by Maureen Sullivan
A few days ago I heard in an interview clip that Harry Belafonte said he was a drop out, I believe from 7th grade. I was reminded of the early 1990’s Cincinnati Youth Collaborative study that documented that many, if not most, of the drop outs weren’t the “dumb kids,” the least academically able, but were those who, for one reason or another, couldn’t be in school any longer. They just needed/wanted to get on with their lives.
More recently, as I was getting ready for work I caught a bit of a story on NPR about a group of teens in Africa who had produced a short YouTube piece about education. They explained how the video came to be and, in response to an interviewer’s question, said they expected that most of them would fail their final exams in high school. The reason—the exams were required to be given in English. Their elementary school classes were taught in their native language. When the youth got to upper school level, the classes were taught in English by people who barely knew the language themselves. Apparently, the teachers’ colleges don’t require knowledge of English as a requirement for certification.
You may wonder what relevance this has to urban Appalachian education concerns. Good question – somehow, it links in my mind with fundamental questions about what education is for, really. Why is school as likely to drain the curiosity and desire to learn out of some as it is to engage others in a life of academic success, recognition, and even delight? While there are no doubt studies and books, doctoral dissertations and university degrees directed to answering these questions, I’m caught by the nagging certainty that it boils down to the question of “who owns it?”
In the 1980’s the Urban Appalachian Council worked with some existing adult basic education/GED schools (Lower Price Hill Community School and the East End Community Adult Education Center notable among them); supported the development of others (Camp Washington, Northside, and South Fairmount Community Schools); and organized and operated schools in Over the Rhine, East Price Hill and Norwood. Over the next 20+ years we worked collaboratively and struggled together to keep the schools open. Funding was always an issue though many of the schools operated on shoestring budgets, with volunteers—or staff working almost as volunteers—at community locations in churches, community centers, or in small, low-cost storefronts.
The schools were uniquely successful with the students getting “a second chance” at education. To a school, they were absolutely clear that they wouldn’t be controlled by “outsiders” whether representing funding sources or educational “experts.” During one discussion, a community school director was incensed because she had received a letter from a Cincinnati Public School administrator telling her that they were withdrawing funding of a teacher aide salary and further that they were closing her school. The director was practically trembling as she declared passionately that “they might withdraw the funds but they would not and could not close the school.” It wasn’t theirs. It, like the other community schools, belonged to the community and the people.
In some ways the community schools had unique aspects reflective of their communities: in some ways they had strong and consistent similarities. In addition to being community-based, these schools were operated with a high degree of personalism. The relationship between the students and the staff was close and personal. They were on a first name basis. Lessons, while not neglected, were never more important than a student’s personal issue or a crisis that was threatening or a health issue that needed to be addressed.
Another factor that was seen in the schools was their utilization of strong family and kinship networks. Jake Kroger, long-time director of the Lower Price Hill Community School, used to say that when his student population fell off he would go out and walk through the neighborhood. He’d talk to the folks on the stoops or the mothers and grans in their chairs in front of their buildings. He’d catch up on family news, answer questions about how their son or granddaughter was getting along, put the word out about what the school needed – whether more new students or help with an upcoming graduation celebration. Invariably, folks pitched in and things came together.
Almost needless to say, the schools were notably non-bureaucratic. It was not unusual to find a director answering the phone or helping a student with problems from substance abuse to evictions. The organizational structures were significantly “flatter” than agencies or corporations. We started out “lean” long before it became fashionable in mainstream business jargon.
As is always the case, time moves on and change happens. Two of the churches closed their doors and sold their buildings; one of the community centers changed leaders and fell into financial chaos; dramatic neighborhood development along Eastern Avenue and in Over the Rhine led to shifts in residents’ economics and resulted in long-time residents moving away. In addition some of the original directors got ready to retire. At some point, I realized that the changes weren’t all individual or coming from within. It became clear that the requirements regarding the GED were changing. Preparation and, in some cases, testing was done on computers. Costs to take the GED increased and cost waivers based on pre-test results ceased. In a variety of ways, getting the “second chance” became harder.
Possibly, because of the Cincinnati network’s success along with the advocacy of many, in and beyond Cincinnati, who tout the benefit of community-based education, the educational establishment began calling their schools, located as they were is specific neighborhoods, Community Schools. I don’t think I’d mind if what was being claimed wasn’t just the words “Community Schools” but was in fact the spirit and commitment that made education work in a number of inner city neighborhoods – Appalachian and African American alike. We need education to “work” for all of us – rich and poor; majority and minority; whatever our gender, or religion, or age.
I invite your comments, whether in agreement or disagreement. You might want to add a new perspective or correct some of mine.