So What Can We Do For Our Schools?
A LOT! In fact, the ground is very fertile for us to sow seeds of progress. We are well aware of the multitude of issues plaguing our district, and we are responsible for addressing those issues at their root. Here are 7 possible ways to reimagine school improvement.
1) Implement Community Schooling Concepts
Our neighborhood schools are and should be pillars of our community. However, our lowest performing schools are our neighborhood schools. If we fail to support our neighborhood schools, we are saying that we care less about the community. Some schools have started implementing community school concepts already. This means that they may have laundry options at the school so students can have clean uniforms to wear. They have partnered with local businesses to maintain a food pantry so families can ensure students don’t come to school hungry. We have 5,000 students of our 28,000 identified as housing insecure. We need to put pressure on our aldermen to work with our district to establish shelter. This not only provides resources, but also allows the community to feel more connected and supported by the school.
2) Restore Community Support
We must return governance to our elected board. By maintaining an appointed board, we remove democracy, and thus the voices of the people. There has been a June 2019 date set for the return of governance. However, this date is merely a suggestion, not a guarantee. While it’s possible governance will return in June, it is not certain.
As an elected board, we cannot simply expect the return of governance; we must demand it. And we cannot demand it alone. Faith has been lost by our community in the ability for our schools to do right by our kids and families. I charge the elected board with the task of regaining that community support by being visible in ALL the schools and ALL the communities of SLPS. We cannot simply expect families to show up for monthly meetings, we have to work to rebuild that relationship with the community so they want to be there in the first place. Board meetings should not be our only point of interaction. We should take the same energy we had knocking doors during election season to building year-round, meaningful, relationships showing we value everyone’s voices, opinions, and ideas.
3) Strategic Resource Implementation
There are schools where we have more security guards than counselors. Yet, we agree that students today are exposed to and coming to school with more trauma than ever. We spend money on what we care about, and we need to start caring about the mental health of our kids. Simply putting in more counselors and therapists is not enough. We must be strategic. In high schools, students go from back-to-back blocks with a 30-minute lunch, and school is dismissed. If we want to be strategic, we should build in actual time during the day for students to use the resources. The top schools have at least an hour of free time for students, but most SLPS schools don’t adopt this model. Even if we shorted daily classes by 15 minutes, that would allow 5 hours a week for student to take care of their mental health.
We also have to be mindful of the narrative around counseling and how we change that. Right now, students get “sent” to the counselor as a punishment. We need to work to change the mindset of counseling as a positive practice, not a punitive practice.
The state is spending fewer dollars on education. However, we also need to be smarter about how we use the dollars we have and fund our schools equitably. There is no reason why a large, struggling community school should receive less funding than a small magnet school.
4) Teacher Compensation
We say that teaching is a noble profession, and it is. However, we use that nobility to justify poor compensation. When we market low pay for teachers and couple that with embarrassing half-step adjustments, we lose out on quality teachers to other districts and independent schools. We can better attract and retain high quality teachers, especially for those high need subjects which tend to be STEM subjects. Check out my op ed in The St. Louis American for a more in-depth analysis.
5) Representation and Cultural Competency
Representation matters. Roughly 40% of our district’s students are black males, but nationwide, black male teachers represent about 2% of America’s educators. We need to work to attract, hire, and retain black men in the classroom, and teachers of color in general. We can do better than 2%. We also need to focus on cultural competence in our educators that don’t come from the communities they are currently serving. Cultural competence means more than understanding a certain demographic’s situation. It means learning about how your own biases and experiences bleed into your curriculum, daily practices, and relational interactions with students. We need training sessions with reputable and effective facilitators that allow for time and space to dialogue, reflect, and take necessary action. If we don’t want to talk about race in our district, we don’t want to talk about progress in our district.
6) Restorative Justice Practices
Black male students are the highest demographic of students to be suspended. In 2015, Missouri actually ranked highest in the nation in suspension of black students. They are overrepresented when it comes to disciplinary infractions, dropout rate, and prison population. These are facts. The pre-school-to-prison pipeline is real. We can’t run our schools like prisons and say we’re preparing them for college.
Restorative justice is a practice that works. When students get off track, they are not sitting in a room by themselves, or sent home where they are missing out on valuable instructional time. Students are having conversations about why their action are not conducive to the learning environment, how they can be better proponents of a productive learning environment, and working on strategies to help them deal with situations that might cause them to stray off-track. This gives power, resources, and agency back to our students and gets them to grow into the adults we someday wish for them to be.
7) More Building Autonomy
In a district drenched in bureaucracy, progress is slow. We charge our building leaders with providing the vision and direction for their schools, but often the school administration has to bend to the will of the district administration, often times at the detriment of the school. For example, a school that demands more resources may mean the district will spend $50,000 on a new platform without consulting the school leaders or gathering input from school leaders about what they think is best. But it will be looked at as a $50,000 benefit to the school, even if it is not used or effective. We need to empower school leaders and support their decision-making. We can show our confidence in them to raise the standard for the schools they lead.
Families shouldn’t have to worry every 2-3 years about whether or not their zip code or socioeconomic status will afford them a quality education. We should work toward every school being a quality option for our kids. I believe these 7 strategies are a start, and there is much more we can do. Quality schools breed thriving individuals who contribute to the cultivation of thriving communities. I am looking forward to serving on the elected Board of Education and I would appreciate your vote on April 2nd.