As soon as I graduated from college, I moved back home to Philadelphia and fumbled through a few jobs before finding a career path in education.
I discovered how much I really enjoyed working with and on behalf of children. I was particularly focused on underprivileged children, those considered “at risk.” Children whose lives reflected my own childhood.
For seven years I taught for the School District of Philadelphia, teaching everything from first-grade literacy to middle school English. Though I loved the art of teaching and the myriad of hands-on experiences, I was unimpressed with the district’s attempts at school improvement.
Its stated mission was to “deliver on the civil rights of every child in Philadelphia an excellent public school education.” But in my view, the district’s practices failed to align with its mission.
With a poor budget, inadequate planning, and very little vocational insight, the district aimlessly mismanaged funding—adopting programs that were scarcely used and rapidly replaced, consistently interrupting the flow of learning.
Teachers used most of their instructional time dealing with emotional, social and behavioral issues that they were often inadequately prepared to address.
But perhaps most worrisome was a simple lack of belief in our students. I saw no effort to close this belief gap and change the negative narrative that those who face challenges are unable to achieve, and are therefore held to lower standards.
I’ve seen that what others believe children can achieve sometimes holds no validity in what children can actually achieve. Poverty isn’t destiny and every child’s education matters, regardless of their life circumstances or where they may live.
At that time, as a novice educator working in the country’s eighth-largest district without proper support and guidance, I had become extremely overwhelmed.
Eventually I resigned from burnout.
A Different Way
Flash forward to 2016. After two blissful years of courtship, my undergrad sweetheart swept me off my feet, married me, and moved me to his home in southern Maryland.
The only downside was giving up a very fulfilling career as a children’s librarian. After 11 years out of the classroom, I was re-entering education as a substitute teacher in the Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) in Northern Virginia.
ACPS is not without its challenges. The district is comprised of 16 schools and educates more than 15,000 children, hailing from 125 countries and speaking 87 languages. Its mission is to “help every student to succeed, educating lifelong learners and inspiring civic responsibility.”
With such a lofty mission, I couldn’t help but think back to the public schools in Philadelphia, where the rhetoric rang so hollow. Secretly, I began auditing ACPS educational practices to get a different perspective on education.
What I found was a very noticeable and crucial difference in tone. A tone that showed how much teachers cared. ACPS teachers seemed to understand that their students were not products but precious lives.
They took a holistic approach to teaching, considering the individual needs of each child. They seemed to truly believe in each child.
All day, teacher performances cultivated a highly supportive learning and social environment—gently executing lessons with skill and compassion. Principals and faculty alike walked the halls entering classrooms to coach, support and to give encouragement. It was teamwork at its best.
Inclusive learning took place in every inch of the buildings. Every child, from the “at risk” to the talented and gifted, had their academic progress tracked using either Individual Education Plans (IEPs) or student-friendly data binders with individual academic plans to help drive instruction.
To help boost student performance, nutritional value was placed on every meal and each child received a decent portion of fruit, vegetables, real protein and healthy snacks.
Even substitute teachers like me were greeted with genuine gratitude and equally valued as part of the team.
I know that our country’s education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), is designed to encourage progress towards high performance and achievement—for all of our students, not just those who are lucky enough to live in a well-run and adequately funded district.
Naturally, Alexandria’s school district isn’t perfect, but it has shown me what it looks like to ensure that every student succeeds. I hope districts like Philadelphia are taking notes.