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Topics / Improving Schools & Systems

Creating Schools that Work

School reform is a cause whose time has come

Are you worried about sending your children back to school this year? Worried about their reading levels, the adequacy of school support for their learning disabilities, and whether their teachers truly believe in them? You’re not the only one.

A group of mothers decided this year to sue the State of Minnesota for outdated school personnel practices that disproportionately affected low-income kids and students of color, like letting go younger teachers (even if they’re great) and keeping older teachers who have tenure (even if they’re low performers).

These parents shared a simple belief: that all public schools should function.

Public schools in this country were never designed to serve everybody — people of color or lower income especially. But it is possible to have them work that way. We have seen it done in some of our most impoverished and marginalized neighborhoods.

In college, I visited a charter school called Excellence Boys in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Public schools in this neighborhood are notoriously underperforming, but this school put my well-resourced suburban school to shame. Its pioneering techniques and dazzling success made me think that if schools like this could exist there, we could choose as citizens and as a country whether such schools might exist for children in every neighborhood.

I now lead a non-profit called Students for Education Reform (SFER) that’s working nationwide to achieve functional schools. This summer, our partner organization, SFER Action Network, sent dozens of college students to knock on 35,000 doors in their communities to survey what community members wanted out of their local school systems. No surprise: parents overwhelmingly want access to more high-quality options like Excellence Boys charter school.

Similarly, last year in Los Angeles, students found that most parents in southeast Los Angeles, a working-class Latinx neighborhood, also wanted more school options. But many of these parents had never been to a school board meeting or voted in a school board election — mostly because no one had ever come to their door and encouraged them to do so. In more affluent neighborhoods, parents are accustomed to getting tons of attention from political candidates and their supporters. But here, the district school board member evidently did not share these parents’ desire for more school options.

So, student organizers knocked on thousands of doors and interacted with over 4,500 voters in southeast LA, and voter turnout in these neighborhoods rose by over 5 percent. Working together, students and community members unseated the board member, replacing him with someone who looked like them, came from their neighborhood, and shared their values.

Efforts like these have galvanized leadership in cities, helping to open new quality schools, improve education in district schools, and protect students’ civil rights.

And yet the belief — that our school systems can work for all — is not a popular idea. Many people are either disgusted or depressed by huge, dysfunctional school bureaucracies, or have been beaten into submission, believing what they are too often told — that their neighborhoods are too poor or too dangerous to have schools that work. So they fight over scraps: keeping open a high school that sends more students to jail than to college, or fighting budget cuts for a system that graduates less than 40 percent of black males.

When an institution is falling short but blames you, it can make you feel small, ashamed, and powerless. SFER members know those feelings only too well. But they are transforming those feelings into fuel to fight for their vision of a country where all schools work. They are speaking out to share their own undeniable truth, forcing leaders of school systems, politicians, and parents to make changes.

We know that students in poverty can learn, and that education is a right and a pathway out of generational poverty. And parents and community members are fighting for functional schools alongside us.

Reforming our school system will be a massive challenge, but we’re already living in incredible times, witnessing stunning social change — from the legalization of gay marriage and a mainstream transgender rights movement, to the transformation of Black Lives Matter from a spontaneous street protest under tear gas to a key part of the Democratic national platform.

School reform is a cause whose time has also come. Let’s create a country where all parents and students will worry less about the new school year and instead face it with eagerness.

Alexis Morin is a cofounder of Students for Education Reform (SFER), a nonprofit that develops college students into grassroots organizers who work to advance educational reforms in their communities. This essay is part of a series on parent engagement produced by the philanthropic foundation Carnegie Corporation of New York.