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Commentary: No single solution to the making of great schools

Guest contributor | November 17, 2015

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Ama Nyamekye

Ama Nyamekye

By Ama Nyamekye

What makes a great school? This fundamental question has been lost in a heated debate about a draft proposal spearheaded by the Broad Foundation, the most controversial part of which includes a plan to accelerate charter school growth in LAUSD.

This idea has sparked concern and curiosity among parents, community members, philanthropists and most certainly our teachers. It has inspired a proposed school board resolution opposing charters, and a series of protests led by UTLA leadership who are not only concerned about the expansion of charters, but are also skeptical of philanthropists investing millions of dollars in public education.

Every group is raising related questions: What will this mean for parents waiting on long charter school lottery lists? What will this mean for our students, particularly those still served by non-charter schools? What will this mean for the future of my job and my school; for the future of our union and district, both entities facing declining enrollment and, with it, declining dollars? Will this spark a real conversation about school equity and innovation or will this bring more polarization and turf wars in public education?

Put another way, these questions come down to one thing: Whose side are you on?

As the head of a local teacher leadership organization working with educators across the district, I stand with our most dedicated teachers who often tell me that no single solution, like charter schools, will be the silver bullet for ensuring access to a high-quality education for all students. It is equity that is at the heart of a great school, and that is the goal teachers are working towards. I know this because I have witnessed equity arguments echoed in every teacher-written policy paper, teacher-led advocacy campaign, and teacher-penned media article produced by E4E members.

These teachers tell us that a great school is defined by its great leaders and practitioners. Investing in the most well-intentioned school models won’t bring about change without understanding how those models can shift policies, practices and culture on the ground. To understand how these models can best work, we need to learn from the perspectives and solutions of teachers and school leaders. Their insights are invaluable and should inform how philanthropists and policy makers invest in education.

The challenges facing our schools are complex and nuanced, which is why our district, union, philanthropy and community organizations should be thinking about and investing in a range of solutions. Teachers, particularly those who have helped launch their own schools, believe that great schools offer innovative models and programs to tackle tough challenges facing students.

Similarly, district and philanthropic leaders should be thinking and investing more expansively in diverse and innovative school models like pilots, magnets, community schools, Linked Learning schools in addition to charters. This also means coupling that investment with real support and clear accountability to ensure that greater dollars yield greater results for our students.

Our finest teachers know that a great school prioritizes the hearts and minds of students, who cannot be forgotten in this debate. It is our students — most of whom are youth of color — who will be the collateral damage of adult-centered fights that produce more polarization instead of great schools. In California — one of the wealthiest places in the world — where our public schools rank 46th out of 50 in per-pupil funding, we need greater engagement and investment in our children’s education.

The unfinished, rough draft of the Broad Foundation’s proposal is actually entitled “The Great Public Schools Now” initiative. As an organization funded in part by the Broad Foundation as well as hundreds of individual supporters, teachers and other foundations, Educators 4 Excellence humbly calls on educators, the civil rights community and the Broad Foundation to ensure this title rings true by expanding the initiative into an opportunity to think beyond a pure charter-school approach and, instead, push for investments in great schools, great teachers, great leaders and great school policies. Teachers are eager to give input on how this evolving plan can invest more expansively in great schools for all students.

Amid this heated debate about charter expansion, we must refocus on the essential question at hand–what makes a great school? While fights and protests over a rough draft we disagree with may feel cathartic, it will not be as effective as working with diverse community, education and civil rights groups to answer this fundamental question and influence the vision for a plan to create great schools for all students.

Ama Nyamekye is a former English teacher and Executive Director of Educators 4 Excellence-Los Angeles

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