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.
- 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)
- 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.
- Your children will become more confident and self reliant, living in the city.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?).
- You can help your kids start to process the real world by living in the city.
- 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.
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?