Top-down approaches to improving schools are fueling growing discontent and community backlash in cities across the country.
Take recent announcements in New York City as an example. Beginning in 2007, Mayor Bloomberg offered charter schools unparalleled growth opportunities while district principals enjoyed autonomy. Now, Mayor de Blasio’s schools chief is rolling it all back. Despite increases in graduation rates and college enrollments for smaller schools Bloomberg created, the administration is putting schools back together to create larger ones.
What’s the lesson here? You might be able to instigate change from on high, but you can’t sustain it over time unless you have community and electoral support.
Mayors and district superintendents must develop authentic relationships with all groups to sustain progress, prevent rollbacks and ensure great schools serve more and more children. Building community buy-in should be prioritized, rather than compromised for the immediacy of reform efforts.
Fortunately, there are ways to help leaders generate great ideas and grow great schools over the long run.
If we need to reach parents, we should make conversations about quality schools more accessible. In North Baton Rouge, Pastor Raymond Jetson had the ingenious idea to bring this conversation to businesses where black parents spend time on the weekends—barber shops and beauty salons.
Pastor Jetson doesn’t just drop off flyers; he hosts monthly lunches, all organized around the topic of school quality. These events not only engage a previously untapped audience, they bring conversations about education to more corners and people in Baton Rouge.
If efforts in Washington, D.C., over the last five years have taught us anything, it’s that messengers matter. D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson knows she must be able to articulate a DCPS plan for success, but also enlists the help of the Chancellor’s Parent Cabinet. The 20 or so parents that comprise the cabinet not only inform the vision of the chancellor and other district leaders, but also share the district’s vision to other parents across the city.
Rather than host forums or happy hours to meet parents and pillars of the community, leaders should go to them. During my time at Families for Excellent Schools, I helped parents organize and advocate to create more great public schools in New York City.
The overwhelming majority of these relationships began in places where parents spend time with their children—parks, libraries, community block parties and churches. I volunteered at an afterschool program at the Salvation Army, and as a result of this deliberate, authentic work to build relationships, thousands of parents were involved in the fight to grow charter schools in New York City.
The goal of these efforts is not just to create the political will to support elected officials or those in power. It is to involve communities in shaping what their schools look like and to create a sense that we’re all in this together.
Experience has taught us that if progress relies only upon an elite cadre of people, we’ll forever be at the mercy of political forces and risk watching, helplessly, as progress is rolled back.