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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

3 steps to address urban crime and education

So many pieces of flotsam and jetsam have floated by my urban window in the last few weeks. As I observe the debris and am affected by it, I struggle to find an effective position for reflection and assessment. This is not an easy task. It's a wonder that anything makes sense in the world of urban revitalization given the emotions, financial issues, power struggles, intergroup competitions, and so forth.

Kansas City, MO is in the midst of a serious homicide rate over the last month. When homicides spike, everyone gets nervous. Neighborhood people stuck in the midst begin to worry that they might find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. I have heard more gunfire in my neighborhood in the last few weeks than in the last 6 months. Politicians get nervous that they better have a response lest the public hold them accountable. I heard KC Mayor James speak on this the other day. He said that the new Police Chief has a strong plan to attack crime and even in this spike, he has managed to generate more arrests for homicides than usual. What makes me nervous about all this is that no one thinks about addressing the cause of violence. We just don't seem to pay attention to reality.  When the economy was strong in the 1990s and early 2000s, urban crime rates steadily declined. Yes, there is a relationship.

KCMO has been struggling with its urban core school district, now known as KCPS - Kansas City Public Schools. New name, same district. The state is rattling its saber to intervene or take over because the school district is not successful. The state freely admits that most urban school districts are not successful, but no matter, they are going to intervene and do...something. They have no idea what that ill be despite that the district is in the midst of implementing a significant effort to improve student achievement. A questioner at a recent public meeting asked, why is it that the 3 majority black districts in the state (2 in St. Louis and 1 in KC) are the ones that can't make accreditation? Maybe it's that we don't EFFECTIVELY support accreditation in urban districts because it is, by its very nature, intractable? We have to go beyond the classroom to deal with urban education.

Crime and Education are related. Race, crime, and education are related. White power brokers don't seem to get this and instead are crusading about, claiming to be here "for the children," "for the victims," "for the average citizen."  It's time to stop the madness. This Emperor has no clothes!! But as our state commissioner of education said, we cannot let poverty and racism stop us from successfully educating kids. But she also implied that schools would do nothing about those conditions. You can't let it stop educational achievement, but you can't ignore it either. A conundrum that may explain the poor performance of St. Louis and Kansas City school districts. Rearranging the deck chairs won't change a thing, Commissioner.

Kids going to inner-city public schools come in with very specific life issues that suburban kids do not have. It ranges from dealing with violent crime in their neighborhood to the daily stress of poverty. If you've never been really poor for an extended period of time, you have no idea what the stress is like. These life environments and stressors affect education. Put inadequate nutrition on that list too. Urban food deserts explain part of that issue. Often overlooked is the horrendous quality of urban school food that comes from large, institutional food servers. How do kids learn without nutrition? They don't. It's our job to fix this.

So what are we, the average citizen, the fearful potential victim, the parents of children, the removed suburbanite, the concerned leader, and the disinterested resident supposed to do? As I have said for years - we must take responsibility.

Is it really so hard to understand? If a significant portion of our community is suffering to cope, unable to engage, ill-prepared to contribute, and stuck in the cycle of discrimination and hostility from us, then we must take responsibility. I constantly read on other blogs the following comments that are in direct opposition to my admonition.

  • "Why should I have to take responsibility for the inadequacies of others?"Because we contribute directly and indirectly to at least some portion of their inadequacy. 
  • "People should make their own way and stop blaming others." Convenient, when you are the one being blamed. 
  • "Just because I am white does not mean I am directly responsible for the plight of minorities." White privilege is a part of every white person, whether you like it or not. Deal with it. 
  • "Parents must take responsibility at home for their juvenile delinquents. Don't expect the schools or me to do it for you." And these inner-city parents are as overstressed as their kids. Who or what is supporting the parents in this maelstrom? 
Every white power broker in Kansas City that is trying to direct the governance, operations, and policy of crime and education needs to take personal responsibility and stop blaming others. This does not mean taking personal control. Neither does it mean ceding control without accountability. 

Here's how I would solve both the crime and education problem in KC. Feel free to adopt and use. 

1. Unless it is a violent crime or homicide, use mediation to deal with crime. This builds communications. Command and control is too expensive and will not last. Neither will it stop crime. This is not coddling. This is humanity and the most effective use of resources.

2. Triage the urban core to actually work for the kids: jobs or other economic support, business development (even if home based business), and whole, fresh food retail. These are not short-term programs, but a long-term intervention. Out of a sustained environment you will grow lots of support systems because there will be a place for them to succeed. Nonprofits are struggling because of the tidal wave they can't manage. 

3. The City must support neighborhoods and the schools within those neighborhoods and not just with lip service. You can't sidestep this, finesse this, or otherwise look the other way. The city needs to stand for the inner-city schools and put its resources, power, and support behind them. Then, triage its neighborhood support services to the urban core. It's not fair to the other neighborhoods, but too bad. Those neighborhoods have not been fair to the urban core in the last 80 years. The city has for too long followed an equal disposition of resources by council district. End that now! Focus on the urban core and you will see schools improve. 

There you go. Three steps, though not easy. Even I'm not sure I can be optimistic in the face of the unlikelihood that any of this will happen. 

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