Guest Column

The Urbanization of Suburban Schools

by Marc F. Bernstein


The phrase, the urbanization of suburbia, will become a popular theme at educational conferences. The 2000 census strongly suggests that between the years 2010 and 2020 the majority of public school students in the country will be non-white. Most assume that statistic and its implications will affect only urban school districts. Not so.

The trends of increasing immigration, higher birth rate among non-whites and parents’ dreams of a better life for their children through education are changing the face of suburban schools.

Ethnicity data show an evolving pattern toward greater diversity, especially in those school districts that are adjacent to large cities or have had an historical long-standing minority population. The continuing success of suburban schools will depend on their ability to meet this new challenge.

Changing Faces

Several school districts in Nassau County, N.Y., the western half of Long Island, have been experiencing this type of enrollment change. Those bordering New York City have seen consistent growth in their non-white student populations ranging from 7 to 14 percent since 1997. Other Nassau districts with an existing ethnic mix have watched their minority enrollment accelerate.

My own district, Valley Stream, borders New York City. It was 25 percent minority in 1997 and is now at 42 percent. Even the mid-Long Island districts, many of them an hour outside of New York City, have seen a steady annual increase in non-white students of 1 to 2 percent over the last five years.

These changing patterns aren't unique to Long Island. In suburban Atlanta, the county school districts of Fulton and Gwinnett have seen increases in their non-white populations of 4 and 12 percent, respectively, over a three-year period.

The urbanization of suburban schools has been accompanied by the first sustained increase of enrollments since the early 1970s. These two forces present the most significant challenge to the quality of suburban education and, therefore, to the suburban dream since the end of World War II.

The direct impact from these forces includes:

  • Ever-larger secondary schools resulting from the several years of increasing enrollments and the fact that most suburban school districts have but one or two middle or high schools;

  • Greater student mobility rates that accompany recent immigrants to the country as many settle with or near family and then relocate as job opportunities present themselves; and

  • Different educational needs of a diverse student population based on cultural differences and parent educational background and the associated retooling of staff development.

Other significant pressures not directly related to these three effects stem from the federal No Child Left Behind legislation and state testing programs, resulting in the transfer of resources, time and money from the arts, music and vocational education. Similarly, programs associated with the social, emotional and psychological needs of students are being compromised or totally abandoned.

Applying Research

Substantive research performed in the large urban areas may provide guidance about how we in the suburbs should be planning for the future of our schools, especially our middle schools and high schools, where academic improvements have been slower in coming than in the elementary grades.

These are issues that I barely considered during my 14 years as superintendent in another Nassau County district, one that was totally white and middle class.

Suburban secondary schools are becoming too impersonal. They are too large, insufficiently focused on the affective needs of their students and staffed by teachers who must adapt their teaching styles to current culture and learning styles. If not addressed by a modified organizational structure and the total commitment of school adults to meet the individual needs of children, enrollment increases and ethnic changes can have a devastating impact on personal and academic growth.

The research on the benefits of smaller school size is certainly persuasive. The issue for most suburban communities is how to apply it to real situations.

Unfortunately, the creation of smaller schools may prove impossible due to lack of available property and the imbalance of having too many students for one middle or high school but too few for two schools. The creation of smaller groupings of students under the supervision and tutelage of caring and well-trained adults is possible and absolutely necessary.

Several smaller school strategies have been used in the past and need to be reinstated and/or strengthened. Creating clusters or house plans whereby no more than 200 students are located in a particular section of the school and staffed by identified teachers, pupil personnel service specialists and administrators can shrink school size and personalize students' experiences.

Teachers need staff development on the cultural backgrounds of their current students. (Postponing ability grouping or tracking until grade 9 at the earliest will encourage teachers not experienced with minority students to accept each student's potential.) They can use more active learning strategies that involve students in their own style. Instructional groupings and strategies, such as cooperative learning, can place students of different ethnicity in common groups.

The ratio of students to guidance counselors can be reduced from 400:1 to 300:1. Schools can reach out to parents who may not be comfortable contacting school staff members. And schools need to better track the educational records of incoming students to identify their learning needs early on.

In these and similar ways, suburban schools not only can recognize their changing student populations, they can modify school structures and teaching practices to address the associated changes. Greater diversity can and should be a catalyst for renewed focus on students as individuals.

Marc Bernstein is superintendent of the Valley Stream Central High School District, One Kent Road, Valley Stream, NY 11580. E-mail: bernstem@vschsd.org