What makes any school an urban school?

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: Position Paper
Developed by Pat Russo, Coordinator of the Center for Urban Schools
February 2004  
At SUNY Oswego in the School of Education we have made a commitment that each of our students will have at least one significant field placement in an urban setting.  Questions have arisen about which of the more than 100 schools where we place students are indeed "urban" schools.  In some cases, of course, it is quite obvious when a school is an urban school.  For example, the New York State Department of Education has designated schools in New York City, Yonkers, Buffalo, Rochester, or Syracuse as "large city school districts."  But what of the other smaller districts? Could they also be considered urban?  Where is the line that demarcates "urban" from "non-urban"?  The answer to these questions is more complicated than it might seem. This document attempts to develop a construct for thinking about urban schools that is appropriate for SUNY Oswego's School of Education based on the goals of our education programs.

Urban Education Field Placement as a Goal of the School of Education.

This goal to have each of our candidates experience at least one significant urban field placement came from four distinct but complimentary areas.  First, the School of Education conceptual framework reflects a commitment to teaching for social justice.  One way we work for social justice is to establish a presence in those schools where student poverty rates are the highest, student diversity is the norm not the exception, educational resources are extremely scarce, and where student achievement as well as teacher availability are the lowest; namely New York State�s urban schools. 

Second, at this point, most of our education majors come from suburban, small town, or rural communities.  Most plan to return to those communities (or settings very much like them) when they teach.  Of course, with these kinds of backgrounds and plans, it is easy to think that all schools are very much like the ones we came from.  We are not satisfied having our students leave our programs with such a limited view of communities and schools.  We have a 160 year history at SUNY Oswego, of preparing teachers to travel all over this country, and the world, learning more, and sharing the knowledge they have developed. With this legacy in mind, we want to prepare our students as completely as possible.  This means arranging for our students to experience many different schools and school communities, including urban schools. 

Third, NCATE expectations require that our candidates have experience working with students from a diversity of cultural groups.  In New York State (and most of the states in the North East and Midwest of the country) only urban schools offer the opportunity to satisfy this expectation.

Finally, the New York State Education Department has established an expectation that all teacher candidates demonstrate that they can effectively teach children in the state's "high needs" schools. In New York State most urban and many rural schools meet this high need status.  However, focusing on urban high needs schools will satisfy this expectation as well as the other areas described above. 

Still the question remains of just what is an urban school. Keeping the four issues above in mind can help us to determine which New York State Schools would best suit our purposes for providing an urban field placement for each of our students.

Determining Urban Schools

Because the goal of finding urban education field placements for students in SUNY Oswego's School of Education is reflected in particular interests of social justice and cultural diversity, we seek particular schools kinds of schools to meet these needs.

We are especially interested in placing students in schools that have the following characteristics:

  1. The school is located in a urban area rather than a rural, small town, or suburban area
  2. The school has a relatively high rate of poverty (as measured by Free and Reduced Lunch data provided by the NYSED)
  3. The school has a relatively high proportion of students of color (as reported by NYSED)
  4. The school has a relatively high proportion of students who are Limited English Proficient (as reported by NYSED)
  5. The school has been designated as "High Need" by NYSED.

Not all schools will meet all five of these characteristics but our goal is to place students in schools giving priority to schools that come closest having these characteristics.  For example if we had two schools to choose from in placing a pre-teacher, we would choose the school with the higher rate of poverty, cultural diversity, and Limited English Proficient students.

In the attached graph (click on the hyperlink to see the graph) , several schools or districts have been placed according to their rates of students of color and poverty.  In the School of Education we would attempt to find placements in schools furthest from the origin of the two axes. 

Thus, there is no definitive answer to the question of the line between what we would consider to be urban schools and non-urban schools.  Instead for each school or district, we must consider its relevant characteristics compared to other schools.

School District Examples

Of course in some situations, it is very obvious.  Hannibal Central School District is a rural district, located in an agricultural part of Oswego County (a rural county).  It would not satisfy an urban education placement.  Corlears JHS 56 is and urban school located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and is definitely an urban school.  

However, there are other situations that are not so clear.  Lyncourt Union Free School District is a separate school district carved out of the city of Syracuse.  So this district is located in an urban area, but Lyncourt's low poverty ratio (20%), very low percent of students of color (4.6%), and lack of any Limited English Proficient students make this district a poor choice for our School of Education urban education placement goals.  Lyncourt has been identified as an "average need" district by NYSED.

On the other hand, the Onondaga Nation School located on the Onondaga Nation Territory just south of Syracuse is a great choice for meeting our urban education goals.  This school has a very high poverty ratio, a nearly 100% of the students are students of color (Native Americans/First Nations People), and a high Limited English Proficiency ratio (most students speak Onondaga as their first language).  This school is a "high need" school.  While the Onondaga Nation's location is not within a large city, this school is close enough to Syracuse to be strongly influenced by the urban culture of Syracuse.

Utica Central School District may represent a mid-point between unacceptable schools and target schools.  The size of the city of Utica is shrinking so it is difficult to think of it as an urban area even though this city contains many examples of larger cities (a thriving art museum, plenty of cultural events, a growing immigrant population, and so on).  The schools district has a 44.4% poverty ratio, a 40% ratio of People of color, and 14.1% Limited English Proficient students. This district has been identified as a "high need" district by NYSED.  Utica CSD should be considered an acceptable urban school placement.

In contrast, near-by Rome Central School District is not necessarily acceptable.  This "high need" district is located in a much smaller city, has 44.8% poverty ratio, less than 1% Limited English Proficient students, and only 12.1% students of color. Rome schools would not be desirable urban education field placements.   

Click on the following hyperlink to see a
table outlining information on each of these schools.

Identifying Target Schools for Urban Education Field Placements.

Over the next few months, we will be collecting information about the schools in which we place our pre-teachers. We will summarize the relevant characteristics of each location on a table of targeted urban education schools/districts and schools/districts that are not appropriate for satisfying the urban education goals we have set.  We will also chart each school and/or district on the attached graph to provide a visual representation of the relationship between targeted and unacceptable schools/districts.

As we gather data on more and more schools we may find that there is in fact a line that reflects our School of Education goals, and provides a demarcation between urban and non-urban sites. By keeping a list of targeted schools and unacceptable schools we will be developing an evolving definition (particular to SUNY Oswego's School of Education) of what makes an "urban: school."

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 Last Updated 2/10/10