Sunday, October 17, 2010

A DIFFERENT VISION FROM A DIFFERENT SUPERINTENDENT: “…we have to stop blaming teachers for problems that have multiple causes, ranging from poor administrative oversight and accountability to a lack of parent engagement.”



Dear Colleagues:

From magazine covers to movie screens to MSNBC’s Education Nation, public schools are a growing topic of national discourse. This interest is understandable. With economic recovery slow, unemployment high and a barrage of data about how American students stack up against their global counterparts, many across the country worry about the status of public education.

On Saturday, I attended a screening of the documentary “Waiting for Superman” and participated in a panel discussion that followed. The film tells the story of five families fed-up with low-performing schools in their neighborhoods and their attempts to enroll their children in higher-performing charters.

I came away from the movie with an overwhelming sense that we have to stop blaming teachers for problems that have multiple causes, ranging from poor administrative oversight and accountability to a lack of parent engagement. I know how hard teachers work to educate every child and challenge students at their ability level. We need to work equally hard to give our teachers the tools and supports they need to be successful. Let’s stop scapegoating and come together to find solutions that work.

The other takeaway, for me, in “Waiting for Superman,” is the idea that innovation is crucial to improving public schools. This is why charters can be an important part of a district portfolio: Charters have certain freedoms to innovate and those ideas can be borrowed and replicated.

But we have to remember that innovation isn’t exclusive to charter schools.

Last week, 80 educators from across Northern California gathered at Health Professions High School for a site visit and to observe a “salon” session, an innovative, teacher-organized, teacher-led approach to improving student learning.

During a salon, teachers work together to find best practice strategies that all faculty can then apply in their classrooms. At last Monday’s session, teachers collaboratively hammered out what an effective collegiate-level research paper should look like – a desired outcome that creates a standard for the school.

The educators who observed the salon in a fishbowl activity assumed that Health Professions, with its other ground-breaking approaches to high school curriculum, was a charter. In fact, when Health Professions was proposed there was discussion about whether to make it a charter.

It is not. Health Professions is a school at the edge of a federally funded housing project. It serves mostly low-income students (66 percent qualify for a free- or reduced-price lunch) and mostly underrepresented minorities (35 percent African American; 37 percent Latino). And it grew 24 points on the Academic Performance Index last year. Of its 2010 graduates, 100 percent are enrolled in college. Additionally, about a third of those students received a “diploma of excellence,” meaning they put in 100 hours of community service or more during their four years in high school.

If we want to counter the notion that only charters hold the key to the future of public education, we must be willing to embrace successful innovations and push ourselves to do better.

Finally, while charters are an option for some, the overwhelming majority of children in this district attend traditional public schools. These are the schools that serve foster kids and homeless kids, kids whose parents are in jail, kids who themselves have been in jail.

That’s not an excuse for failure. But that’s reality. Those are the kids that come through our doors. To quote one of our teachers, “the real Superman – and Superwoman -- is the teacher who educates these kids.”

Waiting for Superman” gets its title from Geoffrey Canada, CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a 97-block area in New York City that includes two respected charter schools. As a kid in the Bronx, Canada was crushed the day he learned that Superman is fictional. Canada says: “I was crying because no one was coming with enough power to save us.”

There is no magic bullet to our problems, no easy answers. But collectively and collaboratively, I believe we have enough power to change the lives of the children we serve. And for that, we all deserve a cape.

Jonathan P. Raymond

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