How to Get the Most out of Urban Public Schools

Steven Shultis is a long-time member of Strong Towns and a strong advocate for urban public education, having raised his own children in the inner city of Springfield, MA. Today, he's sharing his own perspective on immersing his middle class children in a diverse, mixed-income inner city public school and a guide for other parents considering the same.

The author's daughter, LuLu, on her first day on school

The author's daughter, LuLu, on her first day on school

Chuck Marohn interviewed me for the Strong Towns podcast this week (that episode will be released on Thursday), and something remarkable happened to me after our conversation: I was disappointed with my performance, but that disappointment lead to a realization which has been invigorating. I felt as though I had been much too negative in my responses to Chuck's questions, not a particularly good attribute to have when you are a self proclaimed advocate of urban education.

We sometimes forget whence we started in life. It's easy to redefine past experiences by our current attitudes and philosophies, but that can be deceptive. I am a thoroughgoing non-believer today—an atheist—but it was my devout Mormon faith which caused me to serve a mission in Andalucía over 30 years ago now, and it was in that time, paradoxically, that I was converted to urbanism. I had always enjoyed the downtown of my hometown, but it was in Algeciras, across the bay from Gibraltar and the Straits from Morocco, that I met Alberto Cantero Jiménez, his brother Jorge, and their friends and I realized how much healthier their lifestyle seemed to me.

As a Mormon, the importance of family was always stressed. I knew, even at the tender age of 20, that the next step in my life was to marry and have children, and I knew that I wanted to raise those children in a place where they could exercise their autonomy in the way that my new friends did in southern Spain. I wanted the freedom I saw in the young people of Andalucía to be part of my unborn children's lives.

I've spent so much time defending the idea of the value of the urban school experience, often being attacked by people who assume that my decision to live in an urban place was done with total disregard for my kids, that I had forgotten how important their wellbeing had been in the decision-making which lead my family and I to live an urban lifestyle. I've spent so much time arguing for the urban school experience (here, here, here, here, here and here, just to start) that I had forgotten that school was only part of the education my daughters received living in a diverse, traditional, and urban neighborhood.

Yes, my daughter, Xela, earned an IB diploma and went to Smith College on their most generous merit scholarship, and yes, Mckenzie earned the Abigail Adams Scholarship and attended Salem State tuition free, and their decision to attend university in walkable communities was informed by the experiences of their youth I am certain. But more importantly, their decisions—both of them—to live abroad, to work abroad, and to travel extensively were undergirded by a confidence developed through the exercise of their autonomy walking, biking, and taking public transportation here in Springfield. Having friends from middle class families and from poor ones, from White, Black, and Hispanic backgrounds has inspired an appreciation for diverse cultures and attitudes as well. I have no doubt.

Determining the quality of a particular school by the value added it brings to a child's academic development requires a great deal of complex data and, not surprisingly, most schools fall somewhere in the bulky mass that is the heart of the bell curve, but an experience rich in its complexity, nuance, and intangibles is perhaps even more rare than a truly excellent school by standard academic measures. I'll never know how different my girls would be, had they had a more typical white, middle class upbringing and education in a suburban community. Maybe they'd have worked in Madrid and Bucheon, studied in Córdoba and Montreal, and visited Brugge, Barcelona, and Palenque anyway. I'll never know. But I do know that neither of them has ever expressed regret at having grown up this way.

The author's daughters with their basketball team, the Commerce High School  Lady Raiders

The author's daughters with their basketball team, the Commerce High School Lady Raiders

A Field Guide to Urban Parenting

I've been a student, a student teacher, an employee, or a parent of a child in the Springfield public schools for 31 of the last 47 years spanning from 1969 to today. I've been on the "School Centered Decision Making" team at two schools for three terms, and I've been connected in the aforementioned ways to 4 elementary schools, 4 high schools, and 1 junior high/middle school. That, along with my 27 years of teaching experience outside the city means I really don't know where the obvious ends and where my significant insights, if any, begin.

Having expressed that, behold my field guide to urban parenting:

1. Figure out how your local school system works.

You start by knowing how your community assigns particular students to particular schools. Is it a controlled choice program? An open choice program? Do they attempt to alter the racial or socio-economic balance of the schools? Are there magnet schools, public charters, private charters, or is there a good old-fashioned neighborhood school model?

These are important questions even if you're not particularly interested in the answers because every option and every choice offered has the potential to change the makeup of your child's school in significant ways. Just having hoops to jump through and quasi-hidden programs to discover creates a circumstance where the children of parents who place a greater emphasis on education can bundle their young learners together and create enclaves. To paraphrase one of my favorite economists: "Never panic...but always panic first".

