The Wilkinsburg Schools Annexation should focus everyone’s energies

It is obvious that Pittsburgh Public Schools did what was sadly necessary…

Board members [of the Wilkinsburg School District] say that giving up on the schools is the best thing they can do to give their students a shot at a better education and a better life. But two neighboring school districts declined to take the students on before a third, Pittsburgh Public Schools, found room at one of the city’s lowest-performing high schools, located in one of its poorest neighborhoods.

So in a deal approved this week, Wilkinsburg students are headed for a school that is much like the one they are leaving behind. (WaPo, Emma Brown)

…but now it gets really tricky.

Because in addition to ‘the ordinary amount’ of “chaos and failure” prevalent in the educational vicinity…

Students from the two schools have long feuded, [a Wilkinsburg district mother]  said, and she worries about an eruption of violence when they’re all under one roof. (ibid)

More worrisome still, I would wager, if those students perceive that the adults around them either don’t have it together or care much about them.

“If you’re going to do this, do it right,” [a Pittsburgh district mother] said before the vote. “Transition these children through this change with open eyes and a clear vision for their future. We need to leave them something more than abandoned homes and more empty schools than open.” (P-G, Clarece Polk)

Exactly. No room for disorganization or falling through the cracks.

Now, bear with me…

I’ve been reading Don’t Shoot,” the book Police Chief McLay says best describes his “model” for “focused deterrence”. I still have 3 chapters to go, but one recurring theme so far is the author’s building excitement over how the framework used to persuade traumatized communities to participate in systems of order again is turning out to be portable. Not only has it worked from city to city and town to town, but also from at least one bad behavior (gun homicides) to another bad behavior (“open-air” drug dealing).

It got me to thinking, what if the patterns found in badly impoverished minority schools is at all similar to those found in badly impoverished minority communities? What might that mean?

  1. It would mean that relatively very few students would be causing most of the worst disciplinary problems which bring about all the other, community-wide problems — chaotic learning and teaching environments, widespread disengagement, and mistrust of institutions.
  2. It would mean those few students triggering the disintegration are perfectly rational — not crazy, not feral, not ruined beyond redemption by bad parenting. It would mean they are choosing to act in a destructive fashion for perfectly logical-seeming reasons (that happen to be wrong).
  3. It would mean getting to know very early in the new school year who those students are, and learning as much about them as possible; it would mean real investigations, probing some students’ home lives, mapping their relationships.
  4. Finally, after extensive preparation, it would mean calling in all those most troubled and troubling students, all at once — along with their parents or guardians or mentors or pastors or siblings — and 1) illustrating to them their futures if they must be repeatedly suspended, or expelled, or if they fail to graduate, or they continue their behaviors into even young-adulthood 2) informing them passionately that things are going to change here from now on and 3) offering them a spectacular array of coordinated help and resources. Resources joined together and described to the students by the topmost responsible officials at the school, at the District, at City and County and State and Federal governments, agencies and bureaus, as well as from nonprofits ranging from universities and trade schools to A+ Schools and GPSpgh to the United Way to Assemble and everything in between. A unified front. An elite strike force. The whole universe.

Sustained shock and awe. Show this small, select group of troubled children at this one badly stressed location how the whole educational establishment now considers them, and only them, to be the highest priority students on this side of Pennsylvania — and how the whole system is snapping to attention to either give them what they need, or send them where they need to go. And then follow through on it.

The short-term goal of the initiative would not be to transform those particular students into the greatest of scholars. Although that would be great! The goal would be to foster safe and supportive learning and teaching environments for that entire community unlucky enough to find themselves in these poor and newly merged schools.

To raise standards at what had become their lowest point. To give those malfunctional learning communities a new identity. And then, if it works, to move on to the next one.

That sort of vast, urgent and focused interagency approach, and that sort of reset in relationships and morale, is the sort of prism through which I happen to be reading about this unfortunate merger of underperforming schools. What are your thoughts?

MORE:  “Community schools” could be a related concept. In education, the buzz is over “restorative justice”. And at home, Nullspace considers the next logical step. AND MORE: Check out this essay on “childhood adversity” and “changing the behavior of adults.”

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