Education and the inner city

I’ve been pondering over the issues of education and the inner city at great length since last Spring when I registered Ruthie for kindergarten. We are a white, middle class family living in a diverse community with lower class and working poor families. On more than one occasion I’ve heard my neighborhood referred to as “the inner city.”

75% of the kids at Ruthie’s elementary school qualify for free or reduced lunch. As a white girl, she is in the minority 17% of the population. There is a sign on all the doors leading into her school that reads, “This Is a Weapons Free Zone.” I shudder to think why this is even necessary to mention to kids under the age of ten.

I will admit there are times I considered transferring Ruthie to a different school – one with higher test scores and fewer kids on assistance – and even filled out the necessary paperwork. I wrestled with my ideals, because I never wanted to be that “white flight” family who sequestered itself from people who are different, who fled the “evils” of the inner city simply because I had the means to. My ideals told me I could be part of the solution, that if I stayed I could make a difference in my community. But at the same time, I wasn’t sure I was willing to gamble my child’s education to follow those ideals.

As a friend put it, “It’s kind of like the difference between reading the communist manifesto as a naive college freshman, versus actually living in the Soviet Union.”

In the end, we decided to stay in the school. For now. Someday I’ll write a post about the reasons why we decided to stay, but for now I just want to share three things that have influenced me the most over the last few months: a sermon, a podcast, and a television show.

It Takes a City to Raise a Child – Pastor & Author Tim Keller.
The community I live in doesn’t even come close to the dense urban environment of New York City, and neither does Seattle, for that matter. But I still found this lecture compelling since so many white, middle class families are fleeing urban areas in general for the seclusion and “safety” of the suburbs.

Keller gives three cons and eight pros to raising your kids in the city, and begins with the thesis that living in the city enhances factors related to kids embracing the Christian faith of their parents. As a teaser, I’ll list those positive factors here, but you really must listen to the 1+ hour podcast.

  1. If you raise kids in the city, they will believe they are living in the real world, and will have realistic expectations of life. (i.e. “Friends” who work at coffee houses can NOT afford apartments that big)
  2. It undercuts their self righteousness toward you and your faith. Kids want to believe their parents don’t understand the real world, but when they see you interacting with city life, they will have respect for you.
  3. Your children will become more confident and self reliant, living in the city.
  4. Your kids will be better at handling diversity, and will have more diverse friendships. The essence of suburbia is zoning – racially, economically, etc. There’s fewer people unlike you.
  5. The city pushes the family together and creates more coherence between home, work, and school. Relationally it’s much more intense. Suburbia pushes everybody apart.
  6. In the city, your teenagers will more easily see a Christianity they can envision and respect because the churches are filled with young people they can identify with (does your sunday school teacher have glorious tatts?).
  7. You can help your kids start to process the real world by living in the city.
  8. In general, kids raised in cities do not have same pressure brought on them to conform because it is so diverse.

Keller mentions several times that we all think the suburbs is the best place to raise our kids, but in reality it may be more polarizing to families.

Think about it: we all get into our cars and go in different directions each day; our commutes take hours away from our family life; when our teenagers have friends, they drive around recklessly in a car together; we live in communities with people who are just like us in every way; our children aren’t exposed to poverty unless they go on a mission trip; kids face an immense amount of pressure to conform.

I loved loved loved this lecture, and I especially loved that Bryan whipped out his computer for us to listen to it on a drive up to Bellingham on Labor Day.

Whatever it takes to teach kids – Geoffrey Canada & Paul Tough
This is an interesting discussion regarding some charter schools Geoffrey Canada began in Harlem, serving the needs of 8,000 kids in all areas of educational and socio-economical need. He talks about the failure of preschool and kindergarten programs because an at-risk child needs that kind of support throughout their entire education, not just in the early years.

He also discusses the lack of support available in the inner cities. In upper middle class schools, when there is an act of violence – a shooting, a murder, a suicide, etc – the school provides mental health professionals the next day to help support kids who are dealing with the trauma. In poor communities, kids often see and experience violence on a regular basis – in their homes, on the streets among their friends – but there is no regular mental health support for them in the schools.

