A panelist of educators sought to address a long-standing debate in Philadelphia: the challenges that face urban education today in Grand Meeting Room 220 of Gerri C. LeBow Hall May 13.
“The New Public,”a documentary by Jyllian Gunther that follows the journey of a principal, teachers and parents committed to designing “the ideal school” in Brooklyn, N.Y., was screened at the beginning of the event. The film captures the founding class’ academic and emotional growth over the course of four years.
“The New Public” hypothesizes that the education and qualification of teachers is not the only factor that impacts the performance of their students. A teacher’s race, class and social identity contribute to how well he or she may be able to communicate and connect with a student.
“The New Public” identified other problems specific to urban schools, such as violence and drug use, which haunt public schools in Philadelphia.
Following a screening of “The New Public,”a group of University professors and academic administrators highlighted effective actions for teachers and administrators to take in order to improve the attitudes and performance of students in city schools.
Audience members were permitted to ask the guest panelists questions after the panelists addressed the questions provided by the School of Education’s Urban Education Committee. The Committee sponsored the event as part of its Critical Conversations in Urban Education lecture series, which enables members of the Drexel community and stakeholders outside of the University to learn more about pressing issues that affect urban schools.
Donyall Dickey, assistant superintendent of schools at the School District of Philadelphia, moderated the discussion.
He addressed a teacher in the audience who asked the panel’s opinion on the ability of money to ease Philadelphia public schools’ current struggles. The teacher was also concerned with the neglect that boys experience in the classroom and inquired how this could be fixed.
Dickey responded with an explanation that belittled money’s importance. “I think if you throw — and forgive me for using the word throw, as if it is disrespectful in some way — but if you throw money at a problem, you have money on top of a problem.” Dickey said. “So I believe that among folks who are responsible for ensuring that students have equal access to a quality education, someone should be ashamed of themselves. A group of people should be ashamed of themselves.”
He elaborated on what he believes to be the heart of the problem.
“The issue is not a financial resource. I believe the issue is a knowledge resource,” Dickey said. “Let me give you a biblical reference, without proselytizing: ‘people perish because of the lack of knowledge.’”
He explained to the audience why he believes that urban students, particularly African-American males, are not doing as well as they should.
“Most often and too often, students in urban settings, particularly students who are of African decent and students who qualify for free and reduced meals, they have the worst teachers,” Dickey said. “They have the worst principals. They have the worst assistant principal. You can track it. So, there’s a positive correlation between who’s serving the kids and who can get the most.”
Dickey explained that the improvement of professional development is the route to bettering teachers’ instruction. Professional development refers to the ongoing advancement of teachers’ knowledge and practices. According to the U.S. Department of Education, professional development is one of the seven critical components of transforming teaching and leadership.
“From induction for novice teachers designed to accelerate their growth and development, to replicating the practices of the most accomplished teachers, professional development is a critical lever of improvement. As a profession, we must develop greater competency in using it,” the department’s website reads.
Dickey believes that the delivery model of professional development has to change.
“There can’t be five people between the knowledge and the person who needs that knowledge the most, because they have to transfer that knowledge to students who need it the most,” Dickey said.
Following the next panelist’s response, Dickey made an effort to clarify the statement he made regarding the worst teachers and principals.
“I didn’t mean to characterize all students and teachers and administrators in urban settings as bad. I want to clear that up,” Dickey said.
“Because I taught in an urban setting, that would make me bad. I lead an urban setting, and that would make me bad. I’m bad in a different way,” Dickey continued, receiving laughter from the audience.
Audience members and panelists discussed how well Philadelphia public school teachers relate to their students. They mentioned that a disconnection between teachers and students may be contributing to the low performance of young black males in particular. A debate arose over whether teachers can learn to empathize with students who come from different backgrounds than their own, or if most teachers are only able to meet the needs of students of their own ethnicity.
Robin Roberts, an African-American attendee and mother of two boys who attend Charles W. Henry Elementary School in West Mount Airy, feels that teachers have to understand their students in order to nurture them and that understanding requires having a similar background.
“You have to have some identification with the people you’re going to be teaching,” Roberts said. “And when that doesn’t happen, even in kindergarten and first grade and second grade, when these little black boys are trying to figure out who they are, when they cannot find a safe space for themselves, when the teacher cannot understand where they’ve come from and how to connect with them, it’s already setting up a pattern of failure.”
Roberts also believes that money is not the strongest tool schools have to make change.
“The money’s important, but we can solve the smaller problems, like the need to get down on your kindergarteners’ level,” Roberts said. “Realize that the little black boy is really just active and not acting out, or realize they’re acting out because of something that’s going on outside of your control and take the next step. If we could work on that, as academics, I think we could solve a lot of problems in Philadelphia public schools.”
The unhealthy diets of urban students may contribute to their inability to focus. Ana E. Nunez, associate dean for Urban Health Equity, Education and Research and professor of medicine at Drexel, spoke about children going hungry outside of school. While they receive breakfast and lunch at school, many kids will not get dinner at home. Children cannot think when hungry.
Dean of the School of Education William F. Lynch gave hopeful closing remarks following the panel discussion. He shared his pride in Drexel’s ongoing collaborative relationship with elementary schools in the area, like Samuel Powel Elementary School.
The Urban Education Committee has held a Critical Conversation during the fall and spring terms since spring 2011. It is committed to bringing together diverse groups of educators to think critically regarding urban education.