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An Education Quilt Special
Dr. Beverly Cross
An Interview with Dr. Beverly Cross on Urban Education
By Arelya J. Mitchell, Editor-in-Chief
The Mid-South Tribune
And the Black Information Highway
The adjective ‘urban’ has gone through its throes of transformation. All the way from meaning the chic and sophisticated as in urbanite to meaning the poor and unsophisticated as in ‘black ghetto’. Then there is the hybrid term ghetto-fabulous which could be construed, perhaps, as living fabulously in the ghetto. Then again there is urban fashion brought to popularity by hip hoppers and rap artists such as Sean P. Diddy Puffy Daddy Combs, and that white designer guy, Tommy Hilfiger. And yet again, cities such as Atlanta and Memphis boast of their Urban Art exhibits, African American-oriented museums. Outside of the Harlem Renaissance there hasn’t been so much focus on ‘urban’ as now.
So it shouldn’t be all that surprising to discover that there is a bona fied discipline on the collegiate level called Urban Education. The University of Memphis, in fact, offers such an area of study which is taught by Dr. Beverly E. Cross. Dr. Cross, formerly of the University of Wisconsin, also has the distinction of holding the Lillian and Morrie Moss Chair of Excellence in Urban Education at the U of M.
“Urban Education by definition is multi-disciplinary,” she explains. “It has to do with the history of the creation of our cities. Where did our cities come from? What makes them different? What makes them unique and, thus, what makes education in the big city environment so different as compared to a rural environment and a suburban environment? It is about the history of the formation of cities, and the role of education within those cities, and, of course, on the issues of politics, cultural and racial dynamics, and size.”
She continues: “If you say ‘urban’ to most anybody, they would think it is a synonym for ‘Black’. They would say that you can use it interchangeably, but they’re not interchangeable, because if you go back in history, cities were not populated by any Black people.”
Still one wonders if the term ‘urban education’ is specifically about inner city education or ‘black education’ or the education of Blacks. She again cautions against that stereotyping whatever is ‘urban’ as being specifically ‘about African Americans”. She tells you quickly that things are changing, and that the concepts of “inner city and urban school” are refocusing themselves.
“We’re seeing the shift in who lives in the city,” she says, explaining that people who moved to the suburbs are now sending their children to the Memphis City Schools System. And in spite of the stigma of the Memphis City Schools System being under par, there are many good schools in the system that do measure up. The optional and charter schools within the system are some prime examples. She also points out that working class people and minorities are moving out into the suburbs or county areas or, as she describes it, onto “the fringe of the city.”
This ‘shift’ presupposes that the resources – human and economic—are being ‘shifted’ also.
“This is why this whole relationship between education and the economic system of a city is so important,” she stresses. “This is why there is this big emphasis across the country, because there is definitely a [direct] relationship between education and the economic survival of cities.”
She says that this awareness of the correlation between what is happening across the country is being taken seriously. “It’s being taken seriously because there a realization that a region is not productive without a healthy city…so we’ve gone to more of a region mentality. Memphis is the hub of this region--this Mid-South region-- because we’ve gone through years of disinvestment in cities where people weren’t paying any attention the inner cities because they didn’t live there….but now that they are coming back to the city to live, bringing back the resources of the middle and upper class, they want the cities to be vital.”
She is the first to admit that in the Memphis ‘hub’ area that the issue of city schools versus county schools is a hot one. “When you look at cities around the country, their school systems have dwindled in population…and thankfully our superintendent [in Memphis] has the goal of having good schools--lots of good schools – not just one or two good schools.”
Dr. Beverly Cross is more than determined to make one understand just how vital Urban Education is.
“Let me get back to my focus,” she says. “The middle class population, the upper middle class population, and the empty nesters that move back want the city to be vital…and to get that vitality back means tax base has to come back. We want the diversity in income level… that’s already happening in the city [Memphis] when you see all of those condos, homes downtown, young professionals, working and middle class professionals, empty nesters returning…you’ve got the people back…you’ve got the amenities back…” Specifically, she hones in on Memphis’ urban area. “What do we have down there now? You’ve got the Fed Ex Forum, sports, shopping, arts, the downtown trolley, the Orpheum, and a very limited you have the jobs back.” She believes that Memphis could be the next vital work center in the United States, even though she said she once heard a guest speaker say ‘but not with you graduation rate, you don’t stand a chance’.” She knows that corporations look at the graduation rates of a city, but she is optimistic that all this is changing for the positive in Memphis.
She leans back comfortably in her chair. When you walk into her U of M office, you’re struck by her ‘Hello, Kitty’ pink décor. Tastefully done, of course, and she will jokingly tell you that no matter how old she gets she’ll always be a fan of ‘Hello, Kitty’.
Perhaps there is nowhere where Urban Education is more needed than in Memphis, the city that has long suffered the stigma of being the site where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968 and continued stereotypes of the Old South, poverty, racism amid being the home of W.C. Handy, Elvis Presley, and Memphis Music. Her philosophy on Urban Education shall one say is dormoused between the raw realism of the apparent problems and the high idealism of what can be when she says: “Educational studies show that ‘unless you can elevate the quality of education, you cannot elevate the quality of a city’.”
In addition, Dr. Cross stresses the role of leadership as playing a pivotal role in where Memphis is heading: “The alignment of good leadership is needed. Memphis is positioning to do it. I believe we have the alignment of good leadership, resources, and the focus on teacher quality—those three things should line up together to position us to have a phenomenal school system. Shame on us, the adults, if we don’t take advantage of this opportunity to pull this all together to make a better city and better place for our kids. If we do those things and create a better place and a strong educational system, the city will benefit astronomically. A strong education system makes a healthy city and strong educated children will make a healthy city. It all goes together.”