Embrace, rather than interrogate, prospective school leaders

Three elementary school children play a game of Scrabble at a table in a school hallway with an adult

From a March 26, 2017 Pioneer Press column

I believe that education is a liberating force in human development. Once mastered, what we’ve learned can never be taken away. Educational achievement advances the well-being of an entire family and reaches forward across generations. Our entire community is enriched when all community members advance in education.

St. Paul has some of the finest teachers in the nation who are dedicated to the well-being of our students and community. But in-school learning is a small portion of the time spent in a child’s learning and development. Most students spend less than a quarter of their day in school, for less than half the days of the year.  All totaled, a child will spend approximately 8.5 percent of his or her life in school before high-school graduation. Schools do a remarkably good job with so small a slice of a child’s life.

We must attend to more than just what happens in-the-building and in-the-classroom. In order for our students to succeed, we have to create strong interfaces between school and community, integrate school experiences with out-of-school and after-school programs. And above all engage our whole community in the effort to promote the well-being of all through the education success of each student.

The East Metro Pulse survey recently assessed community members’ attitudes toward, and sense of connectedness to, nearby schools. What we found was an uneven pattern of engagement and gaps that demonstrate an opportunity for schools and their neighborhood communities to grow stronger together. It is disheartening that 39 percent of East Metro residents didn’t think their neighborhood school has a positive impact on their community. Moreover, that number jumped to more than 45 percent for almost all non-white ethnicities and for all households without school-aged children.

A better integration of community and schools could allow us to enrich a child’s life with learning. It is not simply a challenge for our next superintendent; it is a challenge for all of our communities including our civic, business and political leadership both in and outside of schools. We must open doors between the rich resources of our communities and the vital programming of our schools. Children’s life-long learning experiences should seamlessly connect between school and the community they live in. Every day, all day, we can give our children opportunities to learn. But this requires school and community to come together in ways that reciprocate the learning that happens formally and informally.

There are good examples of this already working in St. Paul. Our Promise Neighborhood is a sterling example of the success that ensues when schools partner with rec centers, faith communities, libraries, nonprofits and civic organizations. The community nurtures the youth of Frogtown, paying particular attention to overall well-being and stability. The focus on the whole child leads to academic success.

So as we go about the important job of selecting our next school leader, I believe that St. Paul should be looking for a superintendent who understands the link between student success and family, neighborhood and community connectedness. Instead of simply interrogating our next superintendent about views on testing and instruction, we should seek to understand how he or she will build bonds with the community that surrounds their schools. Rather than gnashing teeth about levies, technology and policing, we should better understand how a new superintendent will engage families and neighborhoods in the work of building well-rounded youth.

The first step our new superintendent must take is engaging the vast majority of our community in the development of successful children. And we need a community ready to step up and assist our school leader for the benefit of our students and the future of our city.

- Eric J. Jolly, Ph.D., President and CEO, The Saint Paul and Minnesota Community Foundations

Portrait photo of President and CEO Eric J. Jolly, Ph.D.

More from the blog