Why Can't All Schools Be Like This?

Do you ever encounter a school that forces you to immediately ask why all schools in our country are not more like it? Isn’t it striking how wide a gulf there is between some incredible, if not amazing, K-12 schools and a few others that are bordering on, if not completely, dysfunctional?

I am aware that "dysfunctional" is a very strong word, and will be offensive to some. At the same time, schools where staff and students routinely yell at each other, where vandalism and graffiti are common, where parents and students periodically and openly curse school personnel, where kids sometimes roam the halls in packs when they should be in class, and where students smoke in stairwells (and even main hallways) do exist. Perhaps I am not right in the head, but I think dysfunctional is appropriate for these rare but real situations.

The oft-provided answer is that these schools serve at-risk students in high crime, low-income neighborhoods, and outsiders “just don’t understand” the challenges they face. I am sure to again offend some, but that is just an excuse. I have seen ample evidence to support this assertion. I have worked with school districts where talented educators have fixed multiple dysfunctional schools that otherwise would be doomed to failure and mediocrity.

One such example of a stellar school, in spite of many challenges faced by its students and staff, is MetWest High School in Oakland, Calif. I recently had an opportunity to meet the school’s principal and two of her outstanding students at the 2010 International Safe School Design Conference in Denver. It might be an inconvenient truth for some that the school is a top-flight school by international standards in spite of the physical location of the school and many of the high-risk students it serves.

The school’s principal, Eve Gordon, pointed out that every single student in her school could name at least one family member, friend or person they knew who had been murdered — not many, not most, but every student in the school. Yet, 100 percent of students attending her school participate in an interest-matched internship, and 92 percent of 2009 graduates were accepted to four-year colleges. Perhaps, the success of her school and others with such a high level of demonstrated performance should be more commonly seen as what can be, rather than what is, in any (and every) school in our great nation.

There are too many examples of such outstanding performance to see these schools as anomalies rather than examples of the possibilities for all schools. In the school district where I used to work, Dr. Martha Jones took charge of an absolute failure and disgrace of a middle school. In a few short years, she and her staff had achieved what appeared to many to be miracles. School and public safety officials from across the nation, and Germany, Japan, Israel and Holland, visited her school see how a middle school in a crime-riddled neighborhood could achieve such a high level of safety and academic achievement. As gunshots are a rather common sound at night in this part of town, the level of safety and academic achievement at this school are another testament to what can be in public education.

When we work with schools in remote areas of South Africa, Southeast Asia or other regions of the world where funding levels for schools pale in comparison to even the most poorly funded schools in the United States, the differences are even more striking. An example of this is a rural South African school where the principal showed me a room full of donated obsolete computers that his students cannot use because of the lack of funding to install the wiring needed to provide them with power. Already having tripled daily attendance at his school, he still seeks to do more with resource limitations that might shock many American educators. While it is true that many of our public, private, charter and independent schools desperately need increased fiscal resources, seeing education delivered in schools with only the most basic facilities can drive home the point that we can often accomplish more even with our limited resources.

Whether here in the U.S. or in another country, we should all be deeply impressed with, and grateful for, those school employees of any job description who understand how important it is to make things happen FOR students, instead of letting things happen TO them. I feel blessed to have had the privileged to meet a number of truly inspiring beacons of hope who do not understand any other path.