This article appeared in the For Your Consideration section in our February 29th e-newsletter and was reprinted with the permission of Charlotte Viewpoint. For Your Consideration provides an open forum for community members to voice their opinions on various public education issues.
Spend more than five minutes with Michael Realon and he will tell you that there are children dying in America’s outdated school system every day. Realon is the entrepreneur-turned-Career Development Officer for the Olympic Community of Schools, one of the success stories of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grants. While dying in physical terms is also true, the death he speaks of is the death of their future prospects, their spirit, intellectual curiosity, creativity and soul.
Realon’s job for the past eight years has been to engage businesses to support the curriculum and development of the collection of high school tracts. Working together they create and explore the convergence of the businesses’ and students’ needs. Encompassing bioscience, math, technology and computer science the effort has proven to be a successful collaboration on a project style learning curriculum and is a model for an interactive integrated system of education. In this effort children are engaged to create things, to take concepts apart, study and look at them critically, using their minds to create something.
But this school alone is not enough; kids are still “dying.”
The process of creation was not in my mind when I was in school; making the grade, getting to college and then getting a job was. I asked Liz Coleman if the notion that education led to riches was a common one. Coleman is president of Bennington College, where more than 10 years ago she and her colleagues radically transformed liberal arts education well before most of us were considering these issues.
Bennington is known for its cutting edge liberal arts program and its connection to innovation, civics and responsibility in educational leadership. Buckminster Fuller constructed one of his earliest Geodesic domes on this very campus. Bennington’s reliance on experts and academics has shifted to people that are involved in the work the students are studying. The students are exposed to instructors who are actively engaged in the area of study, and exposed to other areas of study to give context to their chosen tract, Coleman said.
With the precision of a poet and the heart of our founding fathers, she comments on the general state of the institution of education:
“The stunning accomplishment of this country in making an education available to every single person was certainly not driven by an impulse to simply change job opportunities. Its objective was the public good, not narrow self interest. Moreover it was presumed that education was profoundly connected to the quality of our public life and the vitality of our democracy.”
Democracy and dialogue
Coleman continued, “The fundamental idea of a democracy is the idea that conflict is always going to be there; the challenge of democracy–to deal with differences in ways that are principled and non-violent. Education is properly seen as a critical player in meeting this challenge, in enabling us to respect and engage differences productively. If we had any doubts of the importance of education or the dangers of ignorance when it comes to the well being of democracy, they should certainly have been dispelled by the devastating deterioration in the quality of our public life in recent decades. Whatever can be said for our role in enhancing earning capacities, we have failed miserably in meeting our obligations to improve the quality of our public life, and to give powerful voice to the public interest. And my guess is that we are credited with a lot more than we [the institution of education] deserve when it comes to preparing our graduates to negotiate the world of work.”
Can we foster Coleman’s notion that students should possess a “deserved confidence” of being able to create their future instead of justifying their role in it? That they should be on their journey for the sake of the journey and with responsibility to the rest of the world? With that can we and should we engage them to create?
Self worth breeds success
Bill Strickland, President and CEO of the Manchester Bidwell Corporation, experienced the depths of a child’s journey only to rise to the status of hero to ones just like him. Out of his own ingenuity, creativity and drive (and he would say the blessing of others who believed in him), Strickland achieved a solid leadership role of a thriving organization. While he was not educated to be a teacher, his story certainly has a lesson for each of us.
He is the social entrepreneur behind the Manchester Bidwell Schools. With his support, these centers of learning are being recreated all over the country in an effort to save kids from dying the death Realon warns against. His Manchester School works with kids from the toughest backgrounds – children that are on the brink of destruction and have exhausted other forms of intervention.
“One of the big criteria (for success) is coming to an environment where people tell you that you are worth something in a variety of ways,” says Strickland. “That is the big fundamental message that these kids can learn, we are here to reinforce that learning. The message is from the first time those kids walk through that door they have value. We do not consider these kids at risk, we consider them students.”
Asking the right questions
Perhaps the answer doesn’t lie in the expertise that Realon, Coleman, and Strickland share but instead is found in the example their life suggests – their willingness to create something they didn’t know how to create toward a vision of higher purpose.
Perhaps the elusive key to our education crisis isn’t about having the right answers but merely asking the right questions.
What if we stop looking for silver bullets, stop looking for the one perfect method of “getting it right” or the one perfect person with the right amount of politics and pedigree in creating the type of education system we aspire to and instead ask ourselves what is our future perfect vision?
What if we stop long enough to realize we have the talent within us to help our children fulfill themselves, if we only understood the mission?
We have the ability to help each child realize their individual capacity, their responsibility to themselves and to the world around them, and to use their minds with ingenuity, courage, integrity, passion and compassion; we merely have not recognized what it takes: trusting our own capacity to create.
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About the Author:
Angela is founder and principal at Rogers and Gala Creative Partners, Inc. She is also the mother of three CMS students and an active advocate for the transformation of public education for the 21st century.