Urban America Forward | “A Whole-Child Approach to Urban Education”

“A transgendered student who cannot use the bathroom is equally criminalized by the educational system.” – Jenny Arwade, Voices of Youth in Chicago Education 

“At Biotech Academy, young people can walk out of school into jobs.” – Pedro Noguera, New York University

“We should envision a world where our schools don’t have metal detectors; they have mood detectors.” – Jonathan Stith, Alliance for Educational Justice

It is impossible to address the social, economic, and political conditions in urban America without confronting inequality in our educational system.[1] More than 80 percent of Latino and African-American children are not reading at grade level by fourth grade. We are leaving a generation unprepared for the workforce and the future. Civil rights practitioners grapple with whether school choice leaves behind the most disadvantaged students.  Some argue that traditional public schools have failed children of color for generations and that charter schools have demonstrated successes that traditional public schools have not been able to replicate at scale. Consensus was reached that a community-based whole-child approach to education—one that inspires creativity, imagination, compassion, self-knowledge, and social and emotional health—is preferred to a piecemeal and narrowly defined approach to education.

  • Public schools remain highly segregated by income and race. There is a persistent pattern of African-American and Latino students being concentrated together into low-income public schools.[2] Segregation is by far the most pronounced in the largest metropolitan areas, but it is also severe in central cities of all sizes and suburbs of the largest metro areas.[3]
  • Traumatic childhood experiences affect learning and behavioral outcomes. One in four children has witnessed a violent act, and one in ten has seen a family member assault another.[4] A child with experiences of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, physical or emotional neglect, family dysfunction, including a mother who was treated violently or family member who has been imprisoned or diagnosed with mental illness, or parents who are separated or divorced, is 32 times more likely to be labeled with a learning or behavior problem than a child with no such experiences.[5]
  • Zero-tolerance policies are reinforcing the school-to-prison pipeline. Excessive discipline practices, coupled with the presence of police officers in schools and overburdened teachers, is reinforcing suspensions, expulsions, and arrests of youth of color. African-American students are suspended and expelled at three times the rate of white students.[6]  Each time a young person receives a suspension, his or her chance of graduation declines. Black and Latino students account for 70 percent of police referrals.[7]

Below are the overarching themes and the corresponding policy recommendations that emerged during the Roundtable Series.  


Overarching Themes

An urban civil rights agenda must demand a whole-child approach to education. Urban schools should provide a curriculum and culture to meet the social, emotional, physical, and academic needs of each student as well as ensure that children are prepared for the workforce and to be productive citizens.

Schools must address the underlying criminalization of students of color. Education reform should focus on conflict resolution and address the emotional impact of all the forces that leave young people feeling isolated.

Policy Recommendations

Support universal pre-K. All levels of government should support greater access to high-quality pre-kindergarten programs, which are a proven, cost-effective approach to increasing the educational success of children.

Emphasize two-generation programs. Programming that simultaneously supports children and their parents should be the emphasis of our neighborhood schools. This is the only effective, long-term way to interrupt the cycle of generational poverty.

Adopt trauma-informed and restorative justice practices in pre-K through high school. Restorative justice fosters positive school climates by bringing students, teachers, and parents together to resolve conflicts rather than resorting to suspensions or expulsions.

Models and Tactics 

Elev8 is a full-service community school model that provides school-based health services, afterschool programming, and family engagement. Elev8 sites build on the evidence that children benefit from learning opportunities and support offered in multiple contexts. Elev8 schools provide academic enrichment and extended-day learning, comprehensive, youth-friendly preventive health care services, and family social supports.[8]


University of Chicago Charter School provides comprehensive academic and social supports to accelerate learning, develop college readiness, and cultivate self-responsibility and leadership. It empowers students to rise to excellence at every level, cultivating critical thinkers and leaders for success in college and in life. For four years in a row, the school has achieved 100 percent graduation rates and acceptance of its students to four-year colleges.[9]

Biotech Academy is a public-private partnership that prepares high school students for jobs in the biotechnology and health care industries. The school exposes disadvantaged students to hands-on, college preparatory science classes in their last two years of high school and summer internships at Bay Area biotech, green tech, or health care companies. [10]

VOYCE is an organizing collaborative for education justice led by students of color from seven Chicago communities. VOYCE led the effort to pass SB100, state legislation prioritizing the creation of safe and orderly schools while seeking to end zero tolerance policies in Illinois.[11]

Restorative justice models. The Los Angeles Unified School District, which came under scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights in 2011 for the number of student citations and the disproportionate impact on African-American and Latino students, is now at the forefront of the national movement to adopt restorative justice methods to reduce harsh discipline tactics and shift from punishment to prevention. [12]  Since the Oakland Unified School District adopted restorative justice principles, student suspensions have dropped by half.[13]


[1] There is an ongoing political and policy debate about the viability of charter schools as an alternative to the traditional public school system. Some practitioners argue that the charter school expansion during that last 30 years in cities had destabilized a community-driven vision for educational reform. Civil rights practitioners grapple with whether school choice leaves behind the most disadvantaged students. Others argue that traditional public schools have failed children of color for generations and that charter schools have demonstrated successes that traditional public schools have not been able to replicate at scale. See H. Rosenblat and T. Howard, "How Gentrification Is Leaving Public Schools Behind," U.S. News, February 20, 2015,  http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2015/02/20/how-gentrification-is-leaving-public-schools-behind; Center for Research on Education Outcomes, “Urban Charter School Study” (Stanford, CA: Stanford University, Center for Research on Education Outcomes, 2015), https://urbancharters.stanford.edu/download/Urban%20Charter%20School%20Study%20Report%20on%2041%20Regions.pdf.

