May 11, 2015

Here's What a Community Can Do to Improve its Schools

Robert Niles
What's the top factor determining how well kids do in school?

People who've read my blogs will know the answer: It's the parents. Kids who come from families with parents who have money and education outscore and outperform kids who don't. Period. Everything you read in newspapers and online that claim to report about the "quality" of various schools and districts ultimately just comes down to the demographics of the children in those schools. Have a lot of poor kids of undereducated parents, and your test scores and other indicators suffer. Fill the schools with rich kids whose parents went to college, and "oh my goodness, isn't it amazing" what those children can do?

So what can schools do? How can schools help students who are not blessed with wealthy, or even middle class, parents achieve as much as their classmates who do?

Here is the tough, tough answer: Not much.

Forget all the blather about "excellent teachers." Learning is an individual act that defies industrial, one-way-for-all techniques. A teacher who is wonderful with one student can be awful with another, even a sibling. But even if we could somehow find that mythical unicorn of "an excellent teacher" who equally inspired and informed every single student he or she had, each of those students would get only 1/30th of that teacher's time, for seven hours a day, 180 days a year. That's just not enough time to make up for the lack of a financially secure home life. Especially when you also consider that the teacher can't do anything to provide for a student's proper nutrition, health care, or housing.

This isn't to say that teaching and curricula are not important. It's just that students who are hungry or poorly fed, or who don't have a bed of their own to sleep in at night, or a parent to read to them, or the health care to keep them well from constant sickness or disease, aren't going to come to the classroom in any good condition to learn, no matter what's being taught there.

If students from poor or broken households are to have any hope of achieving beyond where they were born in life, they will need more than schooling. They will need their entire community's help. School and teachers cannot by themselves provide all these students lack. Here in my hometown of Pasadena, Calif., some community leaders are working on a different approach to provide that help.

Pasadena City Hall
Pasadena City Hall. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Okay, I get it. Everyone's tired of hearing about yet another effort to do something about improving our schools. Especially here in Pasadena, where so many parents and community leaders are burnt out by years of efforts to improve local schools, with seemingly little to show for them.

But this effort is different, because it acknowledges that a huge part of the problems facing education today lies outside the classroom. Legislative attempts, such as No Child Left Behind and Common Core, are doomed because the problem facing education in America today is not a lack of rigor for students inside the classroom, but a lack of support for students outside it.

Collaborate PASadena follows a model established in other communities that brings together government and community agencies to work with schools to provide support for students and their families. But we can't rely on those agencies and their leaders to do this work for us, no more than we could rely upon teachers and school administrators.

In our consumer-oriented culture, we're trained to look for that one product, one service, one candidate, or one idea that can solve a problem. Pick the correct solution, then "set it and forget it," as the informercial tells us.

But education doesn't work like that. Heck, most anything that involves unique, fallible human beings doesn't work like that. And here's the second way that Collaborate PASadena differs from past efforts. It's not just about finding solutions to immediate needs — it seeks to find a new way to identify and meet the wide variety of needs that schools will continue to have, going forward.

Too many times, our desire for a quick solution has led to situations where selfish people take advantage. Here in Pasadena, crooks and cheats have betrayed far too many past efforts to improve our schools. But those crooks and cheats can get away with their misdeeds only when people stop paying attention — because they think the problems have been solved. Managers embezzle money from construction projects. Charter school operators send tax dollars to their for-profit owners, to fat paychecks for their "non-profit" managers, or for untrained teachers who leave their students worse off than if they'd just gone to their assigned school. Money for scholarships and supplies never make their way out of a volunteer's bank account. I guarantee you that a few of the people stepping forward in the Collaborate PASadena effort are doing so with the intent of hijacking it for their own gain.

If Collaborate PASadena is to succeed when past efforts have failed, it will need the continued attention and dedication of supports from throughout the community to prevent those attempts. It will need to meet its goal of creating new ways for people to communicate and work together to help the schools.

So what can you do to help?

Simply, to pay attention. Sign up on the website. Attend the community forum at Fuller Theological Seminary's Payton Hall on May 13 at 5:30pm. Or just keep your ears open to calls for help. If there's something that's need that you can provide, step up. And if not, just pass the call along to those you know who might be able to help.

By committing to pay attention to our schools and to Collaborate PASadena, you become a node in a new community-wide web of information that can help support the children in community who need that help. The more nodes we have to widen and strength this web, the less likely that people with bad intentions will be able to get away with hijacking this effort for personal gain. And the more people we have in this web of support for public education, the more likely we will be able to learn to work together to provide support for every child in our community.

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