Dreaming of the School My Students, My Son, and All Children Deserve

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My son attends a good public school, one of the few "performance" schools in our district. He’s fortunate to have a kindergarten teacher with 20 years of experience in early-childhood development and primary pedagogy. His individualized education program guarantees him support services from professionals with a depth of expertise in special education, psychology, and speech, occupational, and physical therapies. And as a beginning English-language learner, he receives daily language instruction with like peers.

As I reflect on the growth he’s made in his first year of American schooling, I believe our decision to open enroll him in the same K-8 school where I teach was the right call.

Being in the same building allows me to juggle my educator and parent advocacy hats: the lines of communication between school and home are wide open, fluid, and frequent. I believe this collaboration has helped my son settle into the routines and expectations of kindergarten.

While I am grateful that school is currently working for my son, I can’t help but wonder: Will the supports he’s getting now be prioritized as he progresses through the K-12 system?

I’ve also been thinking a lot about how our school is supporting his development as a whole person—at all ages and stages.

When my pediatrician asked what specifically accounted for my son’s improvement and adjustment, I shared that he now receives three movement breaks a day and an afternoon snack before electives. Since he struggles with fine-motor control, he also has push-in support for his most challenging times of the day, including transitions from the playground, writing, and art.

"Three movement breaks and an afternoon snack," she repeated slowly, her voice puzzled. "So, he’s getting what every 5-year-old in the class needs?"

Touché.

My son’s journey has me reflecting on the benefits of personalized attention, the mind-body connection, and the power of immediate feedback and reinforcement.

But which other children aren’t getting what they need at any given moment because my child is spending 1:1 time with the building’s sole psychologist or full-time counselor, both of whom have burgeoning caseloads and serve grades K-8?

My school is part of a public education system that prioritizes academic learning over social emotional support. This can result in inequities in our instruction, implicit bias, and institutional racism in our hallways and classrooms.

When I dream of the school my son deserves—the school all children deserve—it includes some distinct features and resources currently lacking or underfunded in our school and too many other schools across the country.

Here are five features I believe every public school needs:

1. Competency-based education vs. traditional grade levels: Part of my son’s early struggles stemmed from a gap between his chronological age and his developmental needs. It’s time to move beyond grade-level progressions based on grouping students by age to competency-based education and personalized learning that allows for more fluidity and flexibility. Such practices are still the exception instead of the norm, despite the fact that our classrooms are crowded with unique individuals who exhibit a range of needs.

2. An emphasis on noncognitive factors and social-emotional needs: Recent headlines have focused on increasing safety measures in schools to curtail future tragedies too common in a post-Columbine world. Much of the mass media chatter has centered on security (and even arming teachers) but falls short of exploring how to proactively meet students' noncognitive needs. The challenges students (and staff) encounter in schools today extend beyond daily teaching and learning. Until all schools understand that we must proactively focus on the whole person, including with training on trauma-informed practices, social-emotional supports, and mental health issues, our schools will continue to treat symptoms instead of finding cures.

3. Family and community partnerships: In too many places, school is still done to students instead of with students. We must actively involve students and families in our schools and engage with the community. The work of schools is too big to undertake without partnering with families and community-based resources. We must work to ensure parents and families see themselves as advocates in their children’s learning—not bystanders. As an educator, I’m in a unique position to advocate for my son’s education; however, a parent should not have to be an "insider" in our system to learn how to navigate it and be an active participant in her child’s education. Teachers are experts in facilitating learning, but families are experts in their children’s strengths and growth areas and can help us reach all students at their point of need.

4. Authentic assessment and learning portfolios: I’ve written before about reframing assessment to include the types of information and data that support students, teachers, and parents with a broader snapshot of student growth. The time has come to look beyond standardized assessments to determine school effectiveness and student learning. We value what we measure, but what we currently measure is narrow in comparison to the well-rounded education and experiences students need and deserve.

5. Culturally responsive pedagogy: Given what we know about the importance of relationships, academic mindset, and the diverse needs of our student population, schools of the future must focus on creating culturally relevant classrooms through curriculum, pedagogy, and an emphasis on actively addressing institutional racism and system inequities. In the words of Zaretta Hammond, author of the book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, "Our task as culturally responsive teachers is to help [students] shift their mindset by helping them create a powerful counter narrative about who they are as learners."

Becoming a parent and seeing school through my son’s eyes has fundamentally changed how I teach and informed my next steps for professional growth. I need to learn more about the adolescent brain, the mind-body connection, and ways to truly personalize learning for each student.

In the meantime, all public school educators share a responsibility to serve a dual role as parent and community advocates—committed to creating the schools all our sons and daughters deserve.

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Clarification: This essay has been updated since it was published.

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