To the Schools CEO: A simple prescription for improving schools

Print More

Dear Mr. Mazany:

This is an open letter to welcome you as the new, if temporary, leader of the Chicago Public Schools.  The example that you set by volunteering your services for the token salary of $1 per year speaks to your dedication and the unique perspective you bring to this job.

I know what to do to improve our schools—all of them. I didn’t come up with these good ideas. They were passed on to me from some visionary educators who have carried them on from a millenniums-old tradition that includes John Dewey, the craft guilds of the Middle Ages, farm families and indigenous tribes everywhere. The most important feature of this approach is that it educates the whole child within the context of a caring, learning, working community. When a child is surrounded by a community that is working together, when academic lessons are linked to real-life problems, initiatives and solutions, then education comes alive and students need no external motivation to seek knowledge, experience and skills.

This has been the method employed by all effective communities since we left the caves. Young people are our students, but they are also our extended family, our village. If what they are learning in school is not enmeshed in what is vital to the lives of their family and neighbors, education becomes a battle of wills between schools and child.  If the lives, knowledge, experience and resources of our communities, however humble they might be, are not a welcomed resource in the school, families and their children will find themselves alienated and lost.

This kind of education works, but its currency rises and falls with the tides of political struggles. Chicago in the 1990’s was a time of joyous and energetic school reform, with unprecedented powers given to local school councils. Local school leaders slowly and cautiously took up the reins of leadership and began the joint adventure of learning how to build a successful neighborhood school. At that time innovation was rewarded by the Board of Education.  Long-term partnerships were sealed between local schools and education departments in our universities. Lengthy and sometime lavish professional development opportunities gave teaching staffs the chance to work with colleagues, consider their own practices, and courageously make changes in order to set the intellectual flame in their students ablaze. Parents were invited to the table to hear the debate among the practitioners and the theorists, authors and researchers.  The doors of the schools were thrown open for the world to enter, and for their students to venture forth on real and vital explorations. 

This was our experience at Waters Elementary from 1991 through 2000, where I served as chair of the LSC, parent educator through National-Louis University’s Center for City Schools, and later as full-time ecology coordinator.  Our principal, whom we hired and evaluated, created a space for teachers to renew themselves and their practice and searched out and provided support for vigorous professional development, field outings, and collaboration. Teachers were re-assured and urged to pursue “the good stuff,” teaching and learning experiences that captured their students’ curiosity and innate desire to learn. High-stakes tests were required by the state, but they were never the focus of instruction.

And yet, our small, 95% poverty, 90% Hispanic, shamelessly run-down school showed a steady march upwards in test results. Scores and scores of our parents learned, through participation in workshops, the elements of the school’s teaching philosophy: collaboration, book circles, writing and sharing, acting on social concerns, integration of subjects, and performing in the arts. These are same activities that their children were involved in at school everyday. Parents became part of the teaching and learning team.

Institutional support for our experiment evaporated in the new millennium, when a new national administration demanded test-driven accountability and punished schools with the most challenging circumstances by comparing them unfavorably with selective enrollment schools and schools in affluent suburbs. Our school has struggled valiantly thru the cold winds of this first decade of the millennium, to stay true to our mission and vision of progressive education.

Many schools were not so fortunate as ours and were racked by high teacher and leadership turnover and finger-pointing.

Mr. Mazany, here is what schools need:

  1. Stability—an opportunity to pursue their vision with support and understanding over an extended period of time. Teachers, students and the school leadership need to feel safe and nourished, not hounded and despised.

  2. Partnerships. Most importantly, partnerships with visionary university education departments that can bring their outside expertise, energy and creativity into a long-term relationship with schools. But also, partnerships with civic, environmental, arts and business organizations to provide extra funds, opportunities and a sense of excitement and hope.
  3. Family and community engagement. They must be invited into the school’s learning adventure. A climate must be built that welcomes everyone to learn and grow, to try new things without fear of recrimination. Schools that work well with families give their students the gift of out-of-class support and understanding, and help to create upward mobility and hope for poor and working-class parents.
  4. A recognition by the board and the government that impoverished students from stressed-out homes and unsafe neighborhoods cannot compete favorably with safe, healthy, well-fed and cared for children of the wealthy. Rather than blame schools, teachers and parents for students’ failures, authorities have to demand: full health care for all, a job for anyone willing to work and affordable, safe housing for families in need. These three things, if guaranteed by the government, would create the conditions necessary to make it possible for our local schools to bloom and flourish.

If our educational and political leaders gave voice to these demands, their words would resonate powerfully up and down the streets and alleyways of our city.

Harvard researcher Alfie Cohen once noted that test scores correlate directly with the kind of automobiles owned by the community. The testing we do these days is not about accountability, but about ranking: the creation of winners and losers, the sorting of youth into winners who will “compete in the global marketplace for hi-tech jobs” and the losers who will descend into a life on the edge, condemned to work forever at the bottom of  the service industry.

Our vision of education is not to turn out workers to fill the “jobs of the future.” It is to nurture creative, confident, curious thinkers and doers, who love their community and seek to find a better way to live and serve in it.  They will create the jobs of the future and a new world, based on the values that we have taught them: hard work, cooperation, mutual assistance, justice, kindness,  courage, creativity, joy, love of nature and art, and respect for all people, particularly the young and old.

Mr. Mazany, you are uniquely situated to speak out publicly in support of a new vision for public schools—one that calls on our government to provide the safe space and basic necessities for success, and challenges the schools and neighborhoods to take the future in their hands and make it beautiful.  I await your call!

Sincerely, 

Pete Leki
Former LSC chair, Waters Elementary