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School Reform: It's Complicated yet Simple

Monday, July 2, 2012

This week for work, I was reading through an article on community schools, “Lightening the Load,” which made me reflect on how much my secondary schools resembled these. And what do you know, my very own Carlin Springs Elementary School is one of the model community schools used in the study! Now community schools are a wonderful tool for addressing holistically the needs of students in impoverished areas. It employs such tactics as working closely with community organizations and services who specialize in some of these needs, providing classes for parents and adults to become more engaged with the school and their children's learning, and tailoring after/summer school programs that fit student needs and wants. The 'one-size-fits all' approach from NCLB and other on-going "reforms" just isn't working. The community schools approach broadens the narrowed approach to education by recognizing that local communities have distinct characteristics rooted in their cultural backgrounds, linguistic identities, and (as much as we'd like to deny or avoid it) socioeconomic levels. The school must address accessibility to health services for a community that does not have high rates of insured families or access to quality health providers. So, poverty matters because they produce specific needs, and we must address those in smart, careful, and responsible ways so that teachers can focus on what they're meant to do: teach.
This is not to say that purely addressing economic problems will solve everything though. Let's go back to my elementary school. First off, Arlington is an interesting case because it still has disproportionate drop-out and underachievement rates for minorities (the numbers usually found online are often inaccurate, I’ve found, because Arlington High Schools actively push out many minorities who aren’t as promising to “Alternative Schools” where they usually don’t get adequate help, fail, and sometimes drop out altogether, in order to manipulate the stats). This is really interesting to me, because I’ve come to fully agree with the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education's (BBA) strategy of prioritizing policy that addresses socioeconomic issues (whether by long-term solutions like closing the income gap, or short-term like community schools that provide supplemental programs); but I also realize from experience that I came from a model county school system which addressed the socioeconomic obstacles peers from my neighborhood and I faced (which did make it more possible for some of us like myself to get a good education), though it still wasn’t enough as way too many of my neighborhood friends did not graduate or go to college. Even if the first step should be to address socioeconomic factors, curriculum and other ‘in-school’ factors ultimately seal the deal in a make-or-break way for the average low-income minority. While socioeconomic factors and out-of-school support programs (pre-k, summer, and after school programs) should come first on our priorities list (because this is indeed the diagnosistic and preventative solution to long term closing of the achievement gap), I’ve seen the consequences of not also emphasizing in-school factors. Some don't like to hear about complex solutions and prefer simple ones. There is none for education unfortunately. In addition to serious economic reform, we do need to pay attention to things like multicultural curriculums, bilingual education, and teacher assignment (my high school was very racially and socioeconomically integrated, but as soon as the bell rang in between classes, there was segregation again with most of the socioeconomically advantaged students taking classes with the best teachers W-L had to offer). Some ask how we do this on a national scale if the solution must be tailored to each local community. Comprehensive reforms that provide funding for the kinds of programs community schools are designing for whole districts, along with on-going training for teachers that incorporate an emphasis on engaging curriculums tailored to the specific students of that school. The answer is to address local needs and support solutions.