On Thursday, a panel of education leaders in the community met at Youngstown State University’s Beeghly Hall for a moderated discussion on the ills of public education in urban areas and the available paths to recovery.
The discussion, titled “Success in Urban School Districts,” was brought together through the efforts of the Beeghly College of Education as part of YSU’s ongoing Alumni Lecture Series.
The panel was composed of YSU President Randy Dunn; Monica Jones, dean of Youngstown Early College; Michael Notar, superintendent of Warren City Schools and Karen Green, assistant superintendent of Youngstown City Schools. Lenford Sutton, the recently appointed chairman of YSU’s Department of Educational Foundations, Research, Technology and Leadership, moderated the panel.
“We’ve invited some experts in their field — including the university president — to speak about issues related to urban school districts,” Sutton said. “Basically, the learning conversation will be about some of the things that urban school districts have had to overcome given the recent economy and dwindling support for public education in terms of finance.”
It is no secret that with the 2008 recession and the proliferation of alternatives to dwindling public schools — such as charter schools, online school and home schooling — both urban and rural public schools around the country have found themselves face-to-face with serious challenges.
The conversation pertained to how education experts, interested communities, parents and government can curtail the decline of public schools.
Discussions regarding public education often focus on the issue of funding, but, with the help of the moderator, the participants were able to engage in an over-arching conversation on the possible root causes and eventual fixes to diminishing enrollment and issues of achievement.
“A teacher in the classroom that has high expectations and a love for learning and can motivate a child will do more than any letter grade on a test,” Green said. “If we’re going to change urban education, we need to look at the teacher in the classroom having high expectations. They’re the ones that are accountable, they’re the ones that will motivate a child.”
The paramount question of the evening was what effect involved teachers could have on a student’s success.
“I really believe to be in education, you have to be driven by your heart as well as your mind. Your belief system needs to be, ‘I’m gonna help that child at any cost,’” said Jones. “If you are willing to make a difference in the community — if you value what that learning community’s work has already done to close the gap in achievement — then you are a good candidate for urban education. If you are able to delay your gratification and be able to plant a seed and be patient enough to wait for the academic harvest, then you are a good candidate for urban education.” In the time allotted to them, panelists also put forth a variety of viewpoints — some even opposing — on matters of weakening enrollment, diversity, standardized testing, college preparation, loans and state vs. federal oversight.
“The accountability movement, as we’ve been talking about here, is clearly anchored in metrics. It is tied to numbers,” Dunn said on the growing emphasis on standardized testing. “We see this continual abandoning, if you will, of certain areas of art instruction, humanities instruction — certain areas that you might build units around or activities around, because it is not going to have that immediate direct impact on test scores.”
After Sutton’s prepared questions, the audience — made up of teachers, administrators and even students — was given a chance to participate and engage the panelists with their own questions on education.
“More money in the classroom is making sure that teachers have the professional development they need in order to teach all students appropriately. More money in the classrooms is making sure that when they enter the school that the school is inviting, that we have a climate that says ‘the teachers want to be here, we have the equipment to teach you, and you are going forth to learn,’” Green said in response to an attendee’s question on what more money directly into the classroom would change.
Sutton said YSU is not just interested in holding conversations about the plight of urban schools. YSU, as an urban public school, wants to bolster the education of public school students from kindergarten through 12th grade.
“We train and develop future teachers, future guidance counselors, future special education teachers and, most of all, future school leaders,” said Sutton on the college of education’s role in assisting urban school districts. “We are in the business of preparing people to go and work in these urban environments.”
With YSU being a prodigious state school, it has always taken a leadership position in the wider Youngstown area. One of these roles includes positioning itself to assist urban learning and success.
“State universities are stewards of the place we’re in. We owe a debt to the place we’re in to move the needle and the quality of life in our outreach,” Dunn said. “Economic development, job creation, health and wellness, arts and culture preservation, historic preservation — that is part of what we do for the place we’re in.”