Let's reflect on what really makes for excellent public schools
Written by Jan Ressenger
April - May 2008
The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the latest version of the federal education law, has pressured low-scoring schools to raise scores at emergency speed and any cost, thereby prescribing for our poorest children a regimen of relentless test prep. NCLB sets the narrowest standards, basic skills in two subjects only: reading and math.
Now that Congress has delayed the five-year reauthorization of this law, and now that NCLB won't likely be reauthorized until 2009, under a new President and a new Congress, we have an opportunity to reflect on what really creates school excellence.
Last November, I visited an extraordinary elementary school that incorporates a truly different educational vision than our federal education law, though it surely seeks to leave no child behind.
Chicago's Harold Washington Elementary School is a neighborhood school serving all of the children in its attendance area, all African American and Hispanic, 93 percent poor, with a family mobility rate of 30 percent. Harold Washington is driven by a mission to form the whole child through scholarship, citizenship, personal integrity, psychological safety and physical skill. This school definitely is not about test-and-punish.
Many schools are clean, neat, and decorated with a few posters and the goals prescribed by the state. The difference here is apparent inside the front door, with African wood carvings and a picture gallery of well-known Black men, past and present. The building itself is Principal Sandra Lewis's canvas for painting high expectations.
Some hallways display artist collections of prints and lithographs. Primary wing hallways feature murals of a town - police station, fire station, and a marquee announcing the entrance to the Margaret Burroughs Performing Arts Theatre, the school auditorium. This old-fashioned two-story auditorium, filled with the original 1915 black varnished wood seats screwed to the floor, is painted pink, with life-size painted panels of famous Black performers lining the walls. The school's band, orchestra, vocal and dance groups perform here.
Lewis calls the third floor, grades 6-8, "College Town," because each classroom is named for one of the historically Black colleges or universities. "Many of these children don't have college as part of their environment," says Lewis, "so we surround them with college all the time."
The building itself shouts affirmation and high expectations. How could a child be prevented from dreaming?
Lewis has also been attentive to building community by affirming teachers. Ongoing staff team collaboration and development are a central focus.
"We work hard here and we have fun," she proclaims.
Nurturing the connection between family and school is a priority. Lewis brings in a photographer and invites all families, whatever their makeup, for portraits. Framed family photos line an entire stairwell, each family also receiving a copy to keep.
NCLB threatens low-scoring schools with "change" if they don't improve (transfers out, reconstitution of staff, charterization). By contrast, Harold Washington's stability is perhaps its most distinguishing feature.
Lewis has served as principal at Harold Washington for 20 years, and teacher and counselor here for a dozen years before that. She reports that she is now working with the third generation in some families.
While NCLB culminates America's growing computerized capacity to quantify, education's value is primarily qualitative - authentic enjoyment of children - trust between teacher and child - development of community within and beyond the school.
Janice Resseger is the UCC's minister for public education and witness.