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Educating Justly

Education Inequality in Philadelphia

This semester, I drive into inner-city Philadelphia five days a week to student-teach at an urban school. This is the final requirement that I must complete in order to graduate in May with a degree in music education, and the experience has been difficult, eye-opening and immensely valuable. It has also brought to light many issues that I believe that Eastern University ought to grapple with as a community.

Upon deciding to be a student teacher in an urban school, several people questioned my decision. I was told that I would not learn very much. One person told me that it would be a waste of my time, talents and passions. As this individual put it, students at schools in wealthy, suburban areas deserve more quality education than those in urban areas.

There is often a negative stigma surrounding urban education, even from within the system itself. Some believe that educators work in the city because they are not good enough to work in better schools or because they do not care and simply want a paycheck. I do not deny that this happens sometimes, but I do affirm that the opposite of this is also true. Some of the teachers that I have worked with are among the most honorable, hardworking people I have ever met. I have heard people say that good teachers should stay in wealthy, suburban schools. I disagree. To bring about change and foster justice in our society, it is crucial that good educators work in urban schools.

The wealthy will still be able to succeed without excellent teachers, but without quality education, the poor and the marginalized will remain socially and economically disadvantaged. While Eastern boasts about its commitment to social justice, I am in the minority by choosing to student teach in the Philadelphia school district this semester. I do not say this to boast, but to point out a great flaw and a dire need.

Many share the opinion that schools in Philadelphia have received all the help they can get. Rather than trying to fix things and continuing to throw money at problems, walls should be built around the city and those inside should be left to figure things out for themselves. Sure, money has been spent on the wrong things. Educators have failed. Students can be unmotivated and disruptive. But why should that change the need to fix what is broken? It is not beyond repair. Why is it acceptable that children born into disadvantaged environments do not have access to the same resources that children born into advantaged environments have? Why is it acceptable that students at a school in Radnor Township have great academic success when 14 miles away, at a school in Philadelphia, only three out of every ten students can read at their grade level or above? If you care about justice, this should be a cause of deep concern to you.

I teach in a school mostly comprised of minority students and, thus, I have learned a great deal about a culture very different from my own. Some people are uncomfortable and even disagreeable about bringing up race in reference to urban schools. Many people deny that systemic racism still exists in the United States. I am willing to bet that most people who deny the existence of this prejudice and flawed ideology do not have much exposure to minority cultures.

Two blocks away from my school is a large neighborhood of predominantly white families who own large mansions. Many of these families include school-aged children, yet they primarily attend private schools. Because few students from the area attend my school, students from poorer communities are bused in. We have about 400 minority students from poor backgrounds attending a public school in a predominantly wealthy, white neighborhood. I should add that the school does not receive the benefits of the nearby wealth. There is a problem here, and racial injustice is a great part of it. Consider that the ancestors of my students were harshly oppressed for several hundred years, and consider that this has never really been repaid or dignified.

To be quite frank, teaching in an urban environment is extremely challenging. I have never felt weaker than while student-teaching this semester. I love to teach, but on a good day, I only spend about ten minutes of each 45 minute period teaching. The rest is spent managing behavior. Students are often disruptive and talk constantly. They can be moody. There are several students in every class with extreme behavioral problems. Some students are very disrespectful, and many students do not take responsibility for their actions. Some afternoons I want to come home and cry. Many days I wake up not wanting to return. I have broken up four fights between elementary school students tearing each other apart.

Some students are physically and sexually abused. They carry scars, both visible and invisible. Some students are hungry. Some live in shelters. Some are emotionally unstable. I cannot fix every student. But every once in a while, I have success. Every once in a while, I see a student’s face light up at the joy of making music, of learning something new, of discovering something that they did not know existed. I often fail, and I sometimes succeed.

But the small bit of success compensates for the large amount of failure. It reminds me that in the midst of dysfunction, there is a loving God. As exhausting and emotionally draining as this job is, it allows me to hope and work for a better tomorrow for the students I teach.

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