Suburban schools are not ready for big-city challenges

Suburban schools have slipped under the radar when it comes to the biggest philanthropic investments and most controversial reforms to roil the education space—school closures, charter growth, teacher evaluations and state interventions.

But suburban schools need to wake up from their long complacent slumber.

As a new report points out, these schools are ill equipped to deal with the mounting challenges they are facing, given fast-growing numbers of English Language Learners and students living in poverty.

In fact, the rate of poverty grew nearly three times as fast in suburbs as in cities between 2000 and 2013. And the ELL population has been growing steadily for well over a decade and if the growth trend continues, it is expected to double by 2025, with the biggest growth taking place in rural and suburban school systems.

Yet the additional services needed in schools to support these families are not in place. Consider these challenges identified in Suburban Schools: The Unrecognized Frontier in Public Education by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE):

  • Suburbs have less philanthropic support, as regional and national foundation grant processes are often focused on inner cities.
  • Many antipoverty support services are concentrated in the inner city or urban core, while organizations working in suburbs are stretched over much wider geographic areas.
  • Poor residents in the suburbs often lack a car and are not well served by public transportation. This limits access to jobs, social and medical services, and schools.

While schools might not be able to easily fix some of the above challenges, they do have a great deal of control over one challenge: The diversity and cultural competency of their teaching staffs. As the report points out:

Suburban districts also lag behind urban districts in familiarity with the challenges posed by poor and disadvantaged students. The suburban teacher workforce was developed in the 1950s and 1960s to serve a more affluent and homogenous, mostly native-born, white student body. New populations pose unprecedented challenges.

Abrupt changes in the student population can lead to cultural mismatches and misunderstandings. When teachers have negative perceptions of students, it can adversely impact student behavior and lead to measurable declines in achievement. Teachers unfamiliar with low-income or minority students are likely to view them as not ready for school or unprepared for grade-level work. Cultural differences can easily be mistaken as expressions of learning or emotional disability.

So how can suburban communities prepare for the risk and seize the opportunity to reinvent themselves?

Districts must break the stranglehold of “legacy” groups that are vested in the status quo and might not prioritize the needs of newcomers. Neighboring communities should consider sharing resources and talent. Teachers need to redefine what success looks like in their fast-changing classrooms and adapt their practice.

Mostly it will require political courage and redeployment of philanthropic resources—”supporting innovation and experimentation in a new, relatively unspoiled environment.”

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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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