Education has been my most important beat for more than 50 years. Obviously, the future of this nation depends on students learning not only the academic essentials but also how to think for themselves as actively participating citizens of this republic. President Obama's secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, now has nearly $5 billion in "Race to the Top" stimulus funds to enable each child to be a confident lifelong learner, not just a nameless statistic in national reading and math scores. At least, I hope that is his goal.
It was in Chicago, where Duncan was in charge of the public schools, that Randi Weingarten, on taking office last year as president of the American Federation of Teachers, showed the way to begin to actually deal with the rising dropout rates, racial gaps in achievement and increasing lack of preparedness for colleges, not only community colleges.
What Weingarten said and I hope Duncan heard it was that the No Child Left Behind law "is too badly broken to be fixed." (Amen!) In signaling "a new vision of schools for the 21st century," she asked:
"Can you imagine a federal law that promoted community schools schools that serve the neediest children by bringing together under one roof all the services and activities they and their families need?"
As I told her after that speech, the new Weingarten surprised me. When she was head of the New York United Federation of Teachers, I had been reporting her focus on higher salaries for members of her union and stronger clauses in union contracts that would make it even more difficult for principals to get rid of incompetent teachers. When I called, she said that, for once, she was glad to hear from me, and now that she has a national platform, she will encourage more "community schools."
Slowly, various versions of such schools are beginning to take shape around the country. Arne Duncan should take careful note of New York Daily News reporter Meredith Kolodner's "Real success story" (Oct. 12). Last year, at Public School 636 (when it was known as P.S. 304) in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, "only about a third of fourth-graders were reading at grade level." Now 44 percent are. It is vital to know that at P.S. 636, "one in five kids is homeless and living at one of 10 area shelters."
The change began a year ago with an after-school program primarily financed by a federal grant from the After-School Corporation "to maintain the extra programming other schools have been forced to trim because of budget cuts." The purpose: "to link enrichment activities to what's going on in the classroom."
Says Principal Danika Lacroix, "I just knew that the kids did not have successful experiences academically. They needed to feel good about being in school."
Now, reports Kolodner, nearly every child at P.S. 636 "is dancing, cooking, fencing or building robots until 6 p.m. … In one after-school cooking class, the instructor reinforced a reading sequencing lesson by having the kids photograph the steps of making guacamole and arranging the images in correct order."
Part of the changes at P.S. 636: "Hallways once filled with fistfights are now calm, and test scores are rising." Explains one of the after-school instructors: "When we first started, the kids were extremely aggressive. Enrichment allows for team-building and respect, and that helps them work in the classroom together."
Kids are not the only ones being enriched. The principal shows how this partial "community school" has affected the relationship of parents to P.S. 636: "We have families who come in who need shelter. We have mothers who come in and say. 'My husband's beating on me.' We make sure they get help."
Says Lakisha Samuels, mother of a third-grade daughter and first- and fifth-grade sons at the school, "This is the best thing that could have happened to us."
The cost, Secretary Duncan, for each child's enrichment is $1,700 a year. The stimulus billions should cover that.
Looking ahead to a future of full-scale "community schools," Joanne Yatvin, a public school teacher and administrator for more than 40 years in Portland, Ore., wrote on the New York Times letters page (Oct. 17): "How about turning schools in poor neighborhoods into year-round community centers, with health and dental services, nutritious meals, up-to-date libraries and computer labs, after-hours tutoring and recreation for children" and "job training, counseling, recreation and educational classes for adults." Yatvin, whom I've interviewed, adds that this would be "far more effective than allowing more charter schools and establishing a system of teacher merit pay, as Education Secretary Arne Duncan intends to do."
And, President Obama, this could become change we can really believe in. Whatever success or failures in your administration, 'community schools" would strengthen this nation in so many lasting ways.
At P.S. 636, Marilyn Medina, mother of a mildly autistic fourth-grade daughter, says: "Since she's been here, her self-esteem has grown. She's reading at a third-grade level. She's dying to be a cheerleader. I'm at peace."
You hear that cheer, Arne Duncan?.