National Writing Project

Urban Sites Focus on Reform Issues

By: Art Peterson
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 9, No. 3
Date: 2004

Summary: The National Writing Project 2004 Urban Sites Conference presented participants with both exhilarating and disheartening snapshots of the condition of urban education approaching the middle of the decade.


The National Writing Project 2004 Urban Sites Conference presented participants with both exhilarating and disheartening snapshots of the condition of urban education approaching the middle of the decade. In keeping with the conference theme, "Urban Literacy and the Challenge of Reform," presenters brought news of community literacy projects, teacher-driven reform efforts, and advances in English language learner (ELL) instruction. But the conference, held in Philadelphia April 30–May 1, also featured a presentation by four students from Philadelphia's Simon Gratz High School who shared inquiry projects they had developed as a way of coping with events that have led to the murders of four students at their school since last September.

This mix of good and bad news also characterized Rochelle Nichols Solomon's keynote address, "Equity and Excellence in Educating the Children of the Sun." Solomon, who is the director of the New York-based Academy for Educational Development's School for a New Society, drew the phrase "children of the sun" from educator and writer W. E. B. DuBois, who in 1903 predicted "that the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line." Solomon began her talk by focusing on one of that century's key efforts to confront the color-line problem: Brown v. Board of Education, the now 50-year-old landmark decision by the Supreme Court that outlawed school desegregation.

Solomon documented the tension and paradox that Brown v. Board of Education generated by contrasting her personal experience in 1954—the year of the decision—with events that were occurring in the American South at the same time. In 1954 Solomon and her twin brother entered South Philadelphia's George W. Childs School, an all-black school in a segregated neighborhood. Fifty years later, that school and neighborhood remain relatively unchanged. But in the South of the 1950s, where African Americans made up 20–30 percent of the population, Solomon noted that Brown created a very different story. The Supreme Court decision put an end to "colored" schools, which were often characterized by neglect: some had no electricity; in others, children's drinking water came from dippers in open buckets; and some lacked even desks.


Rochelle Nichols Solomon addressed the NWP Urban Sites Conference on the difficulties and accomplishments of urban school reform.

Solomon presented these examples to frame her discussion of issues surrounding school reform. As with school desegregation, the story of school reform "implies progress but at the same time is about maintaining the status quo." Also, Solomon said, the lesson of school desegregation tells us that in school-reform matters "the long view must be taken as we examine and reflect on change."

Taking the long view, Solomon said there is much to be positive about in education. She supported this assessment with four key points:

  • Education is now a front-burner issue.

Solomon recalled how, in 1967, Richard Dilworth, a former Philadelphia mayor known for his progressive politics, observed that education during his term of office was "simply not a major priority." Solomon said that now, nearly 40 years later, "one can hardly imagine a political leader . . . confessing such sentiments." Instead politicians promise dramatic improvements in public education in exchange for control of the schools in their jurisdictions.

  • Academic expectations have increased for all students.

Solomon made reference to DuBois's distinction, in the early part of the 20th century, between industrial education and academic study. Industrial education, DuBois said, led a black man to "hitch his wagon to a mule." Academic study—generally unavailable to blacks at the time—allowed him to "hitch his wagon to a star."

Today parents expect much more of schools. "These changes in expectation," Solomon noted, "have pushed schools to eliminate tracking, require college prep as a default curriculum, and turn their attention to figuring out how to teach to these new high levels."

  • Emphasis is being placed on success for older students.

Education formerly emphasized academic success in the elementary grades. This "myopic focus" was based on the commonly held belief that by the time a student reaches high school "it's too late." Teachers and others in education have lobbied for a more enlightened view of success for all students. One effect of this new perspective has been the creation of small schools "as caring communities that support learning and the healthy development of students."

  • Districts invest in teachers.

Professional development for educators was once viewed with suspicion if not contempt. Solomon remembered one Philadelphia city council member's shock at the school district's professional development budget. "Haven't these teachers gone to college?" he barked. "Why do they need professional development?"

"Today, professional development is an accepted part of the budget," Solomon said, "and people are insisting on quality support." She singled out the National Writing Project as an organization that "has played a significant role in helping define and support quality professional development. [NWP's] work exemplifies sustained partnerships for teaching and learning."

Several articles in this issue of The Voice—sprung from discussions begun at the Urban Sites Conference—provide evidence of strong NWP work in the areas of professional development and school reform. One article, "It Takes a School," written by Mary Ann Smith, NWP director of governmental relations and public affairs, describes her visit to Philadelphia's Meade Elementary School while at the Urban Sites Conference. Meade, under the leadership of Principal Frank Murphy, has established a long-term relationship with the Philadelphia Writing Project. At the conference, Murphy and several of his teachers presented a breakout session titled "Developing a Site-Based Management Team for Improved Literacy Instruction."

A second article, "The Writing Project and Tulsa Schools Collaborate for School Reform That Works," comes from Eileen Simmons, a co-director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project. After attending the Urban Sites Conference, Simmons was inspired to write about the "then" and "now" of reform in her Oklahoma school district, with the "now" being another example of an NWP local site's ability "to sustain partnerships for teaching and learning."

Finally, Christina Puntel, a teacher-consultant with the Philadelphia Writing Project, writes "Whose Core Is It?" an article about her struggle to hold on to the core of what she knows to be essential in educating children while working within the framework of a mandated reform curriculum that knows little if anything of the classroom that she has created. Puntel derives strength from the community of like-minded teachers in Philadelphia and in the National Writing Project network who share her vision of what education can be.

About the Author Art Peterson is a senior editor for the National Writing Project.

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