Building a community of exceptional schools

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Allen Smith on the Issues - Building a community of exceptional schools

The Great Equalizer

Public education is among the most important initiatives a community will ever undertake because, unlike other measures, education has a unique ability to level the playing field for us all. Whatever circumstances you are born into, whatever your place in society, equal educational opportunities provide us all a means to pursue the future we want. It’s a promise we collectively make to each other to help protect against the inequalities that will always be inevitable in a free society.

When we allow the educational opportunity in a community to fall out of balance, we break that promise. By treating our great equalizer like a scarce commodity, we inadvertently deny it to the most vulnerable children, and we create a system that is neither equitable nor sustainable.

I believe it is in our collective best interest to take steps as a community to restore that balance and create a school system where every child can get an outstanding education regardless of who they are or where they come from. It will take time and commitment from all of us, and it’s a challenge the school board cannot solve alone.

Complex Causes

Restoring equitable educational opportunity throughout CMS requires addressing a complex web of factors that led us here. This includes housing policies that geographically isolate different socioeconomic groups as well as local and state education policies which dilute our community investment in the most at-risk students.

This web of factors has created a destabilizing feedback loop. Good schools become valuable neighborhood amenities for anyone who can afford to live nearby. They attract high-quality teachers. They thrive from the contributions of families who have the means to hold the school accountable and share ownership in the success of all its students.

As more and more families and teachers gravitate to these schools, they become overcrowded, putting a strain on resources. Meanwhile, the schools they abandon become increasingly concentrated with everyone whose circumstances prevent them from attending a better school. The result is a school system where children whose parents are the most well-off get the opportunities we are all promised and the poorest children inherit an educational valley of ashes.

Two Paths

There tend to be two schools of thought on how to ensure we’re not breaking our promise to children who have the deck stacked high against them. Some say we should dedicate more money and district resources to the lowest performing schools in an effort to turn them around. Others believe we can restore educational opportunity by taking steps to ensure all students can attend a socioeconomically balanced school where kids from all backgrounds and income levels are equally represented in every classroom.

There is no shortage of input on the topic. I have listened to parents, teachers, community leaders, and educational researchers; and I have read books and articles on everything from the history of CMS to the lessons other communities have learned from similar challenges.

I am convinced we need both approaches to be successful.

Moving forward together

In the near term, we should take practical steps to help kids who need the most support. This includes dedicating more resources to the schools and kids who need them the most. These measures are beneficial and necessary, but it’s important to understand they do not provide equal educational opportunities long term.

We need a more sustainable solution. We need to heal the system itself.

Our long-term goal should be building a healthy community of schools and neighborhoods where students from all backgrounds are equally represented. It’s the more difficult path because it requires us all to work together with trust and courage, but it’s the right path for our future and our kids.

Decades of research shows that bringing groups of people with different viewpoints together to learn and work produces better outcomes for everyone. This mixture of class and background forms social capital, which, to borrow a metaphor from the educator Gerald Grant, “is the yeast that makes a good school rise.” We see this pattern everywhere — from schools, to teams and businesses, to politics and even in our military. When our kids can learn and work alongside each other, they all end up better off, and education once again becomes our great equalizer.

But we can’t do that unless everybody is on board. Imposing immediate, radical changes to assignment boundaries can cause confusion and widespread challenges that drain confidence from the entire community. Many families who hear inflammatory phrases like “social engineering” and “forced busing” in their social circles worry that changes to assignment boundaries will have dire consequences for their kids. There has been a lot of misinformation, and families deserve peace of mind about this.

Opportunities, Pathways, and Advocacy

Instead of drastic changes, I propose a more sensible approach. In the near term, we should continue to expand magnets and school options, placing new magnet schools in areas of town that optimize accessibility for everyone. Where it makes sense, we should also explore the conversion of existing schools into partial magnets or full magnets.

With an emphasis on maximizing opportunities for students and families, the system remains focused on opting in. Families can still choose to attend a school near their house (what folks often refer to as their neighborhood school) or one of many other options available. To ensure the system is equitable for everyone, we should also take steps to guarantee balance pervades every classroom and provide additional support where it’s needed to help students and their families learn about their options and make the most of them.

Our long-term plan begins with being responsive to change. As our community continues to grow and change in the coming years, adjustments to our schools are inevitable. It’s important to embrace those moments as opportunities to build trust and confidence by making practical, organic changes with an eye toward a balanced enrollment that minimizes transportation time and doesn’t overcrowd a school.

As I meet and listen to folks, one common truth always emerges: different things are important to different families. With that in mind, as part of our long-term plan, we should also explore more modern student assignment policies that better reflect the varied preferences among people in our community. For some families, having a school within walking distance is top priority. Others value a school with a particular schedule or program.

Families deserve greater flexibility in choosing a school that matches their children’s needs. The feedback the from the community shows that this is something a majority of people want; and there are many ways to accomplish it. For instance, there are student assignment models that let families choose from a number of schools near their home rather than being tied to a particular school based solely on their address. We should be giving every possible pathway the consideration it deserves.

Responsible Progress

Restoring balance will require improved intergovernmental collaboration between the school board and other city and county offices. We should encourage policies and decisions that keep our school system healthy, such as city planning policies that spread the availability of affordable housing to all parts of the community, or measures to address and prevent the type of cavalier development that fuels overcrowding.

We should also be working with state officials to protect traditional public schools by supporting legislation that increases teacher pay, expands funding for early childhood education, encourages innovation, and ensures charter schools are fulfilling their original intended purpose instead of diluting our community investment or siphoning resources away from CMS.

Incremental Change

No solution is perfect. And as our community continues to make progress together, our school system should adapt to remain healthy. That means creating options, trying new things, and being honest with ourselves about what does and doesn’t work for our community. I believe in improvement through iteration, and I favor incremental measures that introduce changes with an impact we can more easily measure and evaluate. In fact, even the plan I have proposed here is just a starting point and remains open to suggestions and iteration. We all have blind spots, and I am certainly no exception. I am proud to campaign as a person who doesn’t have all the answers but who believes bringing multiple perspectives together leads to greater results for everyone.

So let’s do this.

Let’s work together to build a community of schools as exceptional as the kids within them.

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