Communities and Education

By Steve Suitts

Vol. 13, No. 4, 1991, pp. 9-11

Virtually every report on public education in the last half-decade has worried about one central, demographic projection: in the face of growing poverty, racial minorities--the least educated, the least skilled, and the mast frequent victims of discrimination--will be the fastest growing segment of our workforce over the next fifty years. Unless public education improves for these groups, all Americans will suffer losses in productivity, social security, and, perhaps, domestic tranquility.

While these statistics have a compelling message, other trends--largely overlooked--will also have profound consequences for education in America Because of the decline in the birthrate of most American families, the nation has experienced over the last twenty years a decline in the number of school-age children. This trend has reduced to a very small minority in the population the number of American households which now have children in elementary or secondary public schools.

In 1960 virtually half of all households had children under the age of 18. By 1988 hardly more than one in three households had such children. When adjusted to reflect only households with children of school age, these figures shrink to only one in five. Therefore, today only twenty percent of the households in the nation have children of school age. In several urban and rural communities, this decline in the real connection between public schools and the community has become even more pronounced, due to white flight to suburbs or private schools over the last twenty years. In Atlanta, for example, the enrollment in public education declined from a level of 115,582 in 1969 to only 61,378 in 1990.

This transformation has distanced most American households from any direct personal interest, understanding, or involvement in the public schools. It has reduced to a small minority those members of the community who see the fate of public education in personal terms, at home, on a daily basis.

With distances also have come changes in how most adults see the nature of problems in public education. According to an annual Gallup poll on education, forty


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percent of Americans in 1970 mentioned structural problems--matters such as lack of financial support, getting good teachers, and a lack of proper facilities--as the chief obstacles of the local public schools. Only twenty-eight percent of those polled stated that local public education suffered chiefly from various shortcomings of students themselves. In sharp contrast, last year, 66 percent of the respondents in the Gallup poll mentioned aspects of students' behavior as the chief problems in public education, and few mentioned structural problems.

In essence, the Gallup polls suggest a major shift in public understanding over the last twenty years--away from perceiving educational problems as systemic in nature and towards believing that student behavior (and, to a lesser extent, parental and teacher behavior) constitutes the chief problems. This transformation has taken place at a time when the number of American households with a direct connection to the public schools has shrunk to a very small part of the whole community.

These shifts in our local communities and their attitudes towards public schools present an urgency for communities to become more meaningfully involved in educating all of their children. It was, perhaps, part of the reason that in 1989 a panel of noted black leaders concluded that few changes in public education for African-American children would occur unless the black community demanded schools make basic changes. John Hope Franklin, its chair, states that the accession to office of more than 1500 black school board members and 125 black superintendents is no guarantee of significant changes in the public schools. 'The black community must insist on educational excellence for its children, regardless of who is in charge of the system." Another commission, the National Action Council for Minority Achievement--chaired by Ray Marshall--made several broad recommendations in its 1990 report Among others, the Commission found that "minority communities must mobilize to participate in the education process, both in planning for change and for making those changes happen.

While minorities are surely underrepresented in the process of changing schools, the vacuum in community leadership encompasses all segments. Although no study has been done of community leaders in education partnerships across the country, data for more than 30 collaborative efforts in 18 states from California to New York in 1988 revealed that community leaders, especially minority leaders, constitute the least-represented groups among the education partnerships--even those partnerships aimed at addressing primarily the needs of minority disadvantaged students. In Albuquerque, N.M., a local dropout prevention partnership, in fact, called itself the "school/business collaborative" with relatively little involvement from community leaders. And in Savannah, Ga., two citywide youth partnerships have existed for several years: one has been an all-white board of businessmen and city administrators, and the other often had to struggle to maintain more than symbolic participation from indigenous community leaders.

Such a dearth of community leadership involved in changing public education certainly does not appear surprising in light of the changed demographic trends of the last twenty years; however, even community leaders who see the connections between public schools and the public good face real, practical barriers in becoming and remaining effectively involved in the process of restructuring the schools. First, they may face the high cost of


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involvement. Too often, school administrators, social service agencies, and business representatives find that the most convenient times and places to meet in partnership on issues are those when volunteer community leaders--and most working people--are unavailable to meet unless they take off from their own jobs. Sometimes community leaders in poor urban neighborhoods--such as tenant association presidents--have trouble incurring the regular, incremental costs of transportation to and from distant places, such as the school district's central office or a businessman's board room. In time, these inconveniences and costs can become real barriers for indigenous community leaders in poor areas.

A far more substantial barrier, however, is the process by which schools are fundamentally changed today; it is a process involving issues, forums, and concepts which, for most community leaders, especially in the South, are new and not fully understood. During much of the past thirty years, the most pressing issues of public education have been defined for most community leaders by the U. S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Lest we forget the very existence of public education remained an open question in some Southern states as late as the 1960s, and many Southern communities did not experience any real efforts of racial integration of the public schools until the early 1970s. Throughout the nation in almost every major urban area over the last two decades, school desegregation was the primary issue and litigation was the principle method for resolving it.

Today, both the primary issues and the means for change are quite different. In many urban and rural communities, minorities are the majority race in the schools: for those and other communities, counting students by race in schools is no longer as important as how well students by race can count. An enlarged sense of community self-interest, (especially in the business sector) and more than a decade of local, political change opening up previously all-white local governments have made collaboration, as much as confrontation, a primary vehicle for improving schools.

Both the new issues and the new approach leave many community leaders truly without any solid base of recent experience from which to understand how to develop their own positions, strategies, and remedies for systemic changes. As a result, community leaders are far more familiar today with trying to change an individual student failing in school than with changing an individual school failing its students.

No formal or informal network of support and assistance exists for community leaders to understand the issues in improving schools or to sharpen skills and strategies for assuring that their constituents' children--at-risk youth--have the best schools. If national leaders, teachers, and school administrators have been unable to develop fully their own understanding of why and how to change schools today, how can community leaders be expected to acquire such an understanding? If educators have difficulty avoiding isolation, can community leaders, who have no access to regular professional development be alert and effective on issues related to educating at-risk children?

The consequences of uninformed, ineffective, or inactive community leadership can be devastating to public education. Often, community leaders are essential in developing broad-based participation within rural communities or urban neighborhoods. They can help spur or hinder parental involvement, and they establish the legitimacy of proposed reforms within local communities. Community leaders are often the most visible, genuine representatives of neighborhoods in the areas of at-risk children and can shape the level of community acceptance of and involvement in change. They are also quite important in maintaining a level of accountability for elective local school board members and superintendents.

The importance of community leadership comes home to several communities in need of new finances for vital school improvements. In the last three years alone, small communities and major cities across the Deep South often failed to pass major bond issues for the public schools. In each case, the support for the bond vote was lukewarm or nonexistent, even in poor areas where the bond funding would have brought additional resources and needed changes.

Without able leadership from all segments of the community--without community leaders who can join as able, equal education partners--the capacity to restructure and improve schools across the Southern states and the courts will be limited and the momentum for creating a school environment in which all students can be--and want to be--knowledgeable and capable, will falter, if not collapse.

Alabama native Steve Suitts is executive director of the Southern Regional Council.