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Focus, Higher Standards Can Bring Urban School Gains



As chairman of the Board of Directors of the Council of the Great City Schools, Carlos A. Garcia says part of his job is telling people what urban educators are doing right. Recent academic gains in some cities are reason for optimism. Included: A discussion of where urban schools have shown improvement.

Since July 2003, Carlos A. Garcia has been advocating for urban schools as chairman of the Board of Directors of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of 61 of the nation's largest urban public school systems.

"I always viewed myself as a practitioner," Garcia told Education World. "I don't have a doctorate, and I don't plan to get a doctorate. I like doing education, rather than studying about doing it."

Garcia, currently superintendent of Clark County (Nevada) School District, one of the fastest growing districts in the United States, stepped on all the rungs of the educational ladder on his way to that post. He started his career as a high school social studies teacher, earned an administrator's certificate, and served as an elementary school vice principal and principal, before taking his first superintendent job in Sanger, California. Garcia also was superintendent of the Fresno (California) Unified School District.

Carlos A. Garcia

Garcia brings to the council an understanding of the struggles faced by many urban students. The son of Mexican immigrants, he started kindergarten in Los Angeles, California, at age 5, speaking no English. "One reason I'm such an advocate for public education is I never had an easy time," Garcia said.

As his one-year term as chairman nears its end, Garcia talked with Education World about his desire to help urban districts pinpoint ways to improve student performance and continue to shrink the achievement gap.

Education World: Why did you want to be chairman of the Board of Directors of the Council of the Great City Schools?

Carlos A. Garcia: I believe in its mission. I really like the fact that it supports urban education and speaks up for urban education. If we [council members] don't focus on large urban schools, who will? I like the fact that millions of kids are served in those 61 districts, we need to speak for them.

EW: What have been the goals for your term?

Garcia: [One goal has been] closing the achievement gap. I'm most proud of the fact that we are moving forward on that. Now, it is in the forefront. You can criticize the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, but one good thing about it is there no longer are "invisible" kids [low-achieving students who do not receive services.] The law says you can't ignore them. NCLB keeps the achievement gap at the forefront, and reminds us that we have room for improvement.

[A Council of the Great City Schools' report "Beating the Odds" released in March 2004 indicated that urban students made gains in reading and mathematics in the first year of NCLB.] Urban districts were doing the "beating the odds" thing before NCLB. If we identify programs that are scientifically based, and focus in on those, kids will be successful. Now that we are using resources to do specific things, we are making a tremendous difference. NCLB parallels some of the things the council already has been doing.

Most urban districts, for example, have made taking algebra a requirement to graduate. The council has been involved in ramping up curriculum, believing that children can come up and meet the standards. The standards are higher than they ever have been.

"Public education is the piata of society; everybody takes a whack at us. But the good thing about piatas is they have candy in them. The candy in the public schools is the great teachers and great students that attend them. I don't think we can afford in America to let this piata break. It's what keeps democracy moving forward," says Carlos A. Garcia, chairman of the Board of Directors of the Council of the Great City Schools.

EW: What are some of the biggest concerns facing urban districts right now?

Garcia: Financial issues are just devastating. The last few years have been really tough. Schools finally are making gains, and now they have to make cuts. Everybody is supposed to meet the same standards, but the funding discrepancy in meeting those standards is great. I'm supposed to pull it off when I don't have the same financial resources as others.

Facilities also are a problem. When are we going to have a Marshall Plan to rebuild America's schools? We rebuilt Europe after World War II with the Marshall Plan. You see the conditions of some of the school buildings and you just are shocked. Our facilities are falling apart, and budgets are not keeping up with the need to repair them. Our infrastructures are collapsing.

Another issue is voucher schools. We can compete with voucher schools on a level playing field. It doesn't seem fair that money go to a voucher school that doesn't have to meet the same standards we do. If they are going to take public funds, they have to be rated the same way and take everyone -- special education kids, for example.

I think vocational/ technical programs are important; not everyone goes to college. We should graduate kids with skills to make the choices about what they want to do, whether they want to go to college, vocational school, the military, or work. It's not for the system to make the decision for them by denying them access because they were not prepared.

Horace Mann said, "The public school is the greatest discovery of mankind." And I really believe that. I even have it on my business card. Public education is the piata of society; everybody takes a whack at us. But the good thing about piatas is they have candy in them. The candy in the public schools is the great teachers and great students that attend them. I don't think we can afford in America to let this piata break. It's what keeps democracy moving forward.

EW: What educational issue is most frustrating to you?

Garcia: My biggest frustration in this county is that we only acknowledge knowledge in English. If Albert Einstein came here at 18, and didn't speak English, he would have been deemed at risk.

If we have kids who come from Latin America, we don't test their knowledge in their own language.

The language issue is one of the biggest confronting our nation today. English-language-learners is the largest growing segment of the population in most districts. We always deal with language as if it's a problem. As long as we always view it as problem, we won't be able to solve it. We should view multilingualism as an asset. We should recognize it as something good we can build upon.

There were no bilingual teachers when I went to school, and [English] immersion worked for me. But I saw a lot of kids for whom it didn't work, and they couldn't succeed.

My parents were literate, but a lot of [immigrant] kids don't have a foundation in their native language.

It takes three to seven years to master a new language. It's wrong to test them in academic areas after a year. Now, we have up to three years to test them, which is a little more realistic.

In Nevada, unless students pass an exit exam in English, they can't graduate. The highest drop-out rate is among Hispanics.

EW: How have you been advocating for urban districts?

Garcia: I talk a lot about what we're doing right -- with businesses and the community. It's okay to talk about what's wrong, but we also need to talk about how we're going to fix it. Yeah, we have things that need fixing, but we also are doing a lot of things right.

The headlines about education have not changed much over the past 100 years or so. We still are concerned about immigrants coming in, and students not being up to standards.

People talk about the good old days. When were the good old days? When people could own slaves? When we had segregated schools? In the 1950s, when 50 percent of kids dropped out?

I say the good old days are now. We are graduating more kids than ever before. We used to measure success by seat time. Now, we measure success by proficiency. There is a big difference in expectations.

EW: What information do you most want to pass on to your successor?

Garcia: Keep working with our legislators, helping them understand the complexity of understanding public schools. Sometimes law oversimplifies complex issues. Also, stay focused on closing the achievement gap.

This e-interview with Carlos Garcia is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2004 Education World

 

04/29/2004


 

 

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