He also discusses the need for school leadership who are firm but loving, who set clear boundaries and stick to them. His staff lives in the community, and interacts with the kids even outside of school. If a teacher catches a kid fighting, even if it’s outside of school that teacher will take action. Canada believes it takes a lot of adults acting in a consistent way and going the extra mile.

It’s a fascinating program, and I plan to read Paul Tough’s book on the project, titled, Whatever It Takes.

The Wire, Season 4 – HBO

This is the best show on television, topping even The Sopranos for me. Season 4 in particular was breathtaking – both as an amazingly written drama and as an eye opener to the issues inner city schools are facing.

One of the things Geoffrey Canada said in the above interview on Fresh Air, is kids in inner city students can’t learn algebra if they’re worried about their safety on a daily basis. This is precisely the issue The Wire takes on through the storyline of a local middle school that is filled with kids whose parents use their welfare money to buy drugs instead of groceries, who sell all the clothes donated for their children to buy drugs, and whose neighborhoods are run by drug lords that “drop bodies” on a regular basis.

Through a specially funded program, ten of the school’s most poorly behaved kids are pulled out of their classroom into a special track of learning that becomes very controversial within the school district. The program’s success becomes tangled up in a web of political fire storms and bureaucratic red tape, and it’s heartbreaking to watch kids with great potential teetering on the edge of a very distinct precipice in their lives.

In summary
These are all the things swirling around in my head lately. I’m intrigued by it all as a mother, as a neighbor, as sociology major, and as a Christ follower. What is my role? What is the government’s? What is the Church’s? How do I keep my kids grounded while raising them in an urban setting? How do I give back to my community without acting like I’m swooping in to rescue the poor black families?

Again, I don’t exactly live in The Big City, but many of these issues apply to my community, and I found these resources very educational.

What about you? Any thoughts?

10 thoughts on “Education and the inner city”

  1. I applaud your decision…I have pretty strong feelings about this subject, even though I went to private school most of my life. I fear that if concerned parents all pull our kids out of struggling schools, they will always be struggling. We are in a neighborhood which is very diverse culturally and socially – not as much economically. And even though we wouldn’t be considered an inner-city school (maybe urban) we still have signs saying it is a weapon-free zone, so I don’t think that is unusual…we are in a more affluent neighborhood and we qualify for free lunch so its interesting to be on that side of it, which is a new feeling for me – but I’m thankful for the free lunch! I love the points about raising kids in the city – I love the city and the diversity that it brings. I think it makes for a more well-rounded kid.

  2. As an inner city missionary raising my family in the same, I really appreciate your willingness to consider and post these issues. I hope that, with the vast amount of people who read your blog and their various backgrounds, many will be challenged to think about what you’ve written. And BTW, I know a family that goes to Tim Keller’s church and raised their 2 kids in NYC. Both of those children are adults now, and happen to be two of the most amazing people I know. I completely have the “when my kids grow up I want them to be just like you…” syndrome concerning them. And every one of Tim’s points is a perfect description of what happened as a result of them being raised in the city. Thanks, Jen!

  3. thanks for sharing your thoughts as well as the sources you’ve been reading/listening to. i’ve been a mentor for 8 boys in the central district of seattle for the last year and a half and before that i was actually working at your daughter’s school (not to mention we live just down the street). what i see that is hopeful is that when parents come together, or even just the community coming together, there is a great sense of pride and a “can-do” mentality that exemplifies to the children that this is not a hopeless situation, that people actually do care, and that together we can accomplish something that’s bigger than one individual.

    the hard part is getting into the lives of the parents and the children. but fortunately the hardest part is mostly just overcoming our own fears. i would encourage you to participate in the events that happen occasionally after-school such as math night or things like that or find ways to volunteer if that is possible. i’m personally always encouraged when mom’s and dad’s care enough to actually talk about these issues and are proactive in their child’s education.

