Schools are asked to do many things for students: provide food, medical care, family counseling, discipline and, of course, education. Generally, those who work in education have dealt with each need and found solutions for students and families. They have done this despite shrinking budgets and shrinking support in the public education system. We are now facing an uncertain future in public education, while we recover from the pandemic, recession, and historic levels of division and inequity.
A cornerstone of society, our schools can be a powerful accelerant toward a virtuous cycle of progress and prosperity. But public education is in a precarious position, and for too long it has absorbed blame and trundled along. So, as we look to emerge into spring and out of the pandemic, we are called to do the hard work of working together. True progress in education is possible if we act as a community.
To kick off, I’ll start with three key lessons learned during nearly four years on the Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education.
1. Public education is fueled by almost unparalleled human passion, because, after all, it’s about the children. But it is also incredibly complex and regulated.
That passion is probably our schools’ greatest asset, and during the pandemic, the increased engagement from adults supporting students has been magical. Most of us are now closer to our students’ school days than ever. But it’s the professional educators, with their career passions, who manage the complex factors and the regulations that govern our schools.
Some regulations are centered around individuals — like processes to support medically fragile students. Others are big-system considerations — like the different requirements for various funding sources, federal money, state legislation, voter-approved bonds and mill levies, private grants and out-of-school supports. Plus, there are the requirements around serving thousands of daily meals, giving vaccinations, providing mental health and other wellness supports. Which brings me to:
2. The teachers and staff are the heart and soul of our schools. In a historically underpaid, highly criticized and politicized arena, people work in schools because of their deep commitment. They are the problem solvers. They are the force that makes progress, and the people who manage the troubles.
The work is hard, with early morning starts, strict rules to follow, infinite requests and special circumstances, plentiful misunderstandings and miscommunications, a healthy dose of acting out, oodles of logistics and frequent micro-crises. But the staff shows up and moves students’ learning forward. Which is why:
3. Schools depend on community support, and we need this more than ever. Volunteers, nonprofits, local businesses, neighbors, community colleges, city and county programs, all contribute to schools and make a difference for students and families.
This is how we have extracurricular activities and leverage incredible cultural assets. It’s how robotics clubs, field trips, attendance awards, athletics, music groups, literacy support, internships, mentorships, dual credit programs, job pathways and many other crucial activities can happen.
We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild public education and make strong the cornerstone of our community’s prosperity. It has been hugely disrupted; we have learned immense amounts and adopted enabling technology quickly. Now, as we rebuild we can innovate. We must foster a culture of support for educators, students and schools. Public education is truly a local system, reflective of, and dependent on, the staff, families, organizations, and environments that surround our schools.
So, let’s move forward with open minds, kindness, and a strong bias to innovation and problem solving, together. Find some way to contribute, large or small. Ask families, teachers, and most of all students what they need from the community, and make it happen. Education will never be the same again, and that can be good.