, its community, and what it takes for schools like mine (Black, Brown, and Poor) to achieve at high levels.
I took a deep breath, staring out the window behind me.
I know she’s working on college-and-career readiness initiatives, so I didn’t talk about the poor state of urban educator preparation, or funding inequities, or structural fault-lines in the teaching profession, or California’s annual budget evisceration. I just talked about her target initiative, and for these college-and-career academies to work, I said into the phone, you need three things, and we only talk about two, and only really do one.
1) You have to prepare all kids for college as a mandate and a requirement, not an option. In California, this means mandated completion of the UC/ CSU A-G Course Sequence, a series of classes the dual state university system requires all kids to complete in order to apply.
2) You have to do the career thing in a real and lasting way that does not itself mirror the achievement gap. If all the affluent kids are taking forensic science, and all the poor kids are in floor covering, we’ve slapped a coat of paint on an old practice.
3) You have to make college-and-career readiness fit within a community context. Success cannot mean leaving.
There is a geographical component to persistent low achievement, one that affects kids as they work to acquire skills, and also as they go about applying those skills. If being successful means being elsewhere –physically, trajectorially — we have erected a further obstacle to meaningful closing of the achievement gap, and the alleviation of social stratification. College-and-career academies located in low-income urban settings, not to mention the prevailing urban educational system, will need to begin addressing this issue in a meaningful way. Not to benefit the mythical Section-8 to Berkeley grad kid, and not necessarily to benefit the kid who ends up in juvie, but rather for the majority of low-income kids who fall somewhere in between.
Educational success has to be, ultimately, oriented toward a future context, one that is rooted in a sense of community membership. And we’ll need to teach differently as a result. Not that futile attempt to link every single skill with some sort of real-world application, but forging a deep understanding of the type of membership and productivity our work together is oriented toward. A foundational getting-it of the habits of thought and action that build success outside these four walls. And to build this type of meaningful teaching, schools will need to engage community reform, build partnerships, and expand their role and reach to become true community centers — the locus of change and expansion and the ongoing sense of whats-next.
Then I took a breath, because I had to go teach slope-intercept form in seven minutes, still staring out the window, where last weekend two teenagers were shot and killed two days apart. But we’re so terribly far from that, I said.