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Headlines To Save A Nation

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What is your headline?

While the nation waits nervously for the Obama Administration to breathe life back into our moribund economy, the President has set his sites on other issues that are equally as important. Like our schools. Last week, in an address to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington D.C., he shared his vision for public education. The next morning the newspaper said: "Obama looks for schools to improve."

There is an interesting exercise often used with organizations that are trying to arrive at a sense of common purpose or mission. They are invited to look into the future, four or five years after their ideas have been implemented, and to envision how the headlines in the local paper will describe their success.

So if we were to ask President Obama to project what the headline for the Washington Post might be on the morning of March 20, 2013, exactly four years from today, he might predict that it will say:

'"ACHIEVEMENT GAP EVAPORATES AMIDST POWERFUL REFORMS"

There is cause for such optimism. In his address to the chamber he outlined his five pillars for education reform:

• Invest in early childhood initiatives
• Develop standards and assessments that promote 21st century skills: including problem solving, critical thinking, entrepreneurship and creativity
• Recruit, prepare and reward outstanding teachers
• Promote innovation and excellence; raise the cap on charter schools and extend the school day and school year
• Provide every American with the opportunity to pursue quality higher education

NCLB has been a debacle, not on the scale with the housing market meltdown perhaps, but close. After 8 years of narrowing our curriculum to basic skills, for example, our 8th graders remain 9th in the world in mathematics. So the President wants a return to a climate of innovation, where we teach children to think and solve problems beyond bubbles on a multiple choice test. If he succeeds the headline might read:

"5 PILLARS CREDITED WITH INSPIRING CHILDREN TO THINK AGAIN"

Last week's news headlines addressed more than just the President's remarks however. One headline in Time Magazine read: "Report Says 1 in 50 US Kids are Homeless." In light of our fragile economy, that number can only get worse. The study's definition of homelessness included children who live in the streets, in shelters, or who are doubling up with relatives. It described the link between children's life circumstances and their level of academic achievement: homeless children are twice as likely as other children to be retained. With each school change they are at risk of falling as much as six months behind. 25% have witnessed violence. 75% are in elementary school. Nearly half suffer from anxiety and depression.

Of course those of us who work directly with children and their struggling families every day in Title I schools have been aware of these trends all along. But in the ethos of NCLB, to call out the obvious difficulty of learning to multiply fractions when your family is living in an old Volkswagon is merely "making excuses"; an aversion to being held accountable. (For the record, I am more than willing to be held accountable as a school leader. I would just like someone to be accountable for the fact that there are children in America who have to sleep in a Volkswagon.)

Perhaps if we get the "5 Pillars" right, and we get the economy breathing again, we might see a headline on March 20, 2013 that says:

"DRAMATIC GAINS IN STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT TRANSCEND ALL DEMOGRAPHICS" or
"AMERICAN CHILDREN NOW FIRST IN THE WORLD IN SCIENCE!"

There was yet another headline last week that trumpeted the release of a joint study between the University of Colorado and ASU. This report identified seven "out-of- school" factors that also profoundly influence students' academic success and lead to inequalities among children. Those factors include prenatal care, health care, food insecurity, environmental pollutants, family stress, neighborhood characteristics and the absence of extended learning opportunities.

Like most schools, we realized long ago that we cannot unilaterally eliminate these out-of-school factors, so instead we use our resources and the innovative nature of our charter school to foster "resiliency" in children; we enhance their ability to rise above their life circumstances and achieve at the highest levels in spite of the obstacles. We teach our students to build on their personal assets. We have, in fact, become experts on the topic of childhood resiliency, a very non-NCLB approach to engendering student achievement.

Taken together, last week's headlines dramatically illustrate how the future of our nation, our economy and our schools are all so inextricably bound.

On March 20, 2013, four years from now, I predict that my school will have benefitted from our own forward momentum as well as the implementation of President Obama's hopeful vision for our economy and our schools. If I could project the headline in the local paper for that day, it would say:

"CALIFORNIA'S TOP PERFORMING SCHOOL LIVES UP TO ITS NICKNAME: EL MILAGRO"

I'm just curious, school leaders, especially those of you who are saving a nation- four years down the road from now what will your headline say?

Kevin W. Riley
Cross-Posted with a Little Different Spin at El Milagro Weblog

5 Comments

Kevin:

One of the first acts of the Cuban revolution was to act on a commitment to 100% literacy. With revolutionary ferver they took a "stop, drop and roll" approach in which everyone who could read became a teacher (forgive my exaggeration). I am well aware of the many possible criticisms--we don't have any empirical data on the success of this venture, although the party line is that 100% literacy was reached. The "content" of the reading had to do with teaching of revolutionary slogans. The "each one teach one" approach used minimally trained instructors.

