Turning Schools Around

We’ve pointed out on this blog how closing schools and isolating and ignoring practitioner and parent voices can be detrimental to local communities. But acknowledging this reality does not mean we can also ignore that some schools are indeed failing their communities. And while we can blame a variety of factors for this–such as lack of systemic funding, resources and support; lack of parental engagement; lack of teacher training; short-sighted policies and politics that remove programs that would better develop local economies; and so on ad infinitum–the real question is: what can we do to truly transform a school that is struggling to serve its community?

Note before I continue that there are indeed school systems that are failing, such as in the case that ACLU has made against Michigan’s Highland Park District. I’m not going to tackle this deeper diagnosis here, but want to simply acknowledge that no school is an island — a school is a part of a larger ecosystem, inextricably linked to district and state policies and funding contexts.

That said, I believe that there are some out there who would claim that a struggling school simply requires more support in terms of resources and funding. While such a school is more than likely struggling with basic supplies, I don’t think the charitable and often entirely necessary funneling of more money into a school addresses the underlying issue. The question is how wisely, sustainably, and systematically that money will be leveraged. Many struggling schools are struggling not simply due to inadequate support but moreover from a culture of poor leadership, defeat and/or complacency. And once such a culture has been established, it can be monumental to overturn. While–like an Ent–I chafe at the hastiness that most education reformers advise when it comes to schools that are struggling, there are cases where something immediate and drastic certainly must be undertaken. In ecological terms, we are no longer just talking about basic conservation of the existing ecosystem, but rather carefully managing succession, a process of transformation and introduction of a new paradigm.

Firing all the staff, or half the staff, or just the leadership, and then rehiring new staff and giving the school a new name sounds like a start, if you are a business minded education reformer. But there’s a problem with this approach to public schools. Aside from the obvious fact that a school doesn’t sell anything, a school is also different than a business in that it is much more deeply embedded in the community it serves. Relationships between staff and parents and children are historic and complex. Furthermore, the relationship between that local community and the larger school system can be complicated. Some parents and educators have a deep mistrust of the school system, often for very sound reasons.

In NYC, the clash between a business-minded, “shut-em-down” approach and a vocal and angry school community is constant. And each time a school is shut down in the face of community protest, that relationship continues to worsen.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can dramatically change a school culture, expunge staff that aren’t interested in being part of that change, and positively involve local community leadership and incorporate their perspectives and concerns.

I was talking with a good friend the other day about this problem, which came up as a result of a conversation about collaboration versus competition. On this blog, we have been pretty heavily on the side of collaboration and advocating for much more of it, due to the heavy dominance of competition and markets in school reform agendas at the moment. But his point was that you need a balance of both, so long as the competition has a purpose that is of ultimate benefit to all. Collaboration in and of itself is no silver-bullet. It must have a specific outcome that will be better achieved through involving multiple perspectives.

When I brought up the fact that markets and competition can be detrimental to local communities when schools are closed in the face of community protest, his suggestion was simple: close the school, but involve the leaders in that community in building the ‘new’ school.

In other words, we can have a win/win solution that addresses the concerns of both the business minded reformers and of dissenting local communities. In drastic cases, turning a school around can be necessary, just in the way that turning the soil can be sometimes necessary, but as the new school community is developed, those leaders who were at first vocally opposed to the school closing should be the ones most involved in the creation of the new one.

Turning a school around, in other words, should be seen as a community-wide, collaborative problem solving process, as opposed to a top-down executive order. Yes, indeed, schools that are failing to serve their communities must be turned around. But that turn around will be best achieved when the community is directly involved in its recreation.

But now a word of caution. Looking to the ecological principles that have given us the metaphor of schools as ecosystems, one myth that people have when it comes to a plot of land is that the soil must be regularly turned. But this is false. When soil is healthy, you want to avoid turning the soil. Nutrients are lost and the land is degraded. It’s part of the reason why the Mississippi delta is overflowing with algal blooms, just as one example — farmers overcompensate for soil degradation by plowing the land with fertilizer, which then runs off into the river and eventually out into the sea, upsetting natural balances.

The best thing to do to maintain healthy soil life? Mulch the soil and install plants that will provide the nutrients that are needed. The soil, after all, is the foundation of a garden. Smart stewards of land invest the time necessary to build up soil life by considering the “pioneer plants” that are growing well on a plot of land, designing according to local conditions to maximize sunlight, reduce damaging weather effects, and cultivating the soil so it is resilient and full of microbial life.

In a school, the soil is the community. As Will has pointed out when he introduced us to the term hysteresis, damage to an ecosystem changes the future outcomes of that ecosystem in ways that we can’t foresee. Excepting the drastic cases that I assumed for this post, the better thing to do is to seek to retain, recycle, and redeploy existing staff members (mulch), introduce targeted resources, and install new leadership that will harness and develop existing human capital, while introducing necessary systemic changes to address the deficits in the school community.

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