Recently I had the pleasure of working with a group of emerging national school superintendents who are training to become leaders of urban (city) districts. These are the districts that are chronically underfunded and rife with political turmoil – districts where leaders are often pushed to accelerate change rapidly in order to improve educational outcomes for the most at-risk children.
Listening to their stories, I heard urban leaders dismayed that too many policy makers do not believe school districts are capable of instituting change on their own. In many cities, charters and vouchers have been introduced as a solution. Other cities have declared war on teacher tenure in the mistaken belief that it is the root cause of student failure. In other urban areas, control has been handed over to mayors and commissioners. Yet, at a time when our country and citizenry need to wrap our arms around the children and families that struggle the most, many of these so-called solutions only exacerbate the problem. Nonetheless, I left this national gathering with a positive sense of developing the next wave of powerful educational leaders who have, at their core, a tremendous commitment to the mission of public education. Their task will be the most difficult in our nation.
I also thought about how fortunate we are in Lincoln Public Schools, in Lincoln and in Nebraska to be able to work where education for ALL children is not only a value but an expectation. We are a nationally leading state in many of the comparable metrics specifically because of these values and willingness from our patrons to roll up their sleeves and help. We are the envy of many in the nation, whether we are highlighting our 1,400 Teammate Mentors, 25 Community Learning Centers, a United Way that has adopted our graduation goal as their own, or Prosper Lincoln committing to find ways to make pre-school available for ALL children. These kinds of partnerships simply don’t exist in many other places as urban schools often struggle with high class sizes, decrepit infrastructure (think lead in Flint, Michigan), professional burnout and community apathy. As students in these situations fail at a higher rate, the wrong strategies are deployed that accelerate the cycle of failure.
Admittedly, high quality education doesn’t come cheap – yet in our state we continue to invest in kids and the people who have the precious responsibility of working with our kids. We strive for equitable distribution of resources but recognize that students who need more will get more. Our schools are welcoming and safe and we have an incredibly talented group of professionals who have chosen to make Lincoln their permanent professional home. We also have challenges that make the work difficult. The more than 1 percent annual growth in the city yields 800 more LPS students enrolled each year. With 43 percent of our students classified as “Free and Reduced” lunch eligible, we are mindful of the challenges that poverty presents and proud of the results we are seeing with graduation rates. A growing proportion of the students who are coming to us arrive from countries where they have experienced incredible atrocities and poor education.
To maintain our momentum and seek the next level of success, we must continue to consider creative ways to connect more kids with high quality learning. Whether that means seeking smaller learning centers, expanding choice opportunities and before- and after-school engagements, or developing differentiated calendars – it will be incumbent upon us to think imaginatively. When I think of the people we have in our employ who view this work as a mission, I am confident we will meet the challenges of ALL kids being successful. We must triumph. There is simply too much at stake to fall short.
As we head into the final stretch of the school year at Lincoln Public Schools – a time that includes many state assessments – I wanted to take a moment to thank all of our staff and families for your contributions to the high quality of education for our students. While we don’t define ourselves solely by a test score, we also know that assessments offer a measure of accountability that demonstrates growth and progress. As I have visited schools and classrooms, I see the appropriate balance of academic emphasis and social/emotional development. Our students enjoy school and our staff members make the days engaging and enjoyable. It is fun to see.