While social inequities and educational gaps in high schools across the United States have long been the subject of discussion, one voice that has not been previously heard is that of the constituents most directly affected: high school students.
Thanks to Cynthia Taines, an assistant professor in NIU’s Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations (LEPF), that is about to change.
Taines has developed “The Metropolitan Community,” a project titled that aims to bridge the educational and social gaps that exist between suburban and urban schools. Her project brings together students from across the Chicago metro region to generate dialogue, spur action and, ultimately, drive change.
LEPF has supported the project since the beginning by providing grant funds. Her “initiative aptly complements the department’s long-standing interest in issues of social justice, and especially in concerns about the distribution of educational opportunity,” said Charles Howell, chair of the department.
“These concerns are particularly salient in the state of Illinois, with its relatively permissive constitutional provisions for education, its reliance on local taxes as a source of school funding and its fiscal challenges,” Howell added. “Involving high school students in the exploration of these issues is a great way to cultivate both civic knowledge and civic dispositions in the next generation of citizens.”
It can be said that urban schools face many challenges that prevent students from realizing their full potential.
Underfunding and poverty are at the top of that list.
Students in urban schools often share outdated textbooks, have little or no access to technology and attend schools that are poorly maintained. Teachers in urban schools often receive less support than their peers in affluent schools and teach larger, overcrowded classrooms.
In July 2011, the New York Times stated, “Successfully educating large numbers of low-income kids is very, very hard. But it is not impossible, as reformers have repeatedly demonstrated on a small scale. To achieve system wide success, though, we need a shift in strategy.”
Taines’ Metropolitan Community project takes an alternate route by facilitating collaboration between urban and suburban schools – a Chicago neighborhood high school and two high schools in the north suburbs – and empowering the very youth who are affected by educational inequities.
To begin the project, Taines located teachers in each school who were interested in building this service learning opportunity into their classes.
Once the teachers signed on, they opened up participation to their students. There are now 44 students involved, exceeding the initial goal of 30.
“It might not change if we don’t step up,” said a student from the Chicago public high school We’re the ones who come to school. “If we stay quiet, then the people in charge of the school, the board and whatever, will make decisions without hearing our opinions. And then it’s never going to change.”
The initial gathering of the Metropolitan Community participants took place in downtown Chicago this past fall. “The teachers selected the location because they wanted to meet on neutral ground for the first joint visit,” Taines said.
At the visit, students were assigned to mixed-school groups to encourage mingling and interaction. After lunch, the students engaged in an array of activities, including a scavenger hunt where students solved riddles and raced between Chicago’s landmarks. Technology use was kept to a minimum to spark conversation and collaboration.
Another activity was a discussion forum revolving around a “talking stick,” which in this case was a Chicago Transit Authority card to symbolize metropolitan connection.
“We wanted to set guidelines for how the students would interact with each other,” Taines said.
The students passed the CTA card around, each giving a definition for respect. Next, they publicly agreed to uphold their definitions during the project.
One of the teachers gave a presentation explaining the evolution of Chicago’s urban and suburban areas, which provided the students with a deeper understanding of the city’s dynamics and the rise in educational inequities over the years.
The Metropolitan Community project is continuing with student-designed, joint visits to each of the three schools. Visits will include a tour of the community and an in-class experience. On the tours, the students remain in their original, assigned small groups, which have representatives from each school.
“The idea is that the youths will benefit more from being a part of a little community,” Taines said.
Between visits, the teachers have set up Google blogs so students can continue to communicate and learn about each other’s lives.
Toward the end of the school year, and during the last joint visits, the focus will turn to a reflection on the students’ experiences.
The conversation will hone in on the educational inequalities the students noticed between their suburban and urban schools and force them to explore what they can do together to address the gaps between their schools and effect change.
“Seeing and experiencing what it feels like to not have the right supplies or support for your education is much more concrete than the abstract discussions that take place in a classroom,” Taines said.
“It’s important for students to facilitate the dialogue because it makes them more involved and the conversation focuses on what is important to them.”