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What Do You Mean When You Say Urban?

Speaking honestly about race and students
What Do You Mean When You Say Urban?

Ethnic, inner city, urban. What do these terms mean in education?
I am a teacher educator who studies how people use language to talk about race. One word that Ive examined over the past five years is urban. A quick look in the dictionary, and there is no surprise: Urban means related to the city, characteristic of a city or city life. So what does that mean when we say urban education? What is unique about city schools or city education? That depends on the city youre talking about. In large, densely populated cities, such as Boston, New York, and Los Angeles, city schools are often characterized by large, diverse populations, many poor students, budget shortfalls, and bureaucracy. So why, then, do we use the term urban when what we really mean are schools with majority black and Latina/o populations?

Take for example my city: Portland, Ore. Downtown there is a high school named Lincoln. It is less than a mile from the Pearl District, a hip place that boasts unique food, shops, new condos, and the best of urban renewal. It is a stones throw from a soccer stadium and surrounded by tall buildings, people biking to work in suits, folks who routinely beg, and the hub of the public transit system.

Across the river in North Portland, there is a high school named Jefferson. It is surrounded by family dwellings, mom-and-pop shops, and wide streets for biking, walking, and playing. There is a community college across the street.

Which one of these schools is urban? Lincoln? Jefferson? Both?

Before you decide, let me give you a bit more information. At Lincoln, the downtown school, the population is more than 75 percent white, 4.5 percent of the students are black, 8.6 percent are Asian, and 6.6 percent are Latina/o; 10.5 percent are on free/reduced lunch; and the school does not receive Title 1 funding. At Jefferson, the school across the river, 59 percent of the students are black, 8 percent are Asian/Pacific Islanders, and 17 percent are Latina/o; 70 percent are on free/reduced lunch; and the school does receive Title 1 funding.

Made up your mind yet?

A few years ago I interviewed 17 teachers who attended an urban education program. I asked them what was the difference, if any, between urban teaching and non-urban teaching. Ruth remarked: To me, urban students come from an environment where they cant see the value of education. They cant see why it matters, because everyone that they know, everything that they do, has nothing to do with having an education.

Thinking about the definition of urbanrelated to the cityI cant help but wonder: What is it about city kids that makes this teacher think they dont value education? It wasnt until after three interviews of each teacher that the whole picture emerged, one in which urban was constructed as a code word for racespecifically black and Latina/oand often for poor. Teachers equated urban with students of color and the characteristics they perceived as belonging to students of color.

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