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Building Civic Capacity on the Long Road to School Reform

The City of Richmond is tackling a long list of challenges facing the school system, including neglected facilities, academic achievement and hiring a superintendent. Leaders are also shaping an “education compact” to bring more stakeholders together. On today’s Learning Curve, 88.9 WCVE’s Catherine Komp gets some outside perspective from author and professor Clarence Stone. He’s looked at urban districts across the country and the process of building civic capacity.

Transcript:

Clarence Stone has spent decades examining local governments, race and class, inequality and education reform. He’s been called a “leading theorist” in urban politics, his research “foundational.” To understand what many urban school districts are facing today, Professor Stone starts with some history.

Clarence Stone: This is Clarence Stone I am a research professor at George Washington University in fields of public policy and political science. For many years, I was a professor of government at the University of Maryland and my specialty has been urban policy and local government.

Stone: I myself grew up in the South and I can remember a time when we lived in this little town that had a separate school system, black and white, and the black school was literally a one room schoolhouse. It was a big room but you can imagine from that, the scope of the education provided was an absolute minimal education.

Other factors include the Great Migration, when millions of Southern Black families moved North; and the de-industrialization of urban cities, which peaked in 1970s.

Stone: So here we had this unfortunate perfect storm or worse possible combination: the Black population accumulates in cities, in urban areas and that reaches a peak at the very point when blue collar jobs begin to disappear and those jobs that you could go into with less education are less and less available.

Stone: One of the additional complications is the Great Migration was not a matter of a  cross-section of the population migrating, it was the population that was concentrated in Southern agriculture. So what you had was an economy and a society that was dependent on low wage workers. Low-wage workers also meant the people who benefiting the most from that low wage work were people who did not want to invest very much in education because if you educate workers, then they don’t want to be low-wage workers anymore.

Stone says for those working on education reform today, especially in high poverty districts - knowing history is crucial.

Stone: The real core of education education crisis is how do we play catch up for a set of circumstances that was generations in building and was geographically complicated in how it took its final shape. So that’s really what is the core of the concern about reforming education.

One of Clarence Stone’s books is Building Civic Capacity: The Politics of Reforming Urban Schools. Stone and his co-authors argue that labeling education reform a priority isn’t enough. Neither are top down mandates, programmatic reform or institutional approaches.

Stone: School reform, that is changing the performance of the education system, is a big and complicated problem so do not expect for that to be something that can be taken care of in a couple years. That’s just upfront, people should be confronted with the reality. The second thing I would say is people should not think about school reform as something separate from what’s going on in the city, what’s going on in the community because if you think back to things like cultural capital for examples, or the kinds of role models people might be exposed to, than you have to realize that the performance of a school is very much determined by the community context in which it operates, the resources that community can bring to bear.

Systemic change, says Stone, takes time. It starts with civic mobilization of a broad range of stakeholders. That process leads to building civic capacity - or the ability of diverse community members to come together, identify a problem, and collaborate on solutions.

Stone: The challenge then is how to get people involved so that they don't burn out. This both the teachers and the volunteers and for the parents not to feel put off by the circumstances they face. So educated middle-class people need to understand, for example, that a parent who is not well-educated can easily feel inferior because they don't have these accomplishments that have come to be valued in the modern world to a degree they were not when they were kids themselves. So there’s a kind of adjustment to social and cultural change that is going to make some people feel left out, some people feel they’re not valued, so these are things that take time.

What I would emphasize is, when people sign on to do school reform that they understand that there are many parts to it, if they can be matched up with the part where they can begin to feel some success, that they are making some contribution and that the contribution they make is appreciated, then you’re beginning to create the kind of mix of things that will enable them to stick with it and to begin to appreciate-- One of the thing we say about school reform, it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon so a marathon takes more a than couple years.

Catherine Komp: What facilities civic capacity and do you have examples of where this is playing out successfully?

Stone: Well, that’s a really challenging question…

Stone says frankly, it’s easier to find examples where good intentions fizzle out. But he was encouraged by what happened in El Paso in the early 1990s. Good paying factory jobs were disappearing in the Texas border town. Community leaders connected the economic realities to an urgent need to address education.

Stone: The interesting thing is the first response to that sense of urgency came from a community organization that was based primarily in the Mexican-American community because with changing economy they were most threatened.

Stone says the group knew about an education compact in Boston, and started asking if that could work in El Paso. The new president of University of Texas El Paso saw that they could play an important role. She brought in a staff member to enlist other community stakeholders. What formed was the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence involving the three school districts, the University, community college, two Chambers of Commerce, parents, teachers, and civic and religious leaders.

Stone: You build civic capacity by starting with some sense that there is a community problem that has urgency to it and we need to muster the effort to respond to it.

Stone says there was a lot of smart thinking about how to build this collaborative. They started with area-wide workshops on how to improve education. Superintendents, teachers, principals and assistant principals participated. The first question to tackle was how to involve parents.

Stone: And what they discovered was the teachers and principals didn’t gravitate naturally to that question and so they had to be redirected to that question.

The small things made a big difference. The workshop was two days long, so they wrote a grant to pay for meals.

