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School Utopia: What's Needed


Megan M. Allen

I've written before about waving my magic wand and having my wishes granted in education. Well, it's time to sprinkle the pixie dust again and imagine the perfect school for the little ones that are near and dear to my heart ... that is, a school for low-income students.

So what's the secret to creating this utopian school? Here's what I'm dreaming up and what I feel are the factors that will make this school a success.

1. A focus on non-cognitive skills. There is great research on the importance of non-cognitive skills, especially with low-income students. Let's teach kids optimism, tenacity, resilience, and impulse control, which seem to be linked more closely to success in life than just scoring high on the SAT. Let's focus on the importance of perseverance through embracing failure, instead of just preparing them to pass tests. The Kipp Academy had this "a-ha" moment when they noticed that even though they had a high graduation rate, few alumni were making it through college. Their solution? A character report card (though I'm skeptical of these) and a focus on the non-cognitive.

2. Breathing room. Teachers need space to create innovative programs to meet student needs. There must be room to problem-solve. What we do not need are state-mandated programs, scripted textbooks, and laws about the minutes we should be teaching a certain subject. I'm not sure why our highest need schools have the highest restrictions, when what is needed is the most room for growth through innovation.

3. Connectivity to the community. Confession: I'm obsessed with the Harlem Children's Zone, the Oyler School in Ohio, and other campuses where schools are community hubs. Why? Because they work. Research shows that when children face adversity young, it actually can change the physical development of the brain (scary, right?). So let's alleviate those adversities. These learning centers are partnered with nonprofits and offer supports that our students and their families need to not only survive, but thrive. Then families can focus on education and not about how dinner is going to appear on the table.

4. Staff support. Another confession: I work at a high-needs school, it is mid-October, and we are already experiencing some major burnout. We go home so emotionally exhausted, carrying the worries of our students as well as the responsibility of helping them use education as a tool to break the cycle of poverty. Then we go back and do it all over again the next day. Teachers in high-needs schools need extra supports, time, and pay. We also need mechanisms in place that ensure that our best are working and staying in these schools, instead of what most frequently happens (the newest graduates grace the halls).

So how can we make this a reality? What else would you add? Looking forward to writing the script on this one to and making the transition from fairy tale to reality...

Megan M. Allen is a National Board-certified teacher in Tampa, Fla., where she serves as a teacherpreneur and teaches 5th graders.

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