Still, there is something to be admired in any young nation who sets about to meet and exceed such a universal goal in a short time, despited other problems facing their nation--poverty, poor distribution of health care. I visited several decades after the "triumph of the revolution," when structures for both universal education and universal health care were in place. And while many things (electricity, toilet paper, paint, cars, housing) were in short supply--I saw no people living in trash dumps, as I saw when I visited Mexico. We were never approached in the street by beggars, as is common in other Central American countries. So I tend to believe that some of the published results, maybe have some truth to them. It's been two decades since that visit, and many other things have happened--so I suspect that there is greater poverty, perhaps less hope.

But my reason for looking at the Cuban experience is that even in the midst of nation-building following a revolution, following the loss of many of the educated population who could get a better deal by fleeing to Miami, the Cubans took on the challenge of ensuring that everyone could read. Reading was considered relevant to the success of the revolution, even for people who had less than a volkswagon to sleep in.

Yes--I will applaud leaders in education who decry that there are children who sleep in volkswagons, or on Auntie's couch, or in a shelter that has to be vacated by 6 am each morning. But we cannot allow that to be an excuse for letting education slide. I have a kid who has never lived in a volkswagon, hasn't changed addresses since he was two-years-old, has only known lack of electricity as an adventure following a windstorm, received all medical care in a timely and qualitative fashion and believes hunger derives from there not being anything in the refrigerator he wants to eat. But his education is affected as well by the lowered expectations attached to the belief that "some of our kids are sleeping in cars." I can pretty well guarantee no teachers ever visit those kids in cars, or even the kids in houses that don't move. As a long-time advocate for people who lack housing and health care, I cannot recall a time when testimony was being given by school district representatives. I don't recall the district approaching the community shelter board to see what could be done about assisting homeless kids in their education, or in building stability. When new school buildings are built, no one is meeting with public health, public housing, welfare, to see how to make those new buildings useful to people who have needs beyond education. Educators scorn the "social work" that creeps into their classrooms, and freely call for the dismissal of kids whose chaotic lives call for a calming influence during the school day.

So, what might be my headline? Well--I guess there might be many jaw dropping ones along the way: Public library to join school building effort; School buildings to be kept open all summer; parents welcomed to discuss barriers to education; but perhaps the big one at the end might be something like: Community unites to close achievement gap.

Wow, Margo/Mom. Good stuff. I too consider our education woes a problem for all of us to solve, not just teachers and schools. And yes, we need to consider the things you mention, like pairing school with other social services.

Well said!

Margo/Mom: I would agree... except for your statement that: "I can pretty well guarantee no teachers ever visit those kids in cars, or even the kids in houses that don't move." At my school we do home visits every year... with 100% of our students and families. We visit them in houses, apartments, trailer parks, houseboats and yes, Volkswagons.

I hope you didn't miss the main point. We are a school that excels because we assist children and families through the kind of circumstances that make learning otherwise very difficult.

tft... I agree that education woes (and the out-of-school factors that I cited) are for all of us to solve-- not just teachers and schools. But my students can't wait for political trends to determine whether they are worthy of attention this year. So we use our charter resources to fund a counseling staff who can take the pressure off of our teachers and do a lot of the footwork with community agencies. It works. We are a Title I Academic Award winning school 7 miles from the border to Tijuana.

www.muellercharterschool.org

I can attest to it working. As a teacher at "El Milagro" I have conducted literally hundreds of home visits collectively during my 8 years. It is truly my favorite time of year since it allows me the time and space for the establishment of the familial relationships imperative to our work at the charter. Unlike many schools, our school IS a hub of information and connections to community resources and agencies for our families. I believe that it is the home visit, our proverbial kick-off to each school year (since we begin them around the 2nd or 3rd week of school each year) that creates the clearing necessary for trust, commitment, and the acceptance of our school as an organization truly committed to not only its test scores and API, but to every member of its community. Our families know that our doors are open and that our counseling staff and teachers are there to support them when they need it. It is not uncommon for our parents to come to our school when they are in the midst of financial crisis because they lost their job or can't pay the rent (and believe me that has been a theme this year, as we all know!), or perhaps they're going through a divorce and need some support. It goes both ways too. We also reach out to families who we know need our support too. We can do that because we KNOW our families. Our school staff has become experts skilled in reaching out to and receiving community members to get them pointed in the right direction. We are a school committed to service. We serve our students, their parents, and families in whatever capacity necessary. It is working and we are constantly evolving to find new ways in which to provide services to our community.

So, my headline..."90% at Grade Level! A Recipe for Success."

Well said Aimee. It was great to hear your voice in here!

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Recent Comments

  • Kevin W. Riley: Well said Aimee. It was great to hear your voice read more
  • Aimee Velazquez: I can attest to it working. As a teacher at read more
  • Kevin W. Riley: Margo/Mom: I would agree... except for your statement that: "I read more
  • tft: Wow, Margo/Mom. Good stuff. I too consider our education woes read more
  • Margo/Mom: Kevin: One of the first acts of the Cuban revolution read more

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