Why Facing the History of Urban Schools is Essential to Building a Better Future

Posted by Sanda Balaban on February 19, 2013

Urban schools are often villified for unacceptable results while simultaneously being freighted with responsibility to ameliorate all the ills and ails of societal neglect in just north of 6 hours a day and 180 days a year. However, the problems and issues confronting urban schools are typically manifestations of larger societal problems related to social inequality, racism, and the deterioration of resource-deprived urban areas across the world.

At Facing History and Ourselves, we know – we study - how prejudice and discrimination can be confronted to make a difference in today’s society. Teachers and students learn to decipher the legacy of historical prejudices.

sanda polkadotsMy name is Sanda Balaban and I’m delighted to have the opportunity to add my voice to this exciting blog in LA. I joined Facing History’s national leadership team close to a year ago as Director of Strategic Learning Opportunities, with special responsibility for helping develop an Urban Civic Learning Lab hubbed in Memphis with my colleague Steve Becton. Facing History feels a responsibility and perceives an opportunity to change the opportunities, odds, and outcomes in order to change the future. These initiatives are near and dear to my heart, having worked in and with urban schools throughout the last two decades.

Over the course of the last 37 years, Facing History has amassed a great deal of insight about what matters most in building capacity of schools and students. We’ve recently honed in on four Core Pillars we believe have the greatest bearing on student success, and with which we have a demonstrated track record of effective engagement:

  • Supporting and Sustaining Effective Teaching
  • Fostering Powerful Learning with Lasting Impact
  • Cultivating Safe, Supportive Classrooms and Schools
  • Engendering Responsible Decision-making and Informed Participation

Urban education should ideally be an arena in which we seek to break cycles of entrenched, intergenerational poverty and institutionalized racism by bringing the richest resources to children who have not historically benefitted from the fruits those of greater privilege receive from birth. While the “achievement gap” (rightly) garners an enormous amount of ink and indignation, it is essential that we identify and address other kinds of gaps in seeking to bridge divides in a systemic, sustainable way.

How do we define “urban education”? Interestingly, there really isn’t field-wide agreement on this front--we gathered about 15 pages of different definitions and descriptions based on web searches as well as more rigorous research. But at the crux of it, “urban education” is often an encoded way of referring to low-performing public schools serving almost entirely non-white students of lower socio-economic status. Given what a large percentage of the U.S. population attend urban schools—approximately 11 million students in the last Census—and given growing rates of poverty and vast economic inequality, the quality of learning in urban schools will determine the quality of our nation's future.

Steve quote

So what can we do in the face of such seemingly intractable and unsurmountable challenges? That is the kind of question Facing History specializes in tackling and we think our methodology (which we refer to as our Scope and Sequence or “The Journey”) provides an essential path towards making palpable improvement. Through rigorous analysis of issues of identity, inclusion and exclusion, and historic legacies, we can equip teachers and students alike to attain deeper understanding of what currently transpires in urban schools and communities and to gain fresh insights through which to choose to participate in teaching practices that can yield positive change.

Facing History strives to bring the best of education to urban education and to help bridge gaps of opportunity and intellectual engagement that impede success for too many young people in under-resourced communities. Through working in classrooms from Beverly Hills to South and East Los Angeles, we demonstrate that the academic rigor that benefits affluent students can equally benefit those who arrive at our classrooms with less advantages.

At Facing History, we know that strong schools are vital to the health and well-being of civil society and the future of democracy. Schools at their finest can break the cycle of poverty, help young people (and those who teach them) feel greater agency, and equip them to create new realities. We can and we must work together towards those goals, and we look forward to doing so with you.

How do YOU define Urban Education? What do you perceive as the greatest opportunity we can address within our classrooms?


Topics: Critical Thinking, Race and Membership in American History: Eugenics, Urban Education, Social and Emotional Learning

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