“You’ve taken on this work, not because it’s easy, but because these students need you. And you are changing their lives.”
Those are the words of Dr. Jill Biden, former second lady and long-time educator, to urban school leaders at this year’s Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS) fall conference in Baltimore.
Dr. Biden, who worked as a community college professor in Northern Virginia while she served as second lady, acknowledged the many challenges faced by today’s city school leaders, and identified opportunities to affect positive change in the lives of their students.
I look forward every year to attending CGCS and learning from the work and experiences of the nation’s urban school leaders. As a former CGCS superintendent, I know how important it is to hit pause on all that happens in our districts on a daily basis, raise the periscope, and stay focused on the big picture.
As always, this year’s event didn’t disappoint.
Here are a few key takeaways from the conference that resonated with me.
1. Safety continues to be a vital concern
Often lost in the national conversation around mass shootings in schools, is the threat of chronic gun violence that many students face in their lives, both in school and in their communities on a daily basis. According to a report in the journal Pediatrics, African-American children are killed by guns ten times more often than their white peers. It was obvious in many of the discussions I had: Urban school leaders are more focused than ever on preparation, training, and execution of safety strategies and protocols in their schools.
2. Closing the achievement gap is a perpetual challenge
The 2017 National Assessment of Education Progress–commonly called the “Nation’s Report Card”–revealed a two percent decline in math achievement among 4th-grade urban students since 2015. While this is just one indicator, it is further proof of the stubborn achievement gap that exists in America’s schools.The good news is that districts are seeing significant positive change due to better teaching, focused staff development, and assessment. Better access to learning resources and a focus on equity and inclusiveness in our schools has potential to move the needle even more in the right direction. But school leaders have a long way to go before they can claim equitable education and opportunities for all.
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3. The Males of Color initiative continues to be a strong point of emphasis
Speaking of the achievement gap, a universal concern for urban school districts is the continued achievement challenges of young males of color–especially African-American males. A 2017 Council of the Great City Schools report outlines several strategies aimed at improving the performance of males of color, including rigorous curriculums with high academic expectations, the inclusion of culturally and socially relevant content, and using early-warning indicators to identify students in need of academic support.
It was great to see that many urban districts are taking these strategies to heart. In one session, representatives from the Milwaukee Public Schools showcased the Department of Black and Latino Male Achievement, a new department inside the school system aimed at boosting the academic performance of underserved students. Despite such forward-thinking, finding support and outlets for males of color remains a perpetual challenge.
4. Districts are working hard to recruit and retain a diverse teacher corps
Another important strategy for improving the progress of males of color, according to the 2017 CGCS report, is improving existing hiring practices to recruit teachers from diverse linguistic, gender, and racial backgrounds. A report from the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution found that only 18 percent of America’s teachers are people of color. Research out of the University of Pennsylvania found that underserved schools lose up to 20 percent of their faculty each year to turnover. If urban school districts want to provide their learners with a consistent and excellent teaching and learning experience, that work starts with better recruitment efforts.
5. Districts need to focus on leadership development
Urban districts continue to confront the leadership gap in the face of attrition and retirement. Several of the sessions I had an opportunity to sit in on this year revolved around efforts to recruit the next crop of great American school leaders. While recruiting qualified and diverse teachers is vital to student achievement, replacing retiring or exiting administrators with dynamic new leadership is perhaps just as important.
6. Urban schools will continue to serve immigrant students and their families
As the political and legal debates heat up around immigration policies, school leaders resoundingly affirmed their commitment to serving all students in their communities–no matter their background. Pending legislative and legal challenges will undoubtedly create new hurdles for urban school districts, but they are prepared to protect the life opportunities of the students they serve.
What were your key takeaways from CGCS 2018? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. If you’d like to discuss further the challenges you are are facing, I’d be happy to share my thoughts with you personally. Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can chat.