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Will Patterson, an Urbana native and University of Illinois lecturer on hip-hop entrepreneurship, is shown in front of his mobile engineering lab, the Hip Hop Xpress, outside the Architecture Annex on the UI campus Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, in Urbana.

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A recent letter presented to the Champaign school district by the Champaign County NAACP and ACLU chapters “highlighting a lack of access to gifted and Advanced Placement classes in the district for black students, as well as disparities in discipline and academic proficiency for black pupils, as compared to their white peers” was both welcome and enraging.

Welcome because we must hold public schools accountable for the educational disparities among white and black students; enraging because we have been here before, multiple times. The most recent effort to address racial inequities was the consent decree, which was “settled” in 2009, after over a decade of litigation that began with complaints filed with the federal Office of Civil Rights in 1996.

Just before the consent decree of 2002, with its mandatory court monitor, I deposited my doctoral dissertation with the University of Illinois. “Keeping a Face on Policy: A Reflective Case Study on Collaborative Education Relationships” was a case study about how to support collaborations and/or partnerships between local school districts, universities, colleges and social-service agencies.

The close-up study aimed to get people from higher-education organizations, public schools and community-based organizations to work together to address the educational needs of underachieving students in local public schools.

The disparities are not new; the lack of progress is not new. Now, 20 years beyond my doctorate and after 20 years of local organizing around educational equity, I still believe that the disparities and abysmal progress in addressing them are due in part to the lack of a face-on policy. High-level policies made without ongoing grassroots interactions with the people most impacted by those policies remain abstract, superficial and ineffective.

How local public school students view the UI

As a longtime resident of Urbana and a graduate of Urbana High School and the University of Illinois, I can attest to the possibilities and pitfalls of growing up in the shadow of the UI. I was a “shadow kid.” When I was on staff at The Urban League of Champaign County from 1994 through 2000, we recognized an urgent need for academic-based after-school programs to serve students from at-risk backgrounds at the kindergarten through third-grade levels, at a minimum.

In response to a mandate from the National Urban League, the Champaign Urban League started an after-school tutoring program to provide support and challenge to black children who were not being well-served by the public schools. While there were (and are) excellent and dedicated teachers in the schools, long-entrenched policies — local, state and federal — did and do not promote the success of black and brown students.

In the shadow of a Research One land-grant university, which has the know-how and resources to help upend these policies and practices, public school students from local families did and do not see a place for themselves at the UI. That continues to be the case because the infrastructure for moving youth of color from local middle and high schools into a historically and predominantly white institution does not exist.

When the local Urban League began the after-school program, it did so because there was an urgent need and the schools were not filling it. In my dissertation, I summarized research that described educational organizations as open systems, in which roles, expectations, policies and procedures do not necessarily evolve in an orderly manner.

While this open-ended quality has some advantages, it also feeds the tension, contradiction and conflict that arises when dialogue ensues around power, process and responsibility.

No funding means no chance of success

These difficulties are especially pronounced when different agencies have different priorities, when their financial situations are markedly unequal, and when time-consuming but crucial communication lines have not been set up.

After significant cutbacks in educational spending in the 1980s, schools just did not have the organizational resources to meet the diverse needs of their students, and they aimed to cooperate with other organizations that could help provide supportive learning environments.

The after-school program launched by the Urban League was short-lived for predictable reasons: lack of funding, divergent priorities, changes in administrations and poor communication. In 1990, the organization began a second phase of the program that linked two higher-education organizations (the UI and Parkland) and two public school districts with the Urban League in a collaborative education project.

This collaboration, while full of potential, was very complex, including a teacher-training program in addition to K-3 after-school tutoring. The funding came to the UI through a state grant that prioritized the teacher training shared between Parkland and the UI.

The program, which had been operated solely by the Urban League, transitioned into one that was supported through the Higher Education Cooperation Act and shifted the roles of the stakeholders involved in the program. The program shut down for good in 1995-96, thus stressing the stigma of insensitivity the community already had about the UI.

Further, a number of board members of the local Urban League were UI faculty, which also tainted that organization with a perception that they had dropped the ball as well. In fact, the local Urban League did not have the capacity or the governance structure to effectively implement and maintain the tutoring program it had set up.

Coordination and collaboration are key

There is a need to build collegial participatory and cooperative partnerships between community members and university researchers in order to resolve social issues, but that can only occur if research and learning are done in conjunction with a community’s people. Without federal or state policy to support or provide funding for advocacy-based organizations to create inter-institutional networks for change, the community-based support will be fragmented, limited and inconsistent because there is no coherent culture among organizations in the community to provide educational advocacy.

What can be done? Churches and civic, recreational and fraternal organizations must be regularly provided with data that outline the status of education in the black community. Further, the practice of creating multiple programs to address the same issue can provide opportunities to many, but to be effective, they must be coordinated, at least informally.

Policies must be developed to support collaborative relationships between youth and their advocates, social-service agencies, public schools, universities and colleges in order for students to have the foundation they need for successful academic and social experiences.

There are many resources available, but very little infrastructure to develop, maintain, evaluate and coordinate supportive learning environments for many different young people; we are losing the benefit of their contributions every day. What would educational efforts that put youth at the center of problem-naming and -solving look like? This question is the focus of Ghetto Genius organizing.

Will Patterson is a clinical associate professor in the UI’s College of Fine and Applied Arts and lecturer on hip-hop technology entrepreneurship.