Education World: Wire Side Chats: RWorking for Urban Schools' Success

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Working for Urban Schools' Success


Judy Farmer, the new chairwoman of the board of directors of the Council of the Great City Schools, thinks urban schools are doing a lot right, and more joint efforts by educators and communities can lead to greater gains. Included: Suggestions for improving urban education.

Judy Farmer brings her experience as a teacher and a community advocate to her new post of chairwoman of the board of directors of the Council of the Great City Schools. She plans to use that experience trumpet the successes of urban schools, while reminding people of their ongoing needs.

Farmer has served on the Minneapolis School Board for 24 years and has been president of the Minnesota School Boards Association. She also was the director of a parent cooperative pre-school and then worked with other parents and teachers to start the Minneapolis Public Schools' system of public school choice and its desegregation program. Farmer is a former junior and senior high school teacher.

She recently talked with Education World about her goals for her term as chairwoman.

Judy Farmer

Education World: Why did you want to be chairwoman of the board of directors of the Council of the Great City Schools?

Judy Farmer: First, let me say that because of the council's national standing, it is an honor to be selected as chairwoman. I hope my skills and experiences can help me contribute to effectively leading a national board of directors in pursuit of collectively developed goals and direction and in support our staff. The council is a very professional, well-run organization, and I hope to keep it that way.

EW: What are your goals for your one-year term?

Farmer: During my term as chairwoman, I hope to continue the board and executive committee's strong support of Michael Casserly, the executive director, and his dedicated team. [In addition], two areas I would like to explore are building a stronger relationship with the national teacher organizations and working in a more integrated way with our adjunct Council of Urban Deans of Colleges of Education. If our member districts are to accelerate closing the achievement gap between students of color and white students, we need to cooperatively address improving classroom instruction and the preparation of teachers for work in urban schools.

EW: How do you plan to use your position to advocate for urban districts?

Farmer: I hope to be an articulate, effective voice for urban public school students and schools with the national media, with Congress, when and if appropriate, and advance the council goals of educating the public about large city public schools, and advocating for improving test results in those schools. There are many misconceptions and much intentional and unintentional misinformation that beg for correction. I believe to my core that our democracy depends on a successful public school system. I have dedicated my adult life to working to improve it for all our children, and I will continue to do that as chairwoman of the council.

"Our council districts' biggest challenge is to reform and improve our instruction of these children so every one of them reaches high academic standards necessary to graduate from high school and succeed in work, post-secondary education, and life," says Judy Farmer, chairwoman of the board of directors of the Council of the Great City Schools.

EW:What are the biggest challenges facing urban schools now?

Farmer: In our large cities, we find concentrations of children who each face not one or two challenges, but a constellation of barriers to growing up healthy and successful. Many of these factors are related to poverty and, unfortunately, there is a high correlation between poverty and race. Seventy-seven percent of the seven million children enrolled in council district schools are students of color. Approximately 62 percent of them qualify for free or reduced price lunch, 18 percent are English Language Learners, and 13 percent qualify for special education services.

Our council districts' biggest challenge is to reform and improve our instruction of these children so every one of them reaches high academic standards necessary to graduate from high school and succeed in work, post-secondary education, and life. We are willing and anxious to do this and to be held accountable for that work, but we must have adequate resources to do the job. With the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act, we will continue to urge Congress to allocate those resources originally promised, so we can meet the challenge. Our children deserve that investment from our lawmakers at the national and state levels.

We also are constantly working to counter a public perception that urban schools are failing. We have stepped up and taken the initiative to be very publicly accountable, in order to show that our schools are improving, many of them faster than other schools in our states. The achievement gaps are closing in large city public schools. We have collected data from our member districts and published it in [the report] "Beating The Odds." Many of our schools are among the best in the nation, regularly sending their graduates on to success in the most selective public and private colleges and universities. We struggle to publicize these successes, to offset a negative perception.

EW: What do you want people to know about urban schools?

Farmer: I would invite people to visit them and learn about them, first-hand. Don't assume what you read, hear, or see second-hand [is true.] Most are welcoming, exciting, orderly, learning places where creative, dedicated professionals are using research-based teaching practices to try to reach and teach each student. I believe large city public schools are among the most innovative in the nation. They need to be; they face the most vexing challenges.

However, we need the support of parents and important sectors of our communities to provide children with the assets they need to become successful. Schools are intended to teach children, not to raise them.

Most urban public schools are financially well-managed. We always are under a microscope because we usually are located in the major media markets of our states. Many business people who become involved with large city schools are amazed at how effective we are, considering the resources we have.

[Regarding finances,] federal and state mandates should be fully funded. For instance, when the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was enacted in 1975, Congress said it would fund 40 percent of the cost of these special education services. Now, in 2004, Congress has funded approximately 17 percent. The services still are mandated, and no one believes these students should not be well served.

However, school districts have to make up the difference between what the federal and state governments allocate and what the services actually cost. For every urban district, this gap amounts to many millions of dollars, which have to be taken out of the general fund that serves all students. NCLB, as it is now being implemented, is costing far more than Congress has allocated. The same is true of services for English Language Learners.

Urban public schools are willing and anxious to be held accountable, and we believe that charter schools and others who receive public monies also should be accountable to the public, from whom they accept funds. We are hopeful and encouraged by our improving results.

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


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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