School Social Workers and Urban Education Reform with African American Children and Youth: Realities, Advocacy, and Strategies for Change

Article excerpt

Abstract

After over 40 years of education reform policies and strategies, America continues its need for systemic education reform. The greatest challenge confronting the nation remains within large urban metropolises where large numbers of minority students attend underfunded and low-performing schools with low standardized test scores and high dropout rates. African American children and youth constitute over 50% of all students in urban school systems. The social work profession has a long history of advocacy with urban minority students dating back to the beginning of the 20th century. Yet, the appropriate body of knowledge that either conceptually or empirically documents practice methods by school social workers practicing within urban school settings with African American students does not exist. In a solution-oriented presentation with implications for school social work practice, advocacy, and research, the author will first review past and present education reform measures. The discussion then turns to ways in which the social work profession can address major issues of education reform with a clear understanding of the educational needs of urban African American children and youth using macro, mezzo, and micro practice measures.

Key Words: education reform, social work advocacy, social work practice, urban school systems

Introduction

At the beginning of the 21st century, changing demographic and economic patterns and past inequalities continue to alter the landscape of schools; as such, America continues its systemic need for education reform.The greatest challenge confronting education reform is within large urban metropolises where large numbers of minority students attend underfunded and lowperforming schools with low standardized test scores and high dropout rates. Thesocial work profession has a long history of advocacy with urban minority students dating back to the beginning of the 20th century. However, despite the linkage between social work values and education reform, there seems to be little movement inside the profession that addresses the complexities of urban education reform. "Even though the goal for equal educational opportunity is supported by the values held by the social work profession, the profession's commitment to its achievement and record of accomplishment are not what they should be" (Allen-Meares, Washington, & Welsh, 1996, p. 7).

Urban America contains the nation's 25 largest school systems and is populated by minority majorities, mainly African Americans and Hispanics. According to the U.S. Census Bureau (McKinnon, 2003), 47% of those attending inner city public schools are African American, and they constitute another 25% of those attending urban public schools. In all, 76% of all students within the domain of inner city and urban residences attending elementary and secondary education (grades 1-12) are African American children and youth (Jamieson, Curry, & Martinez, 2001). What is more, while the general rate of poverty in the U.S. for children under 18 was 16% in 2001, for black children the rate was 30%, with 4 out of 5 impoverished African American families residing in urban communities (McKinnon).

The educational needs of African American youth are disproportionately affected by the problems associated with urban public schools. In terms of school performance, the problems are multifocal for urban African Americans. A 1998 study released by Education Week revealed that most students in urban public schools were failing to perform at the basic level of educational achievement (Viteritti, 1999). In the same study, only 40% of 4th and 8th graders in urban districts had satisfactory scores on national reading, math, and science exams, whereas "nearly two-thirds of all students in suburban and rural districts met or exceeded standards" (Viteritti, p. 7). Many black children drop below grade level starting in elementary school and continue to fall behind each school year until, by age 16, at least 35% are below grade level (Yeakey & Bennett, 1990). …