By Ben Hannemann, Director of Mission Advancement
The seemingly intractable challenges to providing quality education to poor minority children in urban America are well documented. Pockets of positive results prove it is possible and are rightfully celebrated and encouraged. Yet, proposed solutions to bring these outcomes to greater scale are often contentious, with unintended consequences and outcomes rarely achieved to the extent desired. As we enter the New Year, Wisconsin media sources of all types, and political echo chambers of every stripe, are once again reverberating with calls for action to improve education, especially urban K-12 education in Milwaukee.
This ongoing call for action is critically important, and from 50,000 feet it makes logical sense that much of the policy debate focuses to issues of accountability and structure, and the underlying flow of power and money. Yet beyond these important framing issues, it’s easy to lose site of the most important question: How do we best reach ever-growing numbers of our poor, urban children with what IS possible — a life transforming, high-quality K-12 education?
Merriam-Webster Dictionary analyzed the Big Data collected from their website and app, and identified “Culture” as the top word of 2014, based on a 15% year-over-year increase in look-ups for this term. Perhaps the wisdom of the crowd is on to something about how to create sustained positive educational change.
: the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time
: a particular society that has its own beliefs, ways of life, art, etc.
: a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization (such as a business)
Each of these definitions of culture suggests people are striving to better understand the many shades of gray present in our multi-cultural, 21st century society. But it is the third definition that captures my interest and, I would argue, speaks to a deeper truth about reaching ever-growing numbers of Milwaukee’s urban youth with high-quality education.
Fueling a positive school culture that engages students, staff, parents and guardians, and the broader community is essential to providing hope for families growing up in seemingly hopeless situations. Positive school culture can inspire work ethic in populations that suffer from some of the highest jobless rates in the nation and encourage sustained year-over-year effort in students striving to achieve goals that no one in their family may have ever achieved.
Successful urban Milwaukee schools, whether choice, charter, or public, find ways to reach their students through positive cultures of performance, safety, and hope; driven by a clear sense of mission and a vision for the school and the students, families, and communities they serve. Amid the policy debates and politics, it is essential that we don’t lose sight of the fact that education is a people-driven effort and the oft-quoted African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” does apply. Everyone has a role to play in championing student learning and supporting the educators who provide it. Together, people change culture, and people create positive change in the lives of Milwaukee’s children.
Take a minute to read this article from 2013 (although it’s a few years old, the content is still relevant) from The University of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center about How to Create a Positive School Climate. It offers research-based suggestions for school leaders on how to start cultivating a positive school climate.
What have you experienced working in your school? How have you as a board member, administrator, or teacher, worked to fuel positive school culture?