Radical Innovation in Urban Education

by Sito Narcisse

Today more than ever, we have to think differently about how we educate our children in urban K-12 schools. Urban education is under scrutiny as districts struggle to improve the learning and achievement of at-risk youth. Despite the fact that we have focused on improving the education and services for urban adolescents, the students continue to face social and emotional issues often associated with poverty. We need to focus on innovations with the promise of changing how we educate a vulnerable population.

The concept of “radical innovation” comes from the business world, and in this specific instance, challenges us to change our existing ways of thinking about how we improve outcomes for students and their families in our schools. Radically disrupting existing approaches that have not worked for our urban populations may be, at least in part, the key to transforming our schools. Two innovations that have the potential to positively disrupt the way we “do business” are: (1) rethinking health and human service supports for urban students with the involvement of community-based organizations and (2) integrating technology in schools that help break through the learning barriers.

Support for Urban Students with the Involvement of Community-Based Organizations

One of the radical innovations in health and human services for adolescents that has been promising is the creation of “power partnerships” among universities and K-12 schools. Specifically, partnerships to attract advanced graduate students in psychology in education, school counseling, medicine, dentistry, social work, and public health to intern in K-12 schools on a regular basis. K-12 schools need to devote a designated area for support services where students can engage with advanced graduate students and their faculty supervisors from local universities. This type of experience provides opportunities for graduate students to put theory into practice and offers students a safe and caring place in the school to get the services they need.

Other partnerships are those with community-based organizations, including faith-based ones. These partnerships offer programs after school and on weekends to keep students engaged in learning and safe from detrimental environmental influences. These partnerships, however, cannot be in name only. They must be active associations that form a collaborative bond between the schools and the organizations with a common vision of supporting students and building trusting relationships with families. Urban schools cannot educate our most vulnerable populations in isolation.  

Technological Integration in Schools

As technology and social media become more a part of this generation’s main focus, it is important for schools to adjust the learning of students. This is especially important for urban populations. Major mediums used by students on their smartphones are iTunes, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Therefore, the traditional approach of lecturing, discussion of projects, and traditional values of learning are becoming more of a rarity. Innovation is needed to disrupt the more traditional methods of delivering instruction. This must be included with an online medium that incorporates the type of technology that influences students.

One of the radical innovations has been one-to-one computing with programs such as Edmodo. These project-based programs allow learners to problem solve and help teachers to co-facilitate classroom learning. Many teachers and administrators may have a steep learning curve when it comes to implementing technology in the classroom.  However, creating a culture of adult and student learning can make technology such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Google Docs accessible to all. The key to transforming the work is developing a strategic approach to integrating the technology. Schools need a clear plan about the types of technology that will enhance student learning and engage students in the process.

In order to have a clear impact on students’ social and emotional needs in urban education, we need to change our current mindset from one of status quo to one of radical innovations. That change in mindset requires risk taking and resilience when faced with failure. We must change the way we are currently doing business in urban schools. What do we have to loose by radically innovating?  

Sito Narcisse is an alumnus of the School of Education, where he earned his doctorate in the administrative and policy studies program. He is currently associate superintendent of high school performance at Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland. It is the 18th largest school district in the United States, with more than 127,000 students.