Our public education system can play a central role in bringing forth necessary, fundamental and widespread change. In the classroom, young people can learn to understand why people disregard others’ lives, and then address the underlying causes and work to bring about change.
Thankfully, in this painful moment in our nation’s history, some schools have become beacons of hope.
One is the Arts & College Preparatory Academy (ACPA), a public charter school in Columbus, Ohio. (Full disclosure: My daughter graduated from ACPA last summer.)
Fifteen years ago, Patricia “GG” Howard, a teacher herself, grew increasingly distressed by the diminishing light in her once bright and creative daughter. Classmates were cruel to her because she was “different.”
GG couldn’t get school administrators to rethink the idea that cruel treatment was an adolescent rite of passage. They thought it wasn’t the school’s responsibility to encourage students to be nice to one another and that the “law of the jungle” in school reflected the world students would face as adults.
GG thought it didn’t have to be this way. She believed that how we choose to treat each other matters and that our public education system has a responsibility to teach students to treat others with respect and dignity.
She set about to create a school centered on inclusiveness—a safe place for marginalized kids and those wanting to challenge racism, classism, sexism, homophobia and any kind of “otherness.”
The school’s simple mission? “Be kind.”
Today, a wildly diverse student body—50 percent multiracial/minorities, 50 percent low-income, nearly 40 percent LGBTQA (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Transsexual, Questioning or an Ally, including 15 percent LGBT transgender/gender fluid), with half from Columbus City Schools and half from 30 other districts—attends one of the highest-performing schools in the state.
Courses are taught through a social justice prism, and students bring their messages to the community through music, art, activism and social justice theater.
Raising your voice
ACPA posits that prejudging a person because they fit some group with supposed attributes is wrong. ACPA kids say not judging people or being judged is pretty liberating.
The school also believes that those in power determine the narrative of history, and this in turn affects people’s implicit biases.
ACPA’s curriculum elevates the experiences of all lives and breaks the code of silence that power perpetuates by having intentional conversations about race, gender, sexual preference, income, religion and other differences.
At the school, the sharing of personal experiences brings understanding and mitigates differences. Every opportunity to build bridges with varied social and cultural environments is tenaciously pursued.
ACPA is an example of one of those many instances where the federal government provided key support for a vital and effective local initiative.
A 2013 grant from the U.S. Department of Education enabled ACPA to create a program called Voice, sharing their practices with other school administrators, teachers and students interested in creating and maintaining a climate of mutual respect and safety.
ACPA’s effort directly aligns with and informs the federal initiative to promote safe, supportive and fair learning environments through #ReThinkDiscipline.
The initiative includes online school climate resources and complements the Stronger Together School Diversity Act contained in President Obama’s 2017 budget to fund schools that want to foster socioeconomic diversity.
Now’s the time to channel our pain and turn the devastating events of recent weeks into a focus on our common humanity, making our nation kinder, and as a result, safer.
Let’s make it clear that the purpose of education is not only to impart skills, but also to teach young people to see others through eyes of compassion, and to understand that being kind to one another is the highest goal.
Perhaps President Obama said it best:
The stakes are clear. And these stakes are high: At the end of the day, what kind of society do we want to have? What kind of country do we want to be?
It’s not enough to celebrate the ideals that we’re built on—liberty for all, and justice for all and equality for all. Those can’t just be words on paper. The work of every generation is to make those ideals mean something concrete in the lives of our children—all of our children.