The inequity of social spaces in the CH-UH school community
When considering the complexities of educational policy in diverse urban settings, the writings of Pierre Bourdieu resonate with a particular saliency. Strongly acclimatized to hierarchies of power, attentive to conflict, and always contextualized to setting, Bourdieu notes that “social space”—that congested, conversant world of the political, the sociological and the ideological—is limited by a stratification imposed by the elite. In order to maintain power, highly positioned players will ensure, even tacitly, that others’ access is limited. Bourdieu argues that this capriciousness buoys those with the most privilege and allows perpetual inequality to cycle through sociocultural structures.
Locally, inequity has emerged in the growing tolerance of a privileged class of families who disproportionately influence the growth, shape and culture of our public schools. It presents as a culture that relies on the assumed talents of the few to make decisions for the many. In May 5’s disappointing levy failure, Bourdieu’s model was particularly relevant in the precinct breakdown, which showed the levy passing south of Cedar and failing by as much as 50 percent north of Mayfield. Levy organizers alleged that voters are apathetic, and have devalued education by snatching school dollars away from children. There was, however, no data to support this contention. What voters are left with is a negative narrative wherein they failed the district. What should instead be explored are the ways in which the general populace of voters feels excluded from full participation in school issues. The citizens elite who control the social space surrounding school policy and governance must be reflective in acknowledging their role in not merely tolerating inequity, but enabling it.
From those residents of Noble, who overwhelmingly voted “no” on Issue 2, comprehensive qualitative data must be mined in order to explore if, in that neighborhood, the district is encountering what the great educational ethnographer Annette Lareau calls the “accomplishment of natural growth” model—the belief that children will develop into competent adults through their daily, natural experiences with the world. Advocates of this model see wraparound services, such as extracurricular activities, as wasteful, resource-stealing and bourgeois. If that is the mindset that Noble voters brought to the polls—a belief that can be refuted through evidence-based educational research—it is critical that responsive, positive programming be put in place quickly. Natural-growth advocates can be swayed with convincing alternatives to their highly streamlined understanding of child development, school success, and social and community participation. Without critically examining the ideology of this voting bloc, however, no such lifelong-learner opportunities can come to fruition.
In the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District, as in many urban districts, teachers become the conduit through which equity can flow unfettered through the curriculum: Every child receives music, art, physical education and social supports, regardless of socioeconomic status. What schools cannot do alone, however, is extend that type of institutional agency to families. The community of practice in which parents participate must be the means by which access and governance are proactively constructed. If the same small groups of families are ennobled with leadership roles time after time, true shared governance of the public schools becomes an impossibility. The district must find a way to cultivate a full chorus of harmonized voices in leadership, not support only those who have the privileged position of a soloist. Such an exclusionary paradigm is short-sighted and classist in the purest sense.
The failure of Issue 2 is an opportunity to effect cultural change in the district. Educate CH-UH voters as CH-UH children are educated: with evidence, empathy and equity.
Sarah West is a Ph.D. candidate in urban education policy at Cleveland State University (CSU); curriculum developer, instructor and programming specialist in undergraduate studies at CSU; parent of three Canterbury Elementary School students; member of the CH Citizens' Advisory Committee, and 15-year resident of the Noble neighborhood.