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Failing Schools Kill Life Choices

Back in November, I sat down to read the American classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” to commemorate its 50th anniversary. Little did I know that I would be reading Harper Lee’s story of a trial in a fictional southern town in the midst of real-life drama swirling around the appointment of Cathie Black as New York City schools chancellor and the proposed shuttering of more schools.

I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the hero of the legendary novel, Atticus Finch, and Black, whose nomination recently cleared legal hurdles posed by parents objecting to her lack of educational credentials.

In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Finch has no history with the accused. He has no interaction with the African-American world except through his servant. By defending an accused black rapist, he’s taking on great reputational risk.

Ms. Black has no history with the public education system but faces an even more daunting challenge — the skepticism of parents and teachers unlikely to cheer her on simply for walking into the classroom like Mr. Finch was applauded in the courtroom. And just because a state Supreme Court judge last month ruled in her favor doesn’t mean she’s off the hook with parents and the public. She still has a long way to go toward earning our respect and has a lot to learn about the city’s schools and the policies that have come under attack during former Chancellor Joel Klein’s tenure.

Since 2002, New York City has closed or has considered closing 108 schools — almost as many as the Washington, D.C. system, one of the nation’s worst. According to the Coalition for Educational Justice, recent research shows that even though some school closures have resulted in better educational options, the strategy overall has had negative rippling effects throughout the system. These closings can become a shell game that fails to address root causes of failure and provide viable alternatives for students displaced. A 2009 study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that a majority of those affected ended up at other schools that were nearly as bad as those they left.

Dramatic intervention is necessary in the New York City schools, especially in the hardest-hit neighborhoods. At this point, we know where and how to help. It’s just a matter of putting our ideas into action. Whether these efforts are in Harlem or Tennessee’s Hamilton County, good schools have common characteristics: 1. More time for learning; 2. High expectations for all students; 3. Strong professional development; 4. Comprehensive, coordinated support for students; and 5. Parent and community engagement.

For decades, the New York Urban League and other non-profits have trained parent advocates, supported students’ educational pursuits and helped them prepare for college. Such partnerships are critical to school success.

Only time will tell whether Cathie Black’s efforts will rival those of Atticus Finch. If she is to be successful, she must talk openly about the impact her decisions may have on our communities. We hope that she’ll listen because our children are our mockingbirds. Whether it’s overcrowded schools, teaching to tests or poor preparation for college, failing schools kill life choices for our students. Fifty years later, it’s still a sin to kill a mockingbird.

Arva Rice is the president and CEO of the New York Urban League.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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