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US inner-city schools could (should) be best in nation

They are in serious trouble the public schools in major US cities. As one schoolman remarked, only half in jest: "If you think you see some light at the end of the tunnel, obviously you're going in the wrong direction."

Yet the Monitor has found some light, and there are very strong signs that a few of the large inner-city school districts are making tremendous efforts to provide a high quality education for all their children under the most demanding of circumstances.

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It is to the large cities that thousands of non-English-speaking refugee children come.

It is the city schools which have more than their fair share of children from low-income homes; more youngsters whose mothers are on ADC (aid to dependent children); more youngsters whose parents and guardians never completed 12 years of school.

It's the city schools which have so many transient pupils -- children who stay for a week, a month, or half a term.

Smaller cities, isolated areas, and most suburbs lack facilities for the multiple handicapped. Therefore, it is to the large city school systems that these children flock.

In smaller school districts, as much as 80-85 percent of the yearly budget is spent to pay teachers' salaries. Not so in the large cities, where burdensome bureaucracies and swollen administrative staffs eat up as much as 40-50 percent of the budget, leaving a far smaller proportion for teachers and learning materials. Yet the statistical picture defies this description.

Per-pupil spending in large cities are often higher than in the suburbs and smaller cities -- derived by dividing the total school dollar by the total number of pupils, and ignoring the fact that so little of the total could really be termed direct pupil spending.

In many smaller towns, the schools come first with the citizens, and often taxes to support the schools are higher than those to run all the rest of the town's activities put together.

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Not so in the larger cities where the education dollar suffers from second- or even third-class status with local taxpayers, some 70 percent of whom have no children in the city schools.

Church groups, particularly the Roman Catholics and more recently the fundamentalist Christian sects, operate large school systems in the bigger cities. These drain from the public schools large numbers of concerned citizens who have a moral as well as an economic stake in the community.

Many independent schools offer both day and boarding school academic programs in direct competition with local public schools. Some in the Northeast have existed for more than 200 years; others since "yesterday."

Most of the private schools have no facilities to care for the handicapped, the non-English-speaking, the transient, or the vocationally bound. Their target population is the college bound. Hence, the academically capable are lured from public classrooms where they might have inspired fellow pupils and have provided balm to academically oriented teachers.

Then, too, a great number of the students whose leadership qualities could help in creating strong and positive public school environments are in the private schools instead. And parents with professional expertise generally sit on private school boards of trustees, rather than run for a place on a public school board.

Added to these formidable challenges is yet another -- the facilities themselves. Many city public schools are old and ill-equipped; most are unwieldy in size and hardly energy efficient. And with city land at a premium, few inner-city schools have much playgound space.

Further, there is the issue of forced desegregation.

Large cities grew by neighborhoods areas generally of a single racial composition. And city school systems carefully drew attendance zones which kept the races --and as much as possible socio-economic groups -- in separate facilities.

While most large cities went to metropolitan water, sewer, and mass transportation patterns decades ago in order to economize and spread the costs over a larger user group, the school systems did not go this route. Around each major city grew independent suburban school districts which have controlled attendance by way of real estate policies and housing costs.

One of the most dramatic examples of this phenomenon is Beverly Hills, a school district island surrounded by Los Angeles.

Finally -- forced by law to desegregate all schools within a single public school district -- churches and independent school administrators reacted by opening new private facilities and doubling or tripling enrollments, providing always for token minority enrollment.

This drew from the public schools not only large numbers of white pupils, but black, Hispanic, and Asian children whose parents have been able to find an alternative.

Yet, even with all these formidable challenges, there is light at the end of the large-city public-school tunnel.

Today's pull-out education section carries several stories by Monitor staffer Jim Bencivenga, and the series which begins today on Pages B2, B3, B20, continues on April 6, 13, and 20. Mr. Bencivenga tells how city school people have banded together to solve their multiple problems, and how both students and parents have cooperated as well.

Each of our large cities has enormous resources available to and hardly touched as yet by their public schools.

Involvement by the business community, for example, should guarantee up-to-date vocational programs to ensure that graduates are well prepared for entry-level jobs.

Involvement by museum curators and lecturers should guarantee deep understanding of the arts, and that every child, from whatever socio-economic group, will have equal access to involvement with the humanities.

Involvement by school volunteers from that portion of the community without children in school, but with a love of both learning and children, ought to guarantee daily contact for each beginning learner with an inspiring mentor. And also should guarantee an academic diet which is digestible.

We've hardly begun to touch the use of computers in our schools, and where better than the major banking centers of the US to introduce young scholars to this almost instantaneous form of communication?

There's every reason why our large city school systems should be the envy of the nation. And it should be to these centers that all other teachers and administrators go for ideas and encouragement.

We sense here at the Monitor that there's growing sentiment for this to happen, a kind of reawakening of those for whom their city means culture, business, and entertainment. And add to those schooling.

Certainly in and around every major city are many colleges and universities; one estimate lists more than 30, for example, in the Back Bay area of Boston. And New York City is purported to have, available by bus and subway, more than 50 colleges and universities, including some of the largest and finest in the world.

The thousands of teachers and administrators in these educational institutions, the hundreds of thousands of highly educated professional women and men, and older well-educated city dwellers need to accept the challenge of their local public school system.

They need to love them, teach in them, advise them, serve on their school boards, oversee their spending programs, monitor their academic offerings, and enrich them in every appropriate way.

They, these caring, educated, city folks, are the light at the end of the inner-city public school tunnel.

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