Too often, well-intended systemic school reform initiatives in this country have been largely top-down affairs. Typical community engagement in these efforts might include holding meetings with residents, community groups, and families to solicit buy-in for plans and changes already well underway. But the deeper work of building relationships over time, through trust and understanding with the intended beneficiaries of those system changes, has been largely bypassed in favor of urgency. Many communities have experienced reform as something done “to” them or “for” them—not “with” them. And cities have paid a price for it.
Reform efforts in cities like New York City, Washington, D.C., and New Orleans have led to improved school options and better outcomes for more students. But the pace and shape of the reforms were wrenching for all involved and each of these cities carries some legacy of bitterness and mistrust around how reforms played out. The turnover of familiar teachers, the shuttering of iconic school buildings and shuttling of children away from neighborhood schools, and the loss of middle-class jobs in central office most often impacted communities of color. In response, many black education leaders say education reform needs “an attitude adjustment.”
At a 2015 Center on Reinventing Public Education meeting at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, Pastor Raymond Jetson of the Star Hill Church in Baton Rouge explained to a group of education reform leaders: “There are legitimate emotions, loyalties and alliances that may at times seem to be at odds with your assumptions and efforts. The elementary school I went to is closed. The middle and high school I went to are in the Recovery School District. There were more students in my graduating class than were on the campus of my high school last year. When a revolving door of new leaders come out of nowhere and tell me what’s in the best interest of Capitol High School but have not done the work to know its past…It would be difficult to explain to you the level of resentment that I have felt.”
At that same meeting, Ken Campbell, founding board member of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, argued that long-term sustainability of school reform requires taking the time to really understand and engage a community while maintaining a sense of urgency on behalf of students. He asked: “How do we convince reform leaders and funders of the importance of engaging the community and doing it in deep and authentic ways?”
Our new paper looks at the community engagement efforts underway in one city—Baton Rouge, Louisiana—where a diverse group of well-connected civic leaders are working to create high-quality new public charter and private school options, primarily in neighborhoods with failing or low-performing schools. Through the nonprofit organization New Schools for Baton Rouge (NSBR), they are working to embed community engagement in everything from vetting and recruiting school operators, to building a local pipeline of teachers who look like the students they serve, to striving to deliver what the community itself defines as an “excellent” school. Despite an undisputed sense of urgency on behalf of students, NSBR is taking the time to forge relationships from the neighborhood on up, recognizing that schools are not just places where students are educated and outcomes earned, but places that play a role in the neighborhood economy and community life.
We’ll be watching the progress in Baton Rouge, to see whether the roots of engagement take hold and endure, and what lessons there may be for other cities.
“Transformative change requires transformative relationships. Transformative relationships are not easily achieved. You can’t merely stop by and have a conversation with me. You can’t just invite me to your major production at your school. You can’t come and visit with me at my church and then declare that we have a relationship sufficient of the hard work that is changing the education and life outcomes of inner-city children. The relationship has to go much deeper together than that. And so it requires an investment of your time. It requires a transparency in your demeanor. It requires an integrity to your work in order to create long-term, broad-based and deeply rooted change.” – Pastor Raymond Jetson, addressing the Portfolio Strategy Network, January 2015