Each fall I take first-year students interested in English education on field trips to museums in Connecticut. Last year, on a trip to the Wadsworth Atheneum, several students expressed surprise at the loveliness of the area — the Wadsworth, City Hall, the Public Library, the under construction Hartford Times building, even Bushnell Park in view in the distance from Wells Street or Gold Street. I concurred, and asked if any of them had ever been to the Wadsworth before. All shook their heads no. Then I asked if any of them had ever been to Hartford before, and, again, all of them said no. One young woman said her parents claimed it was too dangerous. Several others said they had heard the same thing.
• EDITOR’S NOTE: English and Social Studies teachers from Manchester High School are working with the Connecticut Writing Project-Storrs at the University of Connecticut as part of the National Writing Project’s College, Career, and Community Writers Program, learning how to better prepare their students for the writing demands they will encounter beyond high school. This is the seventh in a series of essays from participants in this year’s program.
Last week I read several articles in The Hartford Courant about the opening of the UConn Hartford campus, and, again, suburban students routinely said things like, My mother “was just concerned about me coming to Hartford all alone. She doesn’t want me walking around alone because of the higher crime rate,” or “My parents were definitely afraid to send me here.”
These sentiments are indicative of a broader misperception of urban environments, one that extends significantly to the general misperception of urban schools.
A recent article in The Atlantic discusses bias against urban schools, and cites a Harvard study about school quality that reveals how baseless public perception is when researchers use more than merely standardized test scores to evaluate schools. Another recent article published in Salon reveals a similar baseless bias as regards public, charter, and private schools. According to Salon, nearly 80 percent of the public believe that private schools provide a quality education, and fully 60 percent believe the same of charter schools, while less than 40 percent believe traditional public schools provide a quality education. And yet, once again, the research does not support this perception.
When I was a teenager, my uncle was the principal of a large urban high school in Connecticut. He had students whose families were mired in extreme poverty, and he had students expelled for bringing drugs to school. He also had graduating seniors accepted to Yale and other elite private colleges, and the school’s journalism program won a national award.
Urban schools are a microcosm of our society. The presence of impoverished students or a high suspension rate reveals nothing about the overall quality of the education available or of the teaching provided by the teachers.
In the last decade, I have been in over 70 high schools across the state, observing teachers, providing professional development, or co-teaching the occasional lesson. Many of these have been urban high schools where I have observed extremely talented teachers, including at Windham High, East Hartford High, Classical Magnet School, Sports and Medical Sciences Academy, and Bulkeley High in Hartford, Metropolitan Business Academy in New Haven, and Manchester High School, to name a few.
I have a special relationship with Manchester High’s English Department. Nearly half of the 18 members of that department have been my undergraduate or graduate student, and I have provided professional development to them many times over the years. Currently, I have a College, Career, and Community Writers grant from the US Department of Education, via the National Writing Project, to spend 18 months working with the English and Social Studies teachers (joined by a handful of educators from Illing Middle School, Manchester Community College, and Rockville High). We held a three-day Advanced Institute this June to study argument writing, and I was as impressed as ever with the thoughtfulness and dedication of the MHS teachers.
This is a school whose 2014 valedictorian and salutatorian accepted Nutmeg scholarships to attend UConn, and whose first graduate to be drafted by the NFL attended Princeton and recently distinguished himself by being the first white player to take a knee during the national anthem to show solidarity with African-American players attempting to raise awareness about racism.
I have a young woman from Manchester High in my current honors First-Year Experience class, and when I mentioned that her department head and her drama coach had been my graduate students, she smiled and said, “Those are two of the best teachers I ever had.”
Misperception of urban spaces, urban schools, and urban educators is pervasive, but it is baseless, unfair, and unfortunate. What’s worse, as Jack Schneider of The Atlantic points out, is that when people act on these misperceptions — avoiding or fleeing our cities — they may help to create the reality they have misperceived.
Jason Courtmanche teaches at UConn, where he is the Director of the Connecticut Writing Project, the Assistant Coordinator of the Early College Experience English Program, and Lecturer in English. Each summer he runs a four-week Summer Institute where teachers from all grade levels and disciplines write and learn to be more effective teachers of writing. He also reviews teacher education programs for the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation.
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