City Hall as Catalyst

How a mayor can help improve education.

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How a mayor can help improve education.

In the 21st century, cities that successfully prepare their children for success in life will become the true winners. We must ensure that our young people can take their places as productive members and leaders of our communities, so that we can remain competitive as a nation.

The stakes are high. This is why mayors of large American cities have a special obligation to our public schools. We cannot ignore this important responsibility; we must embrace it. We know that we need quality schools where children can learn; without them, the quality of life in our cities and our nation will decline.

As mayors, our challenge is complex. Most of us are not educators. Most of us do not have direct responsibility or authority in our local school systems. Despite these limitations, we are important players in the lives of our cities' children.

Our first obligation as mayors is to ensure that we provide the essential city services that help schools and families. These include strong neighborhoods that are safe and clean, good libraries and parks where families and children can learn and play, effective transportation systems, and affordable housing for families at all income levels. Together these services create a stable and healthy neighborhood environment that supports schools, learning, and educational excellence.

In addition, many big-city mayors are now actively addressing the problems in their public schools. Some are reforming local education by taking over the direct responsibility for their public school systems. For example, Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston and Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago now have the authority, along with the vast challenge, to fix the schools in their cities. Other mayors, such as Bart Peterson in Indianapolis and John Norquist in Milwaukee, have established "new schools" as models for innovation and to increase the pressure on public schools to change and improve.

We must ensure that our young people can take their places as productive members and leaders of our communities, so that we can remain competitive as a nation.

In San Jose, Calif., we have pursued our own path to improve student outcomes. We use every tool at our disposal and include other important actors in our community to find creative ways to help children succeed. These collaborations take many forms, but they share a dedication to results and a willingness to explore innovations.

We have another reason to pursue partnerships: We have a complex educational landscape. In San Jose, the nation's 11th-largest city, with a population of more than 900,000, the responsibility for teaching children is shared among 19 independent school districts. These districts, each with a locally elected board of trustees, range from very small, with a single school, to districts that serve more than 33,000 students. This gives us broad flexibility to test creative approaches and leverage successes to other systems.

It also means there are many voices to be heard, which is why, shortly after I was elected mayor in 1998, I convened educators, business leaders, parents, and community representatives. We wanted their ideas about what City Hall could do to help make schools more successful and increase achievement. We listened, and then we designed a pragmatic agenda that includes the education policy initiatives outlined below.

Some of these 10 recommendations have roots in our city's tradition of educational support, begun under previous mayors, that we have expanded and solidified. Others are new efforts in response to what we heard from our community. Although they may not all be a fit for every city, I hope these examples will encourage other mayors in their efforts to make a positive impact on the lives of their city's children:

  • Become a "teacher friendly" city. One of the biggest challenges facing public education today is the teacher shortage. School districts everywhere struggle to attract and retain quality teachers. City Hall can help. In San Jose and Silicon Valley, the cost of housing is very high, and the dream of owning a home is often out of reach for many teachers. That's why we started the Teacher Homebuyer Program, which provides teachers with $40,000, no-interest loans to help them purchase their first homes—and help our districts overcome a serious obstacle to the recruitment and retention of good teachers. San Jose has already helped more than 250 teachers buy homes in our city since 1999 and put down roots where they teach our kids. Thanks to this program, San Jose has been called the "Most Teacher Friendly City" in California. In addition to helping teachers buy homes, we also initiated a rental-assistance program in partnership with our area's apartment association. This effort, which uses no taxpayer dollars, has helped teachers find rental housing at a reduced cost.
Mayors can provide positive solutions without necessarily taking over the day-to-day responsibility of classroom management.
  • Invest in preschool programs and quality child care. Children under the age of 5 need supportive, challenging, and nurturing environments to develop, grow, and succeed. One of the most cost-effective ways to improve learning outcomes is to invest in preparing children to learn before they enter school. We started the Smart Start San Jose program for this reason, and we're now building 20 preschool centers operated in partnership with school districts, Head Start, and private preschool providers. In addition, we recently launched an initiative to expand the number of quality child-care options available to parents by adding 2,000 child-care seats in San Jose.
  • Keep schools safe. Children cannot learn where they do not feel safe. San Jose is already considered by some to be the safest big city in America, and our goal is to ensure that our schools are the safest in urban America. San Jose established the Safe School Campus Initiative to reduce violence and potential risk at and near our schools. We have focused this effort both on prevention through planning and training, and on swift, coordinated responses to campus incidents. Our partnership is preparing schools to be more effective to prevent and manage catastrophic events, whether a Columbine-type shooting, earthquakes, or even a terrorist attack.
  • Extend the school day by providing quality after-school programs. The city of San Jose offers a broad range of after-school recreational and enrichment programs, with the flagship being our homework centers at 220 sites serving all elementary, middle, and high schools throughout the community. At the homework centers, students can study, receive tutoring, and use computers in a clean, safe, and supportive environment. Extending the school day helps improve student achievement while providing supervised, constructive activities that reduce the potential for youth crime.
  • Encourage innovation in public education. City leaders across the country have been at the forefront of encouraging innovation in education. Charter schools, for instance, can demonstrate new models to provide high- quality public education. I helped found Downtown College Prep, the first charter high school in Silicon Valley, because it would target underperforming middle school students and offer a rigorous college-preparatory program that creates the opportunity for them to go to college. There are now three more charter schools in San Jose, each with its own unique mission and focus to enhance educational opportunity in our city.
  • Recognize and encourage schools that show improvement. Too often, the only stories written about public education are negative. In addition, the only schools that receive recognition are those that are already high performers. We must encourage more schools to improve, and recognize those that show significant improvement in student achievement. We annually celebrate the five most improved schools in San Jose with our Progress to Excellence Award, which provides a much-appreciated boost to those committed to becoming high-performing schools.
  • Encourage parents to be active in their child's education. There is no question that active parental involvement is one of the most important factors for a child's success in school. Cities need to be creative in order to find ways to encourage parents to get more involved in their children's lives. In San Jose, we have a partnership with the statewide, community-based Parent Institute for Quality Education, working in cooperation with school districts, to train 10,000 parents to be more effectively involved in their children's education.
  • Build strong relationships with school leaders. All children benefit when governments work together. Because our city is served by so many separate school districts, San Jose established the Schools/City Collaborative to improve communication and coordination among all our districts, so we could share information and get better results by working together. The collaborative meets regularly to identify issues, solutions, and opportunities. City Hall serves as a convenor that transcends the daily structure and relationships among schools.
  • Support efforts to improve school facilities. A community's commitment to education can be judged by the quality of its schools—and its school buildings. Leaking roofs, cracked walls, and broken air conditioners interfere with learning and teaching. Mayors should champion efforts like school bond campaigns when the funding is clearly needed, as we have done successfully in San Jose.
  • Talk about education. Mayors can strengthen public interest and support to improve the quality of public education by beating the drum continuously. We can be catalysts for change. We can mobilize civic leaders, elected officials, businesses, community organizations, and the media to ensure that education stays at the top of the public agenda.

Mayors have no choice but to embrace the challenge of improving their cities' public schools. Through their leadership and creative partnerships with others, they can provide positive solutions without necessarily taking over the day-to-day responsibility of classroom management. America's mayors and other civic leaders must embrace this challenge, and do all they can to make sure our children achieve and succeed.

More information on these programs is available at

Ron Gonzales is the mayor of San Jose, Calif.

Vol. 22, Issue 7, Pages 35, 38

Published in Print: October 16, 2002, as City Hall as Catalyst
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