Engaging Inner-City Students in Education: A Salon with Paul Cummins (November 2004)

The name Paul Cummins comes up often in conversations about educational programs for disadvantaged children in Los Angeles. An innovator in the field of education for over 30 years, Paul Cummins has focused on creating educational opportunities for all children, regardless of learning style, ethnicity, or economics. Cummins has founded two private schools (Crossroads and New Roads), joint ventured in creating four charter school campuses, developed an arts program for low-income schools (PSArts), and written extensively on the state of education in this country. He is currently Executive Director of the New Visions Foundation, where he is working on building an integrated, interactive, inclusive educational village in Santa Monica.

In November, Dr. Cummins joined a group of Everychild members and guests at the home of Cynthia and Neil Alexander to explore the question of how to engage inner-city students in their own education and lower the massive drop-out rate – as high as 50% in some inner-city schools. Dr. Cummins spoke of “the two Americas” — one rich, the other poor — and shared these statistics: In many elementary schools, there is one counselor for 1000 students. At Manual Arts High School, out of 1800 entering freshmen, 900 leave before graduating, and only 30 graduates go on to college.

Dr. Cummins suggests that it is vital to engage all students in their own education by involving them in subject matter and activities they find meaningful. Declaring that “engagement and meaning are the twin pillars of a successful education,” he claims that students are not bored or disinterested when their teachers address topics that relate to the world they live in, such as juvenile delinquency, homelessness, or the environment. Further, Dr. Cummins discounts the importance of testing, stating that “an absorbed student will become self-accountable by virtue of involvement with the subject at hand, which no amount of testing can dictate.” Students are engaged when they are encouraged to ask real questions and search for real answers; they are empowered by discovering what they can do to make their world better.

Essential to Cummins’ educational vision are teachers with a passion for their subject matter and an ability to relate to their students – and teacher salaries consistent with the importance of their role in society. Like many societal ills, educational problems often become funding problems. At a time when budget deficits are causing statewide funding cuts for education, Cummins believes we can’t leave our children’s future in the hands of government; private foundations like Everychild must get involved. The challenges we face in repairing our educational system are daunting, but the human price we pay for leaving it broken is incalculable.