Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Impressions: McKinley School

The first thing I noticed about the second school I visited in Newark, McKinley School, was how difficult it was to get into the place.  After parking in a lot behind the school, I tried nearly every door in the rear of the school, only to find them all locked (one was wide open, but it led into some boiler room that I was not about to venture through).  So, I walked back to 7th Ave and traveled up a block or so to the front of the school on Colonnade, and here something happened that left me both surprised and impressed.  I walked up a set of steps to the first set of doors I saw, tried them, and found that they, too, were locked.  But then, my luck changed.  A student was walking down the hallway on the inside, and I motioned to him to come to the door.  He did, opened it, and then told me that he couldn't let me in this door, but if I went to another set of doors farther along the front facade, I should find one open; if not, he would come down and let me in.  

My impression of urban students had, unfortunately, been largely formed by movies such as Lean on Me in which students are depicted as having little or no regard for their school, as willing to let any drug dealer or thug into the premises.  This single act by the young man from McKinley went a long way towards reversing my beliefs about urban youths yesterday.  Here I was, not dressed like a thug or drug dealer, but still being refused improper entry, as I should have been.  Of course, I don't know whether the student wouldn't let me in because of some pride he felt for his surroundings or simply because if he got caught doing so, the punishment would have been severe.  I can't know his reasonings, and I don't want to romanticize his actions.  But, regardless of what spurned him on, I think it was impressive that there is a rule in place about letting people into the building and the student followed that rule.  This small act left a large impression on me that ran counter to the talk of lack of control and chaos that so often surrounds urban schools.

Another experience I had later during my visit to McKinley left a similar impression:  My group had the chance to visit a 4th grade math class, and the experience was truly eye-opening for me.  As we walked into the class, we found the teacher sitting in front of the chalkboard with the students sitting in a layered semi-circle around him.  The teacher was using a manipulative to teach the kids fractions, and the process could not have been more extraordinary.  I won't go into the technicalities of what the teacher was doing, but I will say that for each question he asked, the students could barely contain themselves, raising their hands almost violently and begging to be called on.  These were not the uninterested urban students so often mentioned in various media.  What was also fascinating was how the group students functioned collectively.  There was no bickering or hatred displayed towards a classmate.  Instead, the group functioned as a small community of inquiry--all striving towards the same understanding of fractions, all taking part in self-correcting activities, all displaying a caring attitude towards each other (exhibited most often in applause when a student, after taking a while to think, got a question right).  That this sort of emergent, somewhat uncontrolled, somewhat chaotic, but good, productive, and caring discussion can exist in an urban environment is indeed eye-opening and promising.


Edubabbler said...

We do think of urban schools as lawless places, don't we? I sometimes think that is because there are so many laws/rules/discipline issues that become the primary focus. And, I have come to believe the fewer freedoms the more the desire to break free. I would like to think that the young man to whom you referred wouldn't let you in because he was protecting and respecting his school.

Abbey said...

Your comments about the 4th grade math class really struck home. This school was the only one I visited with anthing close to what I expected a city school to feel like. Yet, the classes I visited really blew me away - the students were enthusiastic and the teachers energetic - better than my memories of school!

visva said...

That doesn't surprise me that you could not find an open door. Not because of its location but I have always attended a school where the only way in was to go through the front door and security was tight. I attended school in a very suburban area. I guess thats not typical in all schools. I just always thought schools were kept locked and safe like that.

Laura said...

I looked at your attempts to open different doors unsuccessfully as an accomplishment for the school; as breaking the misconception about anything happening in urban schools and these schools as places where anyone can enter at any time without any restrictions.
The locked doors provide a safe environment for the children and a respectful setting for the visitor, who must go in through the main entrance, past security to gain access to the office and then to his/her business if appropriate.
And to the comment on the pride of the students, yes definitely in all of the schools we visited students were proud of themselves and of their schools which for me was a great environment to enter into.