Deserving of Celebration: Public Education Done Right

Student poverty needn't be an "intractable" issue that we can't address, or that we must set aside while we "fix" public schools. Rather, our schools are microcosms of our increasingly diverse, but also increasingly unequal, country.
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Too often, news on the education front is all gloom and doom. Achievement gaps are stubborn, and current education reforms don't seem to be making schools better. In communities across the country, however, teachers, parents, communities, and local leaders are doing great things in and with public schools. As we celebrate America's independence, and the bicentennial of Francis Scott Key's penning of the Star Spangled Banner, let's also celebrate examples of comprehensive approaches to education that are doing it right and seeing great results.

In Boston, Massachusetts, the birthplace of the American revolution, City Connects celebrates its fifteenth year of providing comprehensive supports to students by leveraging community assets and connecting them to each students' unique needs. The initiative's 2014 progress report documents benefits for Boston, and for the first time, Springfield public school students. These include reduced high school drop-out rates for students who attended City Connects elementary schools beginning in kindergarten, and higher scores on state standardized tests. Mary Walsh, Executive Director of City Connects and Boston College professor of education, emphasizes the importance of evidence-based strategies with a whole child focus:

Schools have always made efforts to address students' out-of-school needs. This report shows that using evidence to inform practice, making effective use of community resources, and tailoring a plan for every student can alter trajectories for children. It has implications for changing the way school counselors, social workers, and other student support staff meet the needs of students.

In America's heartland, One Child at a Time, the most recent film from the Sherwood Foundation's Nebraska Loves Public Schools initiative, spotlights how that state's public schools take a whole child approach to learning to meet the needs of their diverse student body. "We have students that are coming in from refugee camps from all over the world. Some of them have great coping skills, others not so good." In the earlier film Standing up to Poverty, NEPS illustrates how public schools can alleviate poverty-related factors that impede educational success. It highlights one poverty alleviation strategy, quality early childhood education, in Ready for Kindergarten, illustrating how birth-to-five programs like Educare that engage parents as partners can change the entire family's trajectory.

In Florida's Hillsborough County, buses deliver breakfast and lunch to children in migrant communities like Plant City to complement the district's summer meals program in schools and camps. All children under 18 receive free meals, while their parents can take English classes at sites like San Jose Mission. And across the country, Chicago, Detroit, and other high-poverty districts are signing up for a new federal program that lets all students eat at school for free. Community eligibility: no stigma, less hassle, more kids who are well fed and ready to learn!

In keeping with his commitment to shape more equitable education policies, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a $52 million grant to support the development of 40 new community schools. This decision reflects Chancellor Carmen Farina's understanding that effective school reform comes from community engagement, and input regarding each school and community's unique needs. Elsy Chavez, parent leader with the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice and Make the Road NY applauds the decision:

CEJ is excited that through this Community Schools initiative, New York City schools will finally be encouraged to support the whole child and partner closely with communities to raise student achievement ... We know that Community Schools can build the strong partnerships that transform student achievement, through a positive school climate and a strong academic component, while also strengthening the entire community by drawing from the assets that already exist there.

The Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education's new report documents successes in schools that focus on Student-Centered Learning. The four Northern California schools studied invested heavily in teacher development, support, and time for teachers to collaborate; hands-on project-based learning and assessment; and strong, consistent, student-teacher relationships that promote personalized learning.They focus not on standardized test scores, but on ensuring that students "have transferrable academic skills; feel a sense of purpose and connection to school; as well as graduate, attend, and persist in college at [high] rates." SCOPE notes that "these practices are more often found in schools that serve affluent and middle-class students," so making them available to lower-income and minority students is crucial to equitable education policy.

A common thread runs through these stories: recognition that student, family, and community poverty stand in the way of success for too many, so policies and practices must address poverty-related needs. All illustrate, too, that student poverty needn't be an "intractable" issue that we can't address, or that we must set aside while we "fix" public schools. Rather, our schools are microcosms of our increasingly diverse, but also increasingly unequal, country. Improving education thus requires both embracing that diversity and putting in place supports to help children overcome barriers posed by poverty. That's the America we have reason to celebrate.

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