Which school districts are making progress on problems like Rochester’s, and how? When we first started asking that six years ago, we found:
Graduate Tacoma: Their collective impact helped the district increase the five-year extended high school graduation rate to a record high 89 percent for the Class of 2016, from 58 percent for the Class of 2010. They are closing the five-year graduation gap between white students and students of color, including black students (92 percent) graduating at a rate 3 percent higher than white students, and the gap narrowing from 17 percent to 3 percent for Hispanic students.
Cincinnati StrivePartnership: After a decade of bringing together cross-sector institutions to improve academic outcomes cradle to career, nearly 80 percent of key student indicators are improving, including kindergarten readiness, third grade reading, eighth grade math and graduation rates.
There are other successes, too, which is why The Children’s Agenda joined ROC the Future and its collective leadership early on. Strong evidence shows that these cross-sector, data-based, collective impact initiatives engage communities to make a big difference for children.
Following the distinguished educator’s report, school board response, and ROC the Future’s conveners’ letter, we believe the current turmoil in our community requires collective courage for collective change by focusing on what works best.
Part of what works best is parent engagement, but as a community we aren’t pursuing best practices. We’ve never met a parent who didn’t want what’s best for their child—not one. There is no way to successfully educate children without their parents’ involvement.
As a parent of a third and sixth grader in RCSD, one of us knows this firsthand. Having a son needing reassurance during transitions to curb anxiety, I attended orientation but didn’t find his new teachers. So I took off work the first day to meet them and observe his classroom. A school official stopped to question my presence there, telling me that as the specialist, she knew what’s best. I told her “you may be the school specialist, but I’m his specialist.” Not all parents are ready to be engaged, but that doesn’t mean schools should ostracize them either. Parents who can engage can pick up the slack; that’s what community means.
We believe the state must empower community leaders—parent and youth leaders, elected and agency leaders—to focus on long-term thinking, with authority and resources for true system change. The evidence doesn’t show any particular governance structure is the primary problem, nor are changes to particular governance structures the primary solution. The most important issue is what our school leadership does, focusing on what works, and how they do it, working in partnership with parents, youth and key community stakeholders.
Whenever the district turns its face outward and engages the community in decision-making, the results are profound. It’s no accident that RCSD’s best programmatic successes have strong partnerships with parents and community agenciesthat helped develop those initiatives and support them to this day. The state must not act in a silo or make backroom deals to move forward without authentic community buy-in. The watchword for change should be “nothing about us without us.”
Many partnerships have produced real results, including our world-class pre-K system, the new code of conduct, restorative practices, community schools, etc. Changes at RCSD must not jeopardize what’s working — changes must institutionalize strategies improving our children’s outcomes. The constant instability in district leadership often causes stops and starts, and evidence-based programs or promising practices sputter out. Staff never fully commit to new initiatives because supervisors are not around long enough to offer consistent support or accountability. Initiatives themselves change so often that the prevailing sentiment is “this, too, shall pass.”
Parents and community partners like ROC the Future are the necessary, enduring, consistent and stabilizing force for success, making the system about our kids getting what they need most with what works best.
RCSD parent Toyin Anderson is a Parent Leadership Training Institute alumna and a board member of The Children’s Agenda. Larry Marx is CEO of The Children’s Agenda.