Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Black social capital, positive deviance, and critical mass to build from: schools improvement

Jonetta Rose Barras has a nice piece in this week's City Paper opining on why public schools in traditionally black parts of the city lag improvement compared to say Capitol Hill, and she attributes this to a failure in community leadership on the part of the black community. See "Neighborhood Schooled: As parents in places like Capitol Hill embrace neighborhood schools, has D.C.'s black middle class given up on them?"

The article spends a lot of time discussing the efforts of Suzanne Wells, a Capitol Hill resident, to rally parents around schools in Capitol Hill, starting with a cross-school library improvement project, and building upon the efforts of the Capitol Hill Cluster schools, a school improvement initiative of the 1980s, that has helped to attract students to the local public schools (Peabody, Watkins, and Stuart-Hobson Middle School) from families with choices.

From the article:

It’s not just a tragedy that predominantly African American Wards 5, 7, and 8 have so few people like Wells. It’s also a disgrace.

“That’s one of the biggest issues we have,” says Jones. “We have got to get parents involved.”

Zapata says much of the problem is that many parents in her community don’t even realize their schools lack the basics. “We have been trying to educate parents and educate the community,” she says. “We have so many young parents. They don’t even understand these issues. They don’t understand what Deal and Hardy Schools are like. They don’t know what an IB program is.”

Few of these parents attend PTA and other education-related meetings, making it nearly impossible for them to fully understand what’s happening in their children’s schools. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle: With more middle-class parents sending their kids elsewhere, the parents who still have kids in the local schools are more likely to be the ones least able to make time for such meetings. “I’ve been to some PTA meetings,” says Jones. “Sometimes there may be less than 10 parents in attendance.”

But the real culprit is the flight-not-fight mentality prevalent in the black middle class. Experts have long complained that such departures lead to starving neighborhood schools of the brightest students. Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported that test scores of children in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, like Wards 7 and 8, trail those of their counterparts in Ward 3. It didn’t mention, however, that many of those Ward 3 students are, in fact, upper- or middle-class African Americans from outside that Upper Northwest community.


While this is true, I think it's overly facile. The Capitol Hill initiative had some other advantages that were key to success:

1. I think it's important that Capitol Hill has a strong community ethos;

2. The neighborhood, constructed mostly of rowhouses, is relatively dense, with a fair amount of children and comparatively speaking, has high income demographics;

3. This matters, because relatively undense neighborhoods in other wards make it hard to generate enough student enrollment to adequately populate "neighborhood" schools;

4. Most importantly, rather than having to work to improve fully failing schools from scratch, a core group of schools, the Cluster Schools, were known to be relatively successful, and this success was built upon and extended.

In fact, this last point is key, and something that I have pointed out for years from the standpoint of the "Positive Deviance" theory.

When I first read an article about positive deviance in "Your Company's Secret Change Agents," from the Harvard Business Review, I had to re-read it a couple times as it seemed quite subtle, and I didn't fully get it. But in reality, the thesis is pretty simple.

As the editor of that article says, in an appreciation of Jerry Sternin:

Of all the HBR articles I've had the privilege of helping to birth, that one is my pinnacled favorite. The authors talk about what it takes to ignite deep, real, lasting transformation, even in seemingly impossible circumstances. You think implementing organizational change in your company is tough? Try stopping AIDS, hospital staph infections, starvation, or the ancient practice of female genital mutilation.

Most organizations and the personnel within them fight the adoption of best practices, finding excuses in differences in situations to justify not changing. But all organizations, even those that are the most dysfunctional, have pockets of high performance, of significant excellence.

Because these pockets of excellence function within the same organizational conditions, other parts of the organization can not justify excuses for not working to migrate and adopt those best practices.

Positive deviance builds upon excellence to re-position dysfunctional institutions on achieving excellence.

For all the bad things we hear, DC Public Schools have had a number of programs for many years--maybe not as many as we'd like--that are successful. I don't have children, so I don't know about all the programs, but three come to mind without thinking very hard at all:

1. The Capitol Hill Cluster Schools, including pre-K, elementary, and middle school education opportunities;

2. The Spanish language immersion program at Oyster Elementary School in Northwest DC;

3. Various Montessori elementary education programs across the city.

Using the idea of positive deviance, these clusters of excellence could and should have been expanded, to take over and reposition and recast schools that weren't succeeding.

For example, I suggested maybe 5-7 years ago, that the Capitol Hill Cluster Schools should be expanded by one or two schools on the north (such as J.O. Wilson or Ludlow-Taylor in the H Street neighborhood, and Maury Elementary) and one on the south (such as Brent).

Alternatively, around 2003 I suggested that an arts cluster could be developed in the H Street neighborhood, to extend the idea of an "arts" district (Atlas Performing Arts Center, H Street Playhouse and some bars...) into the neighborhood, beyond the commercial district. (This idea was sparked in part Vanessa Ruffin, who was on the H Street Main Street Promotions Committee, which I chaired, she was an artist and had graduated years before from McKinley Technical High School.)

So the idea was that the schools (i.e., Ludlow-Taylor, Wilson, Wheatley [in Trindidad], Miner, Webb, Maury, Eastern High School) could be repositioned around visual arts, performing arts, language arts (English and foreign languages, each school would specialize in a different foreign language) and writing, media arts (broadcast, print, digital), and graphic design. (Sadly, this idea was never taken up by people with school-aged children.)

Basically the success in reforming Capitol Hill area public schools described in the City Paper article has been built on the positive deviance concept, and by extending the successes that already exists.

The tragedy in the DC public schools educational reform effort has been in not taking the lessons of evident success and extending them to other parts of the city.


The key is to find out what "weirdness" allowed the Capitol Hill Cluster Schools to be created in the first place, and work to take those lessons to other parts of the city.

Nothing prevented the creation and expansion of the Cluster School concept to public schools in Wards 4, 5, 7, and 8.

But it never happened.

Instead, the kill the teacher as reform movement entered the District, along with the pro-charter school movement and in many parts of the city (Wards 4 and 5 especially), the DC Public School system is dying in the face of ever-expanding charter schools.

It's too late to fix the DC Public Schools. Except in places where public schools are still functioning, in Wards 6, 2, and 3 for sure, and maybe in Ward 1.

--------
The phrase "black social capital" is a reference to the book by Marion Orr.

Resources

-- "Bucking School Reform, a Leader Gets Results" New York Times (this school superintendent in New York City was not supported by the Bloomberg reform narrative, but schools under her supervision for the most part outperformed the rest)
-- "From Hunger Aid to School Reform"
-- "Your Company's Secret Change Agents," article from Harvard Business Review on positive deviance
-- Marion Orr, Black Social Capital. The Politics of School Reform in Baltimore, 1986-1998
-- Clarence Stone, "Civic Capacity and Urban Education"
-- Building Civic Capacity: The Politics of Reforming Urban Schools
-- Roy Strickland "Integrating Primary and Secondary Education with Community Life: Designing Cities of Learning
-- "Year Round Schooling," review, Education Week
-- National Association for Year Round Schooling
-- Baltimore County Capital Improvement Planning process

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