As Teaching Ambassador Fellows, we spend the year learning about the Department’s core beliefs and priorities, and are then asked to go into the field and bring the voices of teachers, students, and families back to the Department. Sometimes these conversations have a relative ease—teachers are in high functioning schools with excellent working conditions and inclusive leadership, and they are eager to engage in conversations around educational policy. Other times, educators work in schools where they struggle for basic materials, time to collaborate, and a voice in their building. Some schools are not well run, and teachers do not trust their leaders or peers to evaluate their work or give feedback to improve practice. When we go to schools where teachers are dealing with significant frustrations, conversations about teacher evaluation, turning around low performing schools, or other policy issues are somewhat of a luxury, amidst the urgency of survival. Unfortunately, it is also these educators, and the families they serve, that we need to be in dialogue with most consistently.
At Fremont High in Los Angeles, on Tuesday, March 22nd, we had the opportunity to participate in a conversation between community activists, school leaders and federal policymakers. We heard parents, students and teachers speak to recent changes in their school, as well as their desire for increased expectations around student achievement, teacher accountability and parental engagement. Community and staff advocacy around these issues has yielded a concrete impact on school structures, including the creation of theme-based small learning communities, a 9th grade transition center and time for teachers to collaborate in Professional Learning Communities. When Secretary Duncan took the microphone at the end of the event, he commended the school for their commitment to collective action and desire to promote transparency around teaching and learning, tenets that have been reflected repeatedly in his federal policy priorities.
Though the synchronicity seemed flawless, it was the result of a partnership, built over time, between the Department’s Community Outreach team and the school community. An ongoing commitment to honoring the work and assets of school communities, and diligence in talking with teachers, parents, students and community organizers consistently, over time, has set the tone for authentic relationship building. In response, the school community at Fremont was willing to form a partnership, because they saw opportunities at the intersection of their school’s needs and the Department’s agenda. At Fremont, there is momentum; a culture of reform has taken root. In our desire to increase the spaces, across various school cultures, where this type of shared opportunity can flourish, we believe it is responsibility of senior officials at the Department to invest in consistent, authentic relationship building with school communities across the country. This responsibility must be taken on at a federal level if we are going to maximize our collective capacity to create sustainable school-based reform in our highest need communities.