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Urban School Leaders Address Safety and Achievement Gap at CGCS

I was privileged to attend the Council of the Great City Schools’ (CGCS) Annual Legislative and Policy Conference this past weekend in our nation’s capital.

CGCS is a coalition of 70 of the country’s largest urban school districts working together to tackle critical issues in the nation’s inner-city schools. As a former council district superintendent, it was great to get back to Washington and to see so many familiar faces–not to mention plenty of new ones.

In meeting with school leaders over the weekend, it became clear that the nation’s urban districts face many of the same fundamental challenges they’ve always faced–a glaring achievement gap between white students and their minority counterparts being one.

But a changing landscape–and new set of circumstances–has ushered in a host of complex and evolving problems for inner-city schools. Little more than one month removed from the shooting massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., safety and school security is a top priority for CGCS school leaders.

Other critical issues council members discussed included education priorities on Capitol Hill, K-12 initiatives at the U.S. Department of Education, implementing ESSA at the state and local level, as well as issues around shrinking budgets and academic achievement.

I was impressed by the focus and purpose in D.C. this weekend. I won’t sum up every conversation for you here.  Instead, I’ll give you my five key takeaways:

1. Safety is priority No. 1

In light of recent events in Parkland and elsewhere, school safety is and continues to be a top priority. CGCS leadership took a clear position this weekend by adopting a resolution that calls for a federal ban on assault weapons. While CGCS stands unified in its commitment to improving school safety, leadership made it clear that none of its proposed solutions include arming teachers.

Rather CGCS opted to put its considerable influence behind funding school safety programs. Many members said a lack of funding–especially at the federal level–prevents urban schools from investing in necessary mental health programs, or hiring enough school resource officers. A few members said that their local and state governments had so far contributed more to the cause than the federal government is proposing.

I should note that CGCS members are actively supporting each other in the pursuit of safer schools. After Parkland, for example, CGCS membership reached out to the Broward County School District to offer its support. The organization has also reached out to other districts affected by violence as well.

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2. Academic achievement in urban schools

CGCS is hyper-focused on narrowing the achievement gap among students of color, many of whom remain behind their counterparts on standardized tests and other measures of academic achievement. This is an ongoing, complex, and often frustrating challenge, but member districts are demonstrating progress.

CGCS members acknowledged that more work is needed to ensure that every student can reach his or her full potential. Members pledged to continue working to narrow the achievement gap across all subgroups–including different racial, socioeconomic, and gender groups. Specifically, they showed a real interest in learning more about how poverty and language affect student performance.

3. Equity

CGCS has made equity a top priority. Individual member districts have committed to helping and supporting each other in the pursuit of equity, so students can achieve their maximum potential. Member districts are committed to providing an equitable learning environment as well as equity of access to all students.

4. Males of Color

When it comes to equity and academic achievement, CGCS puts the spotlight on young males of color. Through its Males of Color Task Force, organizers aim to improve outcomes for males of color by supporting social-emotional and cultural development. It’s primary goal: to create support systems for males of color that promote academic achievement and social development.

5. Organizational efficiencies

With so many urban districts facing dwindling funding at the state and federal level, CGCS members are looking to be more efficient with the resources they have. Subcommittees have been formed to develop clearer, stronger procurement practices, boost collective returns on investment, and create systems for direct purchasing. CGCS members hope that pooling their insights and best practices will improve outcomes for every district.

Did you attend CGCS over the weekend? Is your school or district facing similar challenges? Tell us in the comments.