I’ve traveled a lot for work this year, and as I’ve gone from the mountains of Peru to the rural regions of Haiti to the suburbs of Estonia and beyond, I’ve been thinking about the public transportation system in Washington, D.C.
Let me explain.
My last job was as chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, and one of the predominant lessons I took away from that position was a renewed appreciation for how many factors influence whether a student learns at school. I’m talking about a family’s economic stability, I’m talking about housing, I’m talking about health care, and a host of other intersecting issues.
Case in point: One school year, we were challenged by the City Council to improve outrageously high truancy rates in some of our most challenging schools across the city. Obviously, if students aren’t showing up to school at all or on time, they don’t stand a chance to learn. The Council wanted to enact legislation to punish students and families with high truancy rates. I asked the councilmembers if they had ever asked students why they didn’t come to school. It was a radical idea that nobody had tried. So I gathered our most truant students at our two most challenging high schools, and over breakfast and lunch, asked them why their attendance was poor.
They cited a number of reasonable explanations, but the most prevalent was that by the middle of the month, they were out of money to pay for transportation to school. From that, we were able to work with the transit authority, City Council and the mayor to fund the Kids Ride Free Program, guaranteeing free bus and train transportation to school for all of our students across the city. As a result, we saw significant increases in attendance.
I’ve been recalling this experience as I’ve been traveling this year on behalf of Teach For All, which I joined to help launch the Global Learning Lab for Community Impact. Teach For All is a network of organizations in 48 countries around the world, including Teach For America, that are committed to improving educational opportunities for low-income students.
The Community Impact Lab is devoted to studying which communities in the network are driving the most progress, piloting new ways to jumpstart improvement, and sharing best practices across and beyond the network. In that spirit, I’ve been visiting communities around the world to learn. At each stop, I’ve been meeting with educators, students, parents and local leaders to talk about what their vision is for their students, who are the right set of actors they need to bring together to realize this vision, and what are the spaces and structures that allow people to work together regularly and effectively.
In some places, teachers need to talk to parents about students’ experiences at home so they can make connections and bridge differences. In some places, students need to talk to economic development officials so they can be on the same page about job trends and career opportunities. And in some places, the people who run school systems need to talk to the people who run government agencies about how they can eliminate barriers that are impeding students’ success in school, just as we did in Washington, D.C.
Teach For All is trying to build the capacity of our network to do this work because we’re a leadership organization, and if the leaders that we are preparing are taught to lead in a way that brings students, families and community members to be co-creators of solutions, that will become their modus operandi, whether they stay in the classroom or lead in other areas. The world doesn’t need another set of people who want to come in and unilaterally save a community. The world needs leaders who recognize that the most effective and sustainable results come from true partnership with community members, from grassroots to grasstops.
I love this new work I’m doing, and I love it for more than the interdisciplinary way in which it aims to support students—to me, it appeals to a broader purpose. In so many countries around the world, I see signs that we’ve forgotten that we belong to each other, that we are all part of the same human family. There are tremendous inequities in the world that push us further and further apart. We’ve lost our sense of communalism and our sense of collective responsibility. Yet, there are places where everyone in the town works together to improve the local schools—from students and parents, to neighbors and senior citizens, to government officials and businesses. We need leadership at all levels to ensure the kind of systemic change necessary for our students to succeed.
For me, this is an opportunity not just to help bring about transformative results for students but to help re-knit the societal bonds that have enabled us to be successful over generations. The fabric is fraying, and the way to knit it back together is to have people work together and feel a sense of accomplishment together. These feelings are heightened when we work with, and for, our children.
As we move forward, we’re very intentionally naming ourselves a laboratory. We don’t know what the answers are, but we know that we can find them, together.