Urban Ecology: The Challenge of Urban Schools and Safety

October 18th, 2009

The recent homicide of a young Chicago high school student was brought to light by the technology of the moment. Cell phones with camera and video capabilities capture realistic moments that show the world how urban youth live in many cities in America. Embarrassing for the home of President Obama, the phone video revealed what goes on in many cities daily. If the video of the actual murder was not caught by a student and played for the world would it have mattered? The answer is probably no, it is something that is expected in urban communities, especially those that are distressed.

In our research over the past four decades I have witnessed the decline of public schools. In Detroit, the challenge is confounded by the ever rising dropout rate. One sidebar that I find serious, rarely considered is the number of young people not in school.

Realistically, this means that they could not dropout, since they never dropped in. This point is again compounded by the parental sanctioning of not being in school. Metropolitan communities that are based in industrial centers like Detroit are now faced with the total collapse of manufacturing employment of non-skilled labor. Good paying jobs such as the auto industry are lost, not to return as they had in the boom years.

Thousands of jobs lost in cities like Flint, Michigan leave cities with little defense when faced with having had 80,000 jobs reduced to 7,000 over the past twenty something years. No tax base, little hope of any return to the days of overtime, high wages and strong benefit packages. Finally, school districts are hurt immensely when the school funding is tied to the economy. Schools are facing massive layoffs and reduction in all aspects of funding.

With an array of reductions and eliminations facing school districts the challenge connects to families that were once considered middle class. The socio-economic strain on children, youth, and families responding to the budget cuts may manifest angry adults, confused youth and overworked school practitioners. The large number of youth not attending school is connected to the picture of what is wrong. Public safety and public schools has yet to respect the one important variable of the large number of youth not in school. Depending on what you believe, school statistics, public records, or census data, the Detroit numbers are extremely high. I have witnessed in recent years a large number of young folks roaming the streets, not attending school.

Equally surprising is the number of parents allowing their own children not to attend school. Middle class families are not protected in any way from their children falling into the troubled areas once reserved for lower class youth and families. It seems that middle class families have found the change in their family economics including loss of benefits that support professional assistance is now a thing of the past.

Urban schools are handicapped with reductions and internal eliminations of vital staff. No school nurse, no social workers, and the elimination of school counselors at a time they are needed the most makes it near impossible for most teachers to do what they were hired to do…teach students. Behavior problems, poor housing, illicit narcotics and family disruptions including divorce are challenging many youngsters’ lives. What was once stable is now shaken by the economic crisis in America. The threat of violence and weapons in urban schools is fueled by the changing economics. Yet, many educators will explain that problems have existed over the past fifty years or more.

The neglect of poor students is not new. From my experience of attending urban schools some years ago I can clearly see that our dilemma has worsened greatly. With limited funds for our schools, we need to find a solution that can make it safe for learning in our schools.

In the coming weeks we will have a series that addresses the challenges facing urban educators, families, and communities. This series will enable an open discussion about urban education from the perspective of educators, youth, and families. Our goal is to eradicate the violence in order that youth can focus on what is paramount to youth and our communities. Education is a must, to gain skills that will allow young people to live good, healthy and productive lives.

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