Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Snapshots from Public Schools….Everyone’s Working and It’s Complicated

Cheryl S. Williams's picture

Congress is in session; the President delivers the State of the Union address; and education groups convene in DC to showcase excellence, visit policymakers, and advocate for 21st century skills.  Over the past several weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to attend meetings here in the nation’s capital that spotlight strategies for strengthening our public schools and celebrate those that are successful in supporting student achievement.  It’s clear that there’s not only lots of work to be done, but that many dedicated citizens are working to improve the lives of all our children.  It’s also clear to me that the work is complicated and the challenges varied and localized.

This reality was illustrated at a meeting hosted by the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) in partnership with the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) on Capitol Hill last month to introduce the 2013 National School Counselor of the Year, Mindy Willard, and to share the perspectives of Ms. Willard along with that of her superintendent, Ron Richards.  The program also featured Shelby Wyatt, a high school counselor and finalist for the 2013 School Counselor of the Year, and Gregory Jones, a principal, both from Kenwood Academy in the Chicago Public Schools. 

Ms. Willard’s story of the extra time and care she gave to one of her students whose father died served as an illustration of the impact of out of school events on student academic performance. And Dr. Richards’ description of his priority of providing a district wide belief that all kids can succeed and even having them recite a creed that states that belief every morning following the Pledge of Allegiance was compelling. 

But the story that stuck with me came from Dr. Jones describing his work as principal at Kenwood Academy, a highly rated high school in the Chicago Public Schools.  Dr. Jones relayed his assumption when he first arrived at Kenwood Academy that his primary focus was to be on teaching and learning in the school.  What he soon discovered was that his primary responsibility in the school was to keep the students safe from the violence in their and the school’s neighborhood.  As school counselor, Dr. Wyatt runs a mentoring and leadership program for male students that has shown success in increasing the graduation rate and college attendance of participating students.  But Dr. Jones shared that he has a budget of one million dollars for school security with just a fraction of that available to be spent on school counseling and the mentoring program.  Additionally, Kenwood Academy receives “safety transfers”- students whose physical well-being is so threatened at their neighborhood school that they need to be transferred out to ensure they’re safe from gang violence. 

In all the talk about public school “reform”, it’s rarely mentioned that in addition to growth on standardized test scores, reading on grade level and acquisition of 21st century skills (all important things), schools and the professionals working in them must keep students safe in an unsafe world and be there when a parent dies to support the student and the family.  The work we do is complicated, personal, and often not easily measured.  It behooves us all to keep this top of mind as we work collaboratively to provide the optimum school experience for all our students.