New York is in the thick of a contentious debate over how to reform urban education. Race to the Top, with its promise of millions of federal dollars, has ignited animosity.
Teachers unions and charter school supporters have taken different sides. Proponents of rescuing failing schools have locked horns with those who favor closing failing schools. The list goes on and on.
Many of these disagreements are important, but there is an alternative approach: Put the political bickering on the back burner and focus on successful schools – whether they’re public, charter, private or faith-based – and do all that is possible, working together, to help spread their success.
Most children don’t know or care about the governance structure of the school they attend. They simply know whether they’re learning. If they’re learning – in a productive, respectful, nurturing environment – there are lessons to be shared across lines that tend to divide us.
That is exactly what we’re doing at Schools That Can, a not-for-profit network of high-performing urban schools in low-income communities. STC is made up of independent, charter, district and faith-based schools that share common track records of academic achievement, impressive student outcomes, strong leadership and can-do cultures.
We’re tired of the old oppositional approach – and interested in focusing on common attributes that produce excellent learning environments.
For example, STC schools meet quarterly to share the best practices and exchange ideas. This yields concrete results: an independent school in Indianapolis learning a totally new approach for teacher recruitment from a charter school in Boston. A charter school in Los Angeles uses the experience of an independent school in Chicago to grow successfully into a high school with a 100% college acceptance rate.
Or consider what happened in Milwaukee – a city that may be best known for its experiment with school vouchers. We believe there’s another very important, productive initiative underway that’s not about what kind of school kids attend, but about the quality of the education they receive.
A collaboration of three schools has resulted in active sharing of the best practices. This is now leading to an expanded group of eight schools – independent, charter, faith-based and district – serving 6,000 students. The goal is to grow to serve 20,000 students by 2020, ever leveraging each other’s successes.
Similar initiatives have begun to take shape in Cleveland and Newark. In New York, we experienced how collaboration can help support a school in 2002 when we saved the Trey Whitfield School, an independent high-performing school that had lost its lease and needed to quickly find a new facility for almost 500 students. We built a collaboration of banking, foundation and community leaders who believed in the school and in the students.
Three years later, the school moved into its newly renovated six-story building. Today, it is considered one of the best middle schools in New York State, and is considering adding high school grades. An existing educational asset survived, thrived and is growing thanks to the collaborative support of the community – thanks to people seeing education as best solved by partnership, not political warfare.
We think we are on to something important and worthy of attention in the national debate for reforming education in our country. At the very least, it is worth an honest try.
Druckman is chairman and CEO of Schools That Can and board chairman of the Trey Whitfield School. Whitfield is president and Co-Founder of the Trey Whitfield School.