Sunday, March 1, 2009

Education in Today's Urban Environment

I've had a lifelong desire to help with our public education system. I grew up in San Francisco in the 60's and 70's, a time when California's public education system was touted as being the best in the country. My parents left their safe insular Chinatown community to move to an all-white neighborhood so that we could get access to the best public schools. I went to public schools all through undergraduate college, at a time when Affirmative Action wasn't a bad word. I was the first in my family to go to college, and was fortunate to have many mentors who supported me in my educational and career pursuits. I've paid alot of taxes, gladly.

I've personally lived through all kinds of school reform, enacted during my years as a student growing up: busing, elimination of tracking, elimination of "half grades", changes in teaching methods, etc. I grew up making friends of all races, classes, and backgrounds. As the system started to break down, and California started to shift funding priorities (from education to jails), I watched the public school system literally crumble behind me, so quickly that my younger siblings had less opportunity to get the kind of public education I had. I swore I would come back someday and do something about it. I want all kids to have access to the American Dream, as I had.

Three years ago, I had the opportunity to start consulting with the Oakland Unified School District, and have been working with them on a number of fronts since then: improving central office departments, troubleshooting operational problems, turning around learning programs. In addition, I've been in charge of big technology projects that aim to automate inefficiencies and provide data for better leadership decision-making. I've had the privilege of being able to visit school sites, talk to Principals, Teachers, and Staff -- and learn about the reality of the urban school environment today.

School work is no longer just academic teaching work. In fact, I would argue that school work in today's society is primarily social work. If kids and their families don't receive the appropriate kinds of support at the appropriate times, then the child cannot learn. It's no longer as simple as providing a good breakfast to every kid every morning. Nowadays, kids have to navigate all kinds of transitions --- divorce, community violence, parents in economic stress, lack of caring adults, loss of home ----- the list is long, and the needs are complex. No "improved" instructional practice is going to make a kid who has been to 10 funerals in 2 years learn math. No "improved" instructional practice is going to undo the damage done by the one grouchy adult (at school or in other places) that treats the kid as if they are not worthy.

And this observation doesn't only apply to the stereotypical low-income, minority communities in urban settings (note my use of the word stereotypical, as we often work from stereotypes that are damaging). Many years ago, there was a survey done with youth in Palo Alto, a very affluent city south of San Francisco. At the top of the list of issues articulated and ranked by the kids was loneliness and a sense of isolation. No amount of money, physical safety, and material comfort could satisfy their need for attention from caring adults and a caring community.

We need to break down the "service silos" that have been created in our school districts, our cities, our counties, and our states. Simplifying funding streams is one start. Facilitating cross functional work, and battling back political interests is another important step. Getting school boards elected that are healthy and focused on the work is another. Creating healthy union relationships so that they are partners in change, not obstacles to change, is also important. We've all allowed ourselves to fall into narrow and divisive approaches. Those of us in school reform get attached to "our way" being the "right way", and bicker while the kids suffer. Let's embrace all ways that do right by kids!

We need to stop the "adult third grade" stuff so we can focus on the REAL third grade.

Find a way to join in and help! Sign up to tutor, sign up to mentor, sign up to do facilities work. Be a reliable volunteer. You will be rewarded with the inner richness that only comes through selfless service.