School Talk

Students First?

Students First! It’s the name of a new advocacy group launched by former School Chancellor of Washington, DC, Michelle Rhee. It’s a concept that seems obvious and easy but my short tenure as a school committee member has been an eye-opener as to how infrequently this “given” is even part of the discussion. When are we adults going to act in a way that backs up what we say?

Every child deserves a great school! We all say this and yet, when so many of our children do not have one, we stay silent.
Every child deserves a highly effective teacher! I’ve never heard a person disagree with this statement either and yet, “teacher bashing” is the label thrown around to undermine those who advocate for a system that ensures the best teachers in the classroom, regardless of seniority or any other arbitrary measure. Those of us with children in the public schools are aware (or should be aware) that teachers are essentially given a job for life after two or three years with absolutely zero consideration of their ability or effectiveness. I was granted tenure, a job for life, at the ripe old age of 27. Seem absurd? I think so and I was the beneficiary of the policy. Would I want my children educated by people who’d been promised a job for life at 27 without any measure of their effectiveness? Absolutely not. Is this to say that life-long experienced teachers can’t be fantastic? Of course they can. But is longevity a guarantee of effectiveness? No.
Every child deserves a great leader in their school building! Can’t find a single person to disagree with this and yet, we see people in administrative positions who lack the skills to lead. They have the certification that characterizes them, on paper, as qualified to do the job; the problem is that the same piece of paper says nothing about their ability to reach kids, communicate with parents, surround themselves with talented people, and set a tone that leads to high expectations and successful learning. Are many school leaders highly skilled in all of these areas? A resounding yes! It is my belief, however, that all of them should be.
We need to give all kids the chance to reach their potential! Well, duh! But, is it happening with your children? Are they being challenged? Are they as engaged in their learning as they could/should be? Are they bringing work home that impresses you, as their parent or caregiver? Are they working hard for those A’s?
A principal in our district, Dr. Andy Anderson, recently embodied the energy and creativity that I believe is essential if we are to significantly move the needle for kids in school. In an attempt to increase school spirit and celebrate the accomplishment of his students having collectively read 25,000 pages, he held a pep rally. At the pep rally, he showed his “stuff” as a black belt in Karate and broke 25 cement blocks with his hand, each block representing 1,000 pages. His breaking of the blocks was a metaphor for what can happen when you set a goal and work hard. He hopes to have to break 30 next time! This energy and creative approach to reaching kids is exactly what is needed and deserved. He saw a problem with school spirit and he problem-solved. (I’ve attached the link if you’d like to view the ‘block breaking.’ ) I would argue that a willingness and ability to “problem-solve” is one of the the most important and essential characteristic of an excellent leader.
As I reflect in recent weeks on the heroism of our Navy Seals or on the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders, I am reminded of the courage people show every day. The courage needed to fight for excellent schools is nothing compared to what was and is required of so many in this world. We adults have an obligation to our own children and to all children to do, in the words of Geoffrey Canada, “WHATEVER IT TAKES.” Our kids cannot wait.
Demand more.
Become educated about school district data.
Attend meetings and speak out. (Public School Community Forum this Wednesday, 5/11, at 6:30 at Cumberland Public Library. School Committee Meeting Thursday, 5/12 at 7:30 in CHS auditorium.)
Look at your child’s work (and see how it compares to the work being given in other districts and at other schools in town.)
Sign up with (Rhode Island Campaign for Achievement Now) for updates.
Sign up with
Contact your elected representatives and ask them to show, legislatively, that education is a top priority. Organziations like RI-CAN and help with this often confusing task.
Expect more.
Admit that the status quo is not good enough.
Embrace change.
Believe that every child can learn.
I will close with a quotation that speaks to my heart and mind as I work hard with others to tackle the challenge of improving public education for all children:

“The greater danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we hit it.”

~ Michelangelo

What do you think?

One thought on “Students First?

  1. Very well spoken Erica. As my young children move through this system I hope we can make teachers, administrators and community members accountable for making the right decisions for our children.

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