What Should Schools Teach When Students Are Being Murdered?

Shouldn't schools explicitly teach students how to get home safely with the same level of rigor and accountability as in a science lesson?

Last fall, Terrence Roberts became the fifth student from the same high school in New Orleans to be killed by gunfire in a six-month stretch. Just one murder in a school can dramatically alter its community, identity and academic trajectory, but what does school become after a sordid span of five murders? What lessons should be taught? What goals should the teachers and students work toward?

Philosopher John Dewey famously said, "Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself." Unfortunately, the deaths of students at NET Charter High School accentuate the point that schools and curricula should never be so focused on the abstract future that they ignore social contexts, economic forces and—unfortunately—the guns that students face in the here and now.

Poignantly, NET Charter actually teaches in the vein of the Dewey quote. The mission of NET is "to provide struggling high school students with the skills, confidence, and experiences necessary to succeed in the education and career paths of their choice." NET enrolls students who’ve often been expelled from other schools. It fills a market niche created by the inability of other schools in New Orleans' highly decentralized education system to hold onto students.

Ironically, other schools advancing the notion that an "academic" environment may not be for some students make NET's mission more difficult. Consequently, New Orleans' public schools post some of the highest suspension and expulsion rates in the nation.

NET should be applauded for taking on the most challenged students. It should also be lauded for accepting the responsibility that other schools have seemingly abandoned. However, the murders at this one school underscore why it cannot do so as an exception. The five deaths in six months also make urgent the question, "What are the greatest needs of urban youth and families, and what kind of curriculum can best address them?" One could get very real and ask, "What does a Common Core curriculum mean to students at risk of being shot?"

Can you imagine NET High School reflexively returning back to Geoffrey Chaucer without making any connections to the murders of five youth or to the very real threats faced by the living? In fact, all schools in New Orleans—public and private—should be moved. Lessons must address the grieving children of NET to achieve a very basic goal of education: normal growth and survival.

Broadly speaking, "college-prep" curricula seemingly cut and pasted from the great charter schools on high ignore the realities of students in places like New Orleans. The orthodoxy of the reform movement's conceptualization of "high standards" often ignores the acute needs of students and their communities.

I've visited too many schools in which young teachers of different socioeconomic backgrounds state how they believe their students should receive the same kind of education they had while growing up. The problems with these beliefs are obvious, but I still struggle with teachers and leaders' assumptions that getting contextual means reducing rigor. I challenge the notion that schools should teach a liberal-arts curriculum as if in a private New England boarding school.

Shouldn't urban schools equip students with skills to deal with an antagonistic criminal justice system, gang violence and rabid unemployment—in addition to equipping them with knowledge that will get them into college? Shouldn't schools explicitly teach students how to get home safely and how to seek help with the same level of rigor and accountability as in a science lesson?

Two major things happen when curricula are disconnected from students' lives. The school conveniently deems uninterested students as non-compliant or incorrigible, which leads to suspension or expulsion. And students become disaffected, drifting away from the institution. Both phenomena are at play in New Orleans schools.

Using Louisiana State Department of Education data, Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children (FFLIC) found that the Recovery School District the largest public school district in New Orleans, suspended 3,537 students, or 28.8 percent of all students, at least once during the 2007-08 school year. This is more than twice the statewide suspension rate in Louisiana, and over four times the national rate.

Moreover, according to a 2012 report, "Building an Inclusive, High-Skill Workforce for New Orleans' Next Economy," 14,000 youth aged 16-24 in the New Orleans metro area are "neither enrolled in school nor employed."

Let's rid ourselves of the idea that tailoring a curriculum to the specific contexts of students' lives must somehow also mean reducing standards. A relevant curriculum requires expert teachers who know the communities and students' backgrounds as well as the appropriate materials and lessons that will resonate with students. We should dismiss rhetoric that suggests preparing students for the workforce is at odds with teaching higher-order thinking skills. Students also must learn about poverty, racism, and sexism so they can combat these social woes.

I certainly endorse common standards that encourage critical thinking and interdisciplinary awareness. However, these standards must be placed within a context relevant to students. The NET students who were killed unnecessarily highlight the priorities that a curriculum should address. Master teachers who can exercise culturally competent pedagogies and materials must be afforded a range of curricular options to give students the greatest opportunity for survival and longevity.

I know that NET attempts to deliver an education that does just that, but the New Orleans education system's limited notion of "college prep" and "high standards" reduces students' chances in a real "no-tolerance" world.

Andre Perry, founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City.

A version of this post originally appeared at The Hechinger Report

Gun on a chalkboard image via Shutterstock

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