Stone: Anybody who has ever organized groups knows it’s always helpful if you serve meal or in this case over two days, meals, as part of it.

Clarence Stone says this example teaches an important lesson - it’s not enough to start with a sense of urgency.

Stone: You have to work on building a feeling of momentum, that we are going somewhere, we’re going to accomplish this.

And even that small grant - to pay for meals - feeds that feeling of momentum.

Stone: It’s important to be able to bring together a succession of steps that convey some sense of, “Yes, we are doing this, we are making progress, we are putting ourselves in the position of responding to this problem.”

In addition to this macro-level coalition building, Stone says participants need to think about the micro-strategy - building relationships and trust:

Stone: How do we weave people together so that within the formal boundaries if you will of the large coalition, there are all of these personal connections that can get through some of the rough spots and can expand the base of understanding.

Komp: What’s the role of the superintendent is all of this, in school reform, in building civic capacity?

Stone: The superintendent as the head of the key Institution has the role that must work and it has to work in a way in which she or he is open to bringing other people in. So it needs to be someone who is not particularly anxious about “How do I protect my turf,”  but who sees himself or herself as needing this larger coalition. So to go back to that term about who has convening power, the superintendent isn’t the only one, but the superintendent has absolutely to be a key person in exercising this convening power.

The second thing I would say is when people look at what happens in individual schools, the principal is the key figure at the school level. So as the superintendent thinks about school system overall, it seems to me that recruitment, the training, further professional development, etc for principals has to be a key factor. In turn those principals need to be part of broader strategy so that’s where the superintendent can play an additional role of thinking about what are all the different elements that need to come together: there’s the professional capacity of educators themselves; there’s the question of curriculum and is it aligned and so on. But the emphasis if you’re thinking about educating the whole person and drawing the whole community and especially the school and the community together, the superintendent has got to be key figure in identifying those parts of the community that could be drawn in. So if one of the major needs is we need to expand our revenue base, then how can the superintendent engage the business sector in thinking about expanding the financial support for the school system. Now, business people have a tendency to worry “What’s the tax bill going to be,” but I think it’s important to think long term about these things. So the superintendent has to be a kind of wizard, how can we do many things, how do we deal these immediate problems, how do I recruit these principals. But also thinking how can I educate the community to think long term. So we should think about money spent on education not as “here comes another demand on tax revenue” but to think instead how do we invest in this community for its long term well being.

Citing an analogy used by other researchers, Stone says school reform is like baking a cake.

Stone: You’ve got to have all of the ingredients brought together in such a way that they complement  one another. So you can’t have a successful cake, if some key ingredients are missing and so the superintendent has to be the one that thinks overall about do I have all the ingredients there. For those communities of special need, where the poverty level is high, where homelessness a problem abuse, where there may problems of child abuse; we don’t naturally gravitate to think about those things, but those are a part of the education challenge.

So this scholar talks about those communities that are truly disadvantaged; they have the high poverty rate, the high level of kids who are in foster care and so on and as much as educated middle class people might not be mindful of the level of that need, it’s there and that’s where the education challenge is most substantial. That’s where things like the community school that maybe has a health clinic, that has a good working relationships with social services and mental health professionals, just a range of things to add to the resources that the schools can draw on. That’s absolutely essential. Particularly for those communities and neighborhoods that are truly disadvantaged, the cake just isn’t going to make it if you don’t have a strategy or a program to address those special social needs.

Komp: I have a question from a listener. What advice do you have for successfully building civic capacity at the grassroots level, for example between teachers and parents.

Stone: El Paso is an example of that because part of the program of the collaborative to work specifically on how to be more effective in incorporating and engaging parents and community people in the work. What they did was create and run each year, a special if you will, school for parents. I think they met maybe weekly, maybe bi-weekly, certainly at least once a month. Education professionals would be part of it, but they would pick maybe 25 or 30 parents, working with schools to get parents enlisted to come and take part in these classes about engagement.

Because school professionals who were also part of class, you were there building connections between parents and the school system. They would go through various topics and at the end of the year, the would get together and have a graduation celebration so they could look back over the things they accomplished. Then that would be the foundation of going into a second year with a new round of 25-30 parents. They weren’t doing this en masse to try to do everything at once, but to do it incremental steps. But then as they had a second and third class, they woudl have alumni getting together at the end of the school year so those in one class could connect with those in another. So you were building relationships across classes but also across the parent-school divide.

The other part of this strategy was recruiting teachers who were comfortable working with parents and in effect run professional development classes for the teachers so they could begin to develop their skills and facilities in working with parents. An interesting thing is one of the most effective teachers in doing this was someone who was, I think, a Marine veteran who was teaching kindergarten. He was so successful in doing this, the school system put him in charge of running classes for other teachers about how to work with parents. So, multiple things make something easier to be accomplished than if you think of - what are we going to do, just this single strategy. S o that cake making is sort of in the background. What are all of the ingredients we can put together that will enable to bake a really good cake.

Clarence Stone is a research professor at George Washington University in fields of public policy and political science. He’s also the co-author of Building Civic Capacity: The Politics of Reforming Urban Schools and the editor of Changing Urban Education. For Learning Curve, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.