Every year around this time I see people walk into the main office of the high school at which I teach and ask how they can get their children into our school. Since I am hardly ever anywhere near the main office my observations probably represent only a small number of the parents and guardians who actually come to us with their children looking for a seat. They are almost always in a desperate way and it is almost always for the same reason: their son or daughter is not safe at the school he or she is currently attending.
I wish that our administration found a way to provide refuge for all of them.
But what I really wish is that every school in the inner-city was a safe place for children to learn.
I'm pretty sure that if students at a suburban high school ever found themselves in the kind of danger in which South Los Angeles students routinely find themselves some state of emergency would be declared, the doors of these schools would be barred while local leaders figured out how to restore order, crisis counselors would be brought in to help children cope with the trauma so that they might return to their classrooms able to learn.
And all such measures would be warranted.
Unsafe schools are, of course, a complex problem. Danger encroaches these campuses from the surrounding communities and for those who confront this problem from close range, the line between student victims and student perpetrators is not always a clear one. But schools can be a part of the solution and many urban educators understand this and try very hard to accomplish it. For many children, school is the safest part their day.
Still, too often, students and faculty have come to accept an unacceptable level of risk. What else can we do? For one, we can maintain a level of outrage and let our collective voices be heard and keep ourselves from becoming numbed to the shameful state in which these children must try to get educated. And there are steps that our city school systems can take, aside from increased security (which no one seems able to afford in this current fiscal climate) to reduce violence.
1--Stability. Big city school systems may not be able to do much to stabilize the population of their students (many of whom lead transient lives on the margins) but faculty stability has got to be a more urgent priority. Urban schools need adults who feel ownership of the school and who know the students, preferably by name.
2--Smaller schools. That any large urban district is continuing to construct enormous human warehouses and call them schools is a travesty. In schools with two-, three-, or four-thousand students, maintaining order is a monumental task and often must be accomplished at the expense of student engagement and autonomy. In such institutions, every student becomes a suspect. Smaller schools are, admittedly, a costly proposition--but the efficiency and economy of large inner-city schools are, in many cases, no more than a less expensive fraud.
3--A strong academic program. I know--duh! And this suggestion does suggest the old chicken and the egg riddle. Difficult to promote the intellect when everyone is just trying to survive and not get caught up in some gang fued or racial tension. And schools do not have the resources to ameliorate the problems of their surrounding communities. But education is a start. Teach our students about the nature of the violence and peril that surrounds them. Help them to put racial animosities in a historical and social context. Push and push--and awaken the consciousness of young people and those young people will transcend their surroundings.
Easy for me to smugly list ways to make our most perilous schools less so. I've spent twenty years at an inner-city school that has been a kind of safe haven for students.
But it wasn't always that way. The school at which I teach began as a dropout prevention program, a school for the most "at risk" students and in the early days there were almost daily fights and sometimes armed gang members would visit us to settle a beef with one or two of our students. But because we were small--in those days fewer than 300 students--and every teacher knew the name of every student, and because most of the teachers were the same year after year and because most of us had a deep commitment to our students and a strong commitment to academics and wouldn't back down from it, our little school became an oasis of relative safety.
This past week one of those desperate parents came to our office to inquire about his twin sons. The parent was a former gang member who had attended our school in the early days. He was shot on the way home--or wherever he was going after school that day--during his 11th grade year. He recovered from his injuries and graduated the next year, already the father of those twin boys. Now he's hard-working single dad, a police man fighting what might seem a losing battle to bring safety to an embattled community--and he has to come beg my principal and me to help him protect his sons who are, at their neighborhood school, under threat of violence.
Of course, that's just the way it is, isn't it? It's the inner-city, the ghetto. It's those kids. What can you do except shrug your shoulders and maybe save a few of them?
Please, if you ever have such thoughts, chase them from your mind. A child is a child and children belong to all of us.