[2] R. Jordan, “America's Public Schools Remain Highly Segregated” (Washington, DC: Urban Institute August 27, 2014), http://www.urban.org/urban-wire/americas-public-schools-remain-highly-segregated.

[3] G. Orfield et al., “Brown at 60: Great Progress, a Long Retreat and an Uncertain Future” (Washington, DC: Civil Rights Project, May 15, 2014), http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/brown-at-60-great-progress-a-long-retreat-and-an-uncertain-future/Brown-at-60-051814.pdf.

[4] J. Adams, "Schools Promoting ‘Trauma-Informed’ Teaching to Reach Troubled Students," EdSource, December 2, 2013, http://edsource.org/2013/schools-focus-on-trauma-informed-to-reach-troubled-students/51619 (citing federal National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence, sponsored by the Office of Juvenile Justice Prevention and Delinquency Prevention and the Centers for Disease Control).

[5] The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study is one of the largest investigations conducted to assess associations between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being. Adverse experiences include (1) recurrent physical abuse; (2) recurrent emotional abuse; (3) contact sexual abuse; (4) an alcohol and/or drug abuser in the household; (5) an incarcerated household member; (6) someone who is chronically depressed, mentally ill, institutionalized, or suicidal; (7) mother treated violently; (8) one or no parents; and (9) emotional or physical neglect. N. Burke et al., “The Impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences on an Urban Pediatric Population,” Child Abuse and Neglect, 36(6) (2011):408-13.

[6] U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, “Civil Rights Data Collection: Data Snapshot (School Discipline)” (Washington, DC: DOE, March 21, 2014), http://ocrdata.ed.gov/Downloads/CRDC-School-Discipline-Snapshot.pdf. According to the Civil Rights Data Collection, during the 2011-12 school year, 12 percent of all African-American female pre-K–12 students received an out-of-school suspension, which is six times the rate of white girls and more than any other group of girls. See National Women’s Law Center, “Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls: A Call to Action for Educational Equity” (Washington, DC: National Women’s Law Center and NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, 2014), http://www.nwlc.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/unlocking_opportunity_for_african_american_girls_report.pdf.

[7] J. Adams et al, “Civil Rights Data Show Retention Disparities,” Education Week, March 6, 2012, http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2012/03/07/23data_ep.h31.html?tkn=RNRFpTpIviHSEInUrVg%2BbNsoHrUv6d7QWbPa&cmp=clp-edweek&utm_source=fb&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=mrss.

[8] Under the legislation, students can only be suspended, expelled, or referred to an alternative school if all other “appropriate and available” alternatives are exhausted. See “VOYCE’s Groundbreaking Bill, SB 100, to Address “School-to-Prison Pipeline” Passes Illinois Legislature.” Press Release (Chicago: VOYCE: May 21, 2015), http://voyceproject.org/2015/05/21/groundbreaking-bill-sb-100-to-address-school-to-prison-pipeline-passes-illinois-legislature/

[9] National Public Radio, “Los Angeles Tries a New Approach to Discipline In Schools,”  January 9, 2014, http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/01/09/261044383/los-angeles-tries-a-new-approach-to-discipline-in-schools

[10]  Oakland Unified School District, “Restorative Justice In Oakland Schools: Implementation and Impacts 2014” (Oakland: OUSD, 2014), http://www.ousd.org/cms/lib07/CA01001176/Centricity/Domain/134/Exec_Summary_OUSD_RJReport_2014.pdf

[11] Elev8 focuses on improving opportunities for low-income, predominantly African-American, Latino, Native American, and Asian students in the critical middle school years, and their families, in four places: Baltimore, Chicago, New Mexico, and Oakland. It is funded by the Atlantic Philanthropies, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Chicago Community Trust, Michael Reese Health Trust, the Polk Brothers Foundation, and JPMorgan. See Atlantic Philanthropies,Elev8-Ing Students to Succeed in School and Life” (New York: Atlantic Philanthropies, n.d.), http://www.atlanticphilanthropies.org/elev8-community-schools.

[12] Operated by the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute, the UChicago Charter School is composed of four campuses spanning all grades from early childhood through high school. See http://www.uchicagocharter.org/page.cfm?p=500.

[13] Established in 1993 as part of a development agreement between Bayer HealthCare and the City of Berkeley, Biotech Partners´ work today involves more than 35 corporate, government, education, and industry partners. See http://www.biotechpartners.org/students.html#jumpAcademy.