Good morning, CharterFolk!
Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Khalique Rogers and Joe Nathan, co-directors of the Center for School Change.
We provide brief bios for Khalique and Joe below.
Both have been asked to speak at several national conferences and co-authored several columns published in Minnesota newspapers, such as this one on how to help reduce the number of youth and families experiencing homelessness. They have known and mentored each other for 11+ years. Rogers experienced homelessness, Nathan grew up in a middle-class family. Rogers attended district, charter, and alternative schools. Nathan attended traditional district public schools. Rogers’ testimony helped convince Minnesota state legislators to allow millions of dollars to help reduce youth and family homelessness. Nathan worked as an urban district public school teacher and administrator, a project director for the National Governors Association, and has helped write charter legislation in Minnesota and 20+ states.
TWO SPECIFIC SUGGESTIONS TO HELP STUDENTS AND COMMUNITIES
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
At a time when some emphasize students’ deficits and discipline problems, especially after the pandemic, we’d like to offer a contrary, hopefully practical view more consistent with the optimism of CharterFolk. We urge that students have opportunities to study and help solve real local and regional problems that they’ve identified.
To maximize students’ learning and reduce frustration, while making their own jobs more satisfying by increasing students’ motivation, educators should identify and build on students’ strengths and concerns. This can be done while helping students with their shortcomings. As we explain below, Minnesota statewide policymakers are encouraging these approaches. We believe every charter, and every organization supporting chartering, should make two of their top priorities in the coming year these practical recommendations.
- Combine classroom work with efforts to improve their community, aka “service-learning”. This was the subject of a previous column.
- Expand service-learning to collaborate with community members and political leaders to help solve local/state problems.
“Insights from a Year of Listening,” a survey of 22,000 youth in 2021, found “Most young people say their experiences in school feel irrelevant and offer few opportunities for agency and choice.”
Research and experience show that service-learning connected to solving community problems can have huge benefits for students and schools. These ideas build on the skills, strengths, energy, and insights that many students are eager to use. These active learning options are valuable for all students.
FIRST RECOMMENDATION: Make combining classroom work and community service a part of every K-12 student’s school experience in the coming year.
The research on the value of these service-learning programs is overwhelming:
- Academic skills improve.
- Students gain by seeing they can have a positive impact on the world.
- Students have opportunities to explore possible careers.
- Students experiencing frustration or depression have opportunities to gain satisfaction, even joy, from making a difference.
Like what, some readers might ask?
- As a student, Rogers led a successful campaign, with other urban studies students and educators, to turn a weed filled vacant lot next to his St. Paul district alternative school into a beautiful playground, “Midway Peace Park”. This took several years. Families now have a terrific new resource.
- Students at one school in an English Studies class wrote to local organizations and businesses offering student-led research services. Among many research projects was a student-designed brochure showing area mines tourists could visit. The local chamber of commerce was so pleased with the students’ brochure they printed and distributed over 10,000 copies.
- Nathan worked in a K-12 school where, as part of their effort to learn to read, six- to eight-year-old students put on plays for early childhood students and senior citizens. As one student explained, “It’s important to learn to read because then you can get a bigger part in the play.” Other middle school age students at this school, including students with special needs, studied science and then put on “magic shows” for younger students using basic science principles.
- Rogers helped students at a rural district and urban charter public school study government, research, and write legislation that requires involvement of students in the state funded after-school programs. The state department of education has agreed this idea should be part of how proposals are judged and has agreed to involve students in evaluating and selecting proposals to be funded.
- Nathan taught a class in which students solved about 90% of hundreds of consumer problems that adults referred to them. This was part of a class called “Protect Your Rights and Money” – the kind of financial literacy class that students all over the country are seeking. A former student has written how this class “changed his life,” showing how he could use his anger to help make a better world.
Key characteristics of the strongest service-learning programs include giving students a chance to identify issues they want to work on, giving them opportunities to design and try solutions to these problems, ensuring students’ service is tied to vital academic outcomes (like improving their reading, writing, and research skills), and taking time to reflect and refine their efforts, depending on what happens. A complete list of key research-based characteristics of strong service-learning programs are found here.
The state of Minnesota (home of the nation’s first charter law) has become so convinced about the value of service learning that
- The 2023 State Legislature allocated $1 million to help start service-learning programs throughout the state.
- The organization regulating teacher preparation in Minnesota has decided that all prospective educators must learn the rationale for and how to implement service-learning with the students and subjects they will teach.
Copies of this legislation and the teacher preparation policies are here.
Furthermore, earlier this year, Minnesota State legislators allocated millions of dollars to help district and charter public schools start programs in which students learn construction skills as they build or rehab homes for low income families and families experiencing homelessness. We helped lead this legislative effort, which brought together district, charter, and community members in a strong, bi-partisan, successful effort. One of the schools helping students learn construction skills as they help neighbors is City Academy, the first charter to begin operating in the US. Below is a picture of a home for a low-income family built by students from a St. Paul alternative school. Minnesotans two largest daily papers described this legislation, here and in a front page story, here.
Photo courtesy of St Paul Pioneer Press
SECOND RECOMMENDATION: We urge every charter public school and every charter support organization to actively seek out and work on public local, regional, or statewide policy-issues that benefit many students and families, regardless of where they go to school.
The campaign that produced the multi-million-dollar legislation described immediately above, is a classic example. Working across district, charter, and community lines produced new friendships, understandings, and alliances. It can mean more allies for chartering and charter public schools. It’s an expansion of service-learning to actively include one or more community partners.
Key steps we took to produce this legislation included:
- Identifying two issues we thought would bring together district and charter advocates: 1) Reducing youth and family homelessness, and 2) Increasing the number of students trained in construction skills before graduating from high school.
- Inviting 10 local, county, and statewide groups to co-sponsor and attend a two-hour meeting, in which students from district and charters shared experiences. About 50 people attended this December 2022 event.
- Meeting participants agreed to work together on legislation.
- Asking for and receiving advice from relevant state agencies, which strengthened the bills and gained their support.
- Helping write and refine the bills with assistance from a friendly state legislator who attended the December 2022 meeting.
- Arranging for supportive legislative testimony from participating youth, a doctor, district and charter educators, and advocates for people experiencing homelessness.
- Praising supportive legislators on social media.
The legislation sailed through with bi-partisan support. Not a single objection raised during five separate hearings. Having 50+ years of combined experience working in these areas, including charter legislation, we realize that state legislatures, city councils, and county commissions can be very contentious. A previous CharterFolk column described more controversial legislation district and charter youth wrote that took two years to pass. Some legislation can take years to win approval.
However, we’ve found it’s possible and valuable to find issues on which district and charter students, educators, and community members can work together. These efforts have terrific positive impact for students. An Education Week article, “Really Listening to Students Has an Academic Payoff, New Research Finds,” highlighted that researchers at the University of California, Riverside and Northwestern University found, “For students, a belief that schools are responsive to their ideas correlates with a higher grade-point average and better attendance.”
We read constantly about the disaffection, distress, and discipline issues associated with many youth. But isn’t it time to recognize that among the best ways to help youth facing challenges is to help them learn to make a difference in the world? Isn’t it valuable to help students see connections between at least some of what they study in school and what’s happening outside school?
Doing what we’ve suggested will help produce a more satisfying, successful school year for students. It also will make teaching more fulfilling for educators – who came into this field to help make a difference.
We shared these suggestions at the 2023 National Alliance for Public Charter School annual conference, where the response was very positive. We’d be happy to discuss these ideas with readers interested in implementation anywhere in the US.