2. Visit the school.

Once you've narrowed down your options...assuming there are's time to visit the school. You can learn quite a bit from that first phone call attempting to set up a visit: Is this a normal thing to them? Do they have a system in place? Are they open to the idea of you visiting? If not, it doesn't mean it's a bad school, but it could mean that they're not used to parents being very actively involved. Give them a chance to reset if this unbalances them a little. A lack of parent involvement is fairly normal in poorer urban districts. There are many reasons for this, ranging from the logistical and time-related problems inherent in being poor to antipathy for the educational process, and everything in between. Some parents simply don't speak the language or understand the culture of "open houses" and "back to school nights."

The author's daughter, Mckenzie, and her friends, at her sweet 16 birthday party

The author's daughter, Mckenzie, and her friends, at her sweet 16 birthday party

3. Take any advice with a grain of salt.

Should you just "ask around" as to what the best schools and school options are? Sure, but you have to be careful with this. I remember when I was a new missionary in Spain and I heard what I thought was a nice Spanish mom telling her children to stop "messing around" while she talked to the Americans. I wanted to use my new expression ASAP so, at the next house, I saw some lovely children playing gleefully in a side room: "Niños," I offered to their mother, "Siempre están de cachondeo." This nice mom's jaw dropped: It's not every day that a nice Mormon missionary says that your kids are f%#-ing around!

My point is that it's sometimes hard to know the general disposition of someone giving advice. I'm sure they think that what they're saying is accurate, but how did they come by that information and what are the attitudes and assumptions that led them to that belief? The bottom line is that I'm skeptical of urban public school advice because everyone I asked, and some I didn't, told me to grab my children and run (screaming) from the Springfield Public Schools. And they were—each and every one of them—wrong.

4. Look for a good administrator.

Look for a strong administrator, but be wary of one that seems to take everything on by herself. In my experience those are the best, but if they leave, things can go south rather quickly. Are they close to retirement? Does the district move successful principals around to fix problem schools? Speaking of the district, how long do superintendents stick around? Does the system look for continuity by hiring from within? In a large district that can make a huge difference.

5. Consider starting with kindergarten.

If your children are young, consider starting them in public schools from the beginning. Kindergarten is kindergarten; not a lot of gang initiations or illicit drug activity going on there. I've done this three times now. Kindergarten is a good way to get your feet wet as a parent as well; get to know the teachers and the administrators, and see how the school works.

One very important aside: If you decide on a non-neighborhood school of some sort for which bus transportation is provided, realize that on the bus your child will likely be thrown in with children of varying ages and possibly attending different schools for different reasons and very little monitoring may be taking place. My children never rode buses at the K-8th grade levels, but as a teacher I will tell you that the bus is as troublesome a moving target for any school as there is.

The author's daughter, Xela, speaking at high school graduation

The author's daughter, Xela, speaking at high school graduation

6. Get involved in the school, but proceed with caution.

Getting back to parental involvement, in my experience this is a minefield for urban-pioneer type parents. If you take a leadership role, even fully intending to be there to serve the other parents of the school, it is possible that you will be looked at with suspicion. Why? There's one middle class white kid in the school and her mom is in charge of the P.T.O.? Think about it. If possible, try to take on a supporting role.

The most important reason to be involved at the elementary level is to show your child how important their education is to you...and to keep your finger on the pulse of the school. Being in the school from time to time in some quasi-official capacity can show you how the school really works and which classrooms are the best. 

7. Let your kids take the lead.

By the time my kids were in high school, I found that things tended to take care of themselves. My daughters knew what they wanted, and went and got it. Middle school was the most fraught with worry, but turned into the best and the easiest of our school decisions. The principal at Forest Park Middle School loved her kids, respected her teachers, and was responsive to everyone who could possibly be considered a stakeholder. It was a special place and a special time for my daughters.

So there you have it: Investigate, get involved, stay involved, and hope you get lucky. If you're on your own at times, find other social outlets for your child. If a band of similarly minded parents starts to form, bond with them quickly to support positive changes in the school, and to give yourself and your child a support network.

After all the years of involvement with education in Springfield, I have very few regrets and I have never thought that my daughters would have been better off with a more suburban educational experience. Perhaps my belief that it could work was the magic feather my daughters needed to believe in it as well. There's something to viewing your child's education as not just an experience of taking, but of giving as well. Maybe it shows a class bias, but I do think that apart from the Springfield Public Schools making a difference in their lives, I think that they made a difference in the lives of other children as well.

(All photos courtesy of Steven Shultis)

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About the author

Steve Shultis lives in an older neighborhood in Springfield, MA. He discusses his own experience raising a family in a less affluent neighborhood on his blog and also on an episode of our podcast last year. Steve walks the walk.