    Jeremiah 29:7
    But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

  4. Jen,
    I just read your comments about Ruthie’s kindergarten class. When you and Bryan were talking about where to enroll her and your decision, I had my own thoughts. Don and I struggled with this decision year to year when our kids were young – we decided in 1978 to enroll Brandon in the Maple Valley Christian School and never have regretted it. I do not think Christian schools, however, are all good. This one was. It was small, family-oriented, and full of people who felt like family then.
    Here is my take … if you want an older, maybe not all wise, woman’s opinion: you have to look at each child and decide what to do on private, home, or government schooling. If they are leaders, they may do fine in government school. Brandon was not. Eric was a leader, but since Brandon was going to private, I did not want to do both. The only, and I mean only, drawback to private schooling for us was not getting to know the kids in your neighborhood. But the peace of mind knowing your child was being #1-well educated #2-getting attention to his/her needs #3-was having good values taught the main portion of the week day from the teachers (note I do not say the kids they are with-they get negative time with them at recess oftentimes) #4-safe/no worries about guns, etc. – was worth it to us. I have often heard it said to consider your child as a “plant” – when the seedling needs the most nourishment, do you put it in a sparse soil where it can wither or get more disease, or do you put it in a rich soil?
    We also realized we needed to get our kids into the world, so we did that when they reached junior or senior high school. The boys went to nearby Liberty High, two blocks, and never regretted it. Karen was a different case and never left private school due to her special needs.
    Hope that helps – you can read all the books you want, but if you need some real world advice, ask a parent who has been with it. Hope you get lots of feedback on this one besides me who have gone through it.

  5. another great post. Jason and I were just discussing what it would take income-wise for us to move back to the city… I feel as if I am on vacation from the “real world” here in my apple-pie, small-town utopia…

    We’re home-schooling, as you know, even though we live in a great district, blocks away from the most well-regarded elementary in said district. Our choice to retain full responsibility for our daughter’s education came not from fear of secularization (is that a real word?) but from a calling God placed on our hearts to give our child a classical education.

    The Bible calls God the “good shepherd” who “gently leads those that are with young”. It is my sincere belief that God leads parents to the best parenting practices for their individual children. Some children need to be in public schools, where they can shine for Christ. Others need to be nurtured longer in the home so they can reflect Christ to the world as adults. It is our responsibility as parents to discern what God’s will is for the education of our children and I applaud you for being so mindful of this. I have no doubt that wherever God sends our kids, whether as children or adults, He will always protect and provide for them. A good shepherd couldn’t do otherwise.

  6. I grew up in the country and have lived all over the world. I now live in downtown Seattle.

    I don’t think you could be more wrong.

  7. Most people I know, when they enter this debate, land squarely on the turf they grew up in. I’m the same. I went to public school in Queens, NYC, all the way and I’m grateful for it. There is an infinity of experiences I had that would never have been available to me in the suburbs, or in private school. I can’t say as much about younger children, but for junior high and high school the multi-cultural, econo-diversity, and general real world life experiences public school offered me gave me many advantages in the rest of my life. Some of that came from living in Queens, but much of it came from going to public school in Queens.

    I believer that the real education, the gift of love of learning and self-discovery, can only be born in the home. What happens in school is more about socializing, learning systems, dancing with authority, and finding your own reasons for doing what you do, and public school was a fantastic place for those things to happen for me.

  8. Having grown up as a minority in a black/hispanic neighborhood and attending public schools I have to say that I think Tim Keller may be romanticising the urban enviroment a bit. Yes, I can see how suberbia can lead to a detached lifestyle, especially if parents don’t take an active role in building thier kids character and are just watching TV in seperate parts of the house. But this occurs in any enviroment including an innercity.

    In my opinion, teaching your kids “diversity” ,especialy if you are a minority, can handicap you in life. My reasoning for this is that it is not “reality”. “Diversity” puts too much importance in the superficial differences of humanity (race, color, culture,” tats”) instead of the core commonality of man; this is where you find reality. The key is to help your kids and yourself see past the novelty of different cultures and discover what really matters about interacting with other humans.

    I have no objection to staying in the inner-city to have a positive influence (I founded and ran a youth center for four years at age 24) but believe priority one should be educating and raising your own children properly. I would agree with you that gambling your kids’ education is not an option so if you feel the school is lacking I would recommend sending your child where ever he can learn the best ( I prefer Classical Education). This does not mean you abandon your community, you can still volunteer and be involved and let your kids see and learn from your involvement, but it should not be on your kids shoulders to make the difference until they are older and well prepared.

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