I’m planning to bring this blog back in some form, and I’m going to try something new. At One Degree, we share interesting news articles on our Slack channel, and I thought it’d be interesting to post the articles that we’ve been sharing.
Here’s what we’ve been sharing and reading at in January:
“A new view. Today’s technology can be so much more than a system to speed parents’ ability to react to a situation. Instead, districts can choose to promote technologies that more actively involve the parents. Software like ClassDojo provides a way for parents to receive information and communicate with the teacher. And marketplaces like One Degree connect families with needed local resources like after school programs.”
In the late 90’s, I had a friend named Natasha who knew all of the hippest restaurants and the coolest bars. Natasha was the archetypical maven, an expert in the tasteful social scene. Everyone knew you could go to her to get a recommendation for an exquisite date night spot.
Back a decade or two ago, we had Natashas for everything, like travel, dentists and contractors. We relied on experts — those men and women with critical knowledge about specific and narrow subjects — to lead us and guide us. They typically were the ones who had been there before; they navigated the system so we didn’t have to or because we couldn’t. But back then we also didn’t have widespread broadband internet access. No smartphone ubiquity. No “big data.”
As we have advanced technologically, we also evolved the way we think about our Natashas, our experts. We needed Natashas in a small town context, when people were concentrated within communities and people identified with each other geographically. Our concept of community has changed. Over the last two decades, technology, democratized information, and crowdsourced data has liberated that paradigm. The way we conceptualize our own “community” is no longer confined to our geographical location.
Rather than turning to experts, we turn to Yelp to find a date night spot, and we turn to Wikipedia for the right answer. The power dynamic has shifted, and everyone (with an internet connection) now has the tools to get the information they need because of the onslaught of data. You can be your own expert.
However, the social sector seems to be stuck in the internet dark age, 1.0. We still ascribe to the expert power dynamic — where a select few people hold the cards and the keys to the information — particularly when it comes to serving people in low-income communities.
The Social Sector Also Needs to Evolve
We have a good problem on our hands. In some cities across the country, we have an overwhelming abundance of services for low-income families.
But why can’t everyone be the expert of these community resources? Navigating the social safety net is notoriously difficult even for professionals like social workers, counselors and case managers. How can we expect people to do this on their own when the current system isn’t even easy or accessible for the professionals?
We launched One Degree to shift this paradigm. One Degree is a nonprofit tech company that is building a Yelp-like platform for nonprofit and social services, so that anyone can easily search for critical life-saving services.
Consider the story of a grandmother who used the One Degree service last fall. She had been caring for her small grandchildren because her daughter struggled with addiction. After losing custody of her grandchildren to Child Protective Services and finding out she was diagnosed with cancer (treatment for which she was unable to afford), her life was veritably in pieces. She didn’t know where to turn to start finding help.
By using One Degree, she was able to connect to an affordable health plan — a small, yet important step that empowered her. Subsequently, using One Degree, she was connected to counsel to begin the process of reuniting her family. Before accessing One Degree, she did not know where to go to find information about these critical resources.
How to Upgrade to Social Sector 2.0
The One Degree prototype is just the first step of many that are required to get to Social Sector 2.0 and to truly change the power dynamic in the social sector. It’s our first step to make it easy and accessible for people to find and access services. It’s not enough that we are providing services for low-income families anymore. Families should be able to navigate and share their voice in how these services are run.
We imagine a time when people can be their own experts in their own community and experts in what the community has to offer them. And to get to this vision of Social Sector 2.0, we need to join the digital age. We need to streamline data and information about our services. We need to create data systems that work with and talk to other organization’s systems. We need to figure out timely and effective ways to cooperate with fellow social services because families need a lot more than what one organization can provide. And most importantly we need to let go of the antiquated notion that we who work in the social sector know more than the people we serve. That time is quickly coming to an end, and we need to embrace it, evolve, and serve people in the new ways they need to be served.
The social sector has a huge opportunity right now to dramatically improve and shift the way we fight poverty in this country — a way that is inclusive of the people and voices in low-income communities and tears down barriers rather than erects new ones. We can make this happen, and in fact the shift to Social Sector 2.0 has already started.
“People don’t have the right to be in poverty in America,” an acquaintance told me. He continued, “If people aren’t accessing the wealth of resources that America has, that’s their fault. Why are you working with poor people?”
I’ll never forget those words from a well-meaning man from a middle-class immigrant family. Working with families from low-income communities across the country, I have seen people from all walks of life who share the same line of thinking:
· “Can’t poor people just get better paying jobs?”
· “Aren’t they all just taking advantage of the welfare system?”
· “Why don’t they just use the hundreds of social service programs that are available to them?”
I know my relatives, neighbors, and colleagues mean well and don’t live in the social sector bubble that I do. When survival isn’t the biggest concern in your life, it is easy to judge a person who doesn’t take advantage of all that is perceived to be out there.
The Misperception of the Rags-to-Riches Story
America’s guiding narrative is that if you try hard enough, you can rise above the barriers that are presented to you, even barriers like poverty. The rags-to-riches story is a truly American ideal.
We revere Horatio Alger-style rags-to-riches stories because we want to believe they’re true. If we work hard enough, perhaps we will be rewarded as well? Who wouldn’t want to believe that?
The narrative so engrained in the American psyche that we now also believe a parallel and more dangerous narrative: you must not be working hard enough if you are poor.
But that’s too easy. It’s too easy to say that social mobility, the ability to take the path out of poverty, is solely and directly tied to the individual.
The invisible stepping-stones used by the middle class are taken for granted. These stepping-stones are critical advantages — a quality education, transportation, moderately safe neighborhood, and connections to people in a larger community. Think about the first time someone connected you to a valuable resource when you were a child. She may have been a teacher who encouraged you to join the band. He might have been your uncle who drove you to your SAT test. It may have been a conversation with a neighbor that led you to apply for an internship. These small, yet critical advantages accumulate throughout the lives of middle class people and add up to better opportunities.
Our Social Safety Net is an Uncoordinated Mess
I want you to imagine that you need to buy a car because yours broke down on the side of the road. At the same time, you’ve gotten into a fight with your partner, your debit card was stolen, and your boss handed you a tall stack of work. Well, the car has to be top of mind in addition to all of these other issues. For many, while necessary, buying the car just doesn’t feel like an option this week. Too stressful.
Now I want you to imagine instead of buying a car, you are faced with problems like hunger, two part-time jobs that do not cover rent, and violence on the street. Survival is at the top of mind. And while there are literally hundreds of thousands of nonprofit services that support low-income families, this social safety net is confusing and difficult to navigate. The counselors, social workers and teachers who are there to help are inundated with an impossible caseload. The only access to those places is often through word of mouth.
In the San Francisco Bay Area alone, there are over 1,300 nonprofits, as listed in our web database at One Degree. Yet every day mothers spend countless hours researching, traveling to, and going through a painstaking in-take process. They work with up to a dozen different nonprofit organizations — food pantries, health clinics, afterschool programs, shelters — to ensure their families survive through the month. This nonprofit shuffle is like having a part-time job just to access critical, life-saving services.
The truth is that the average low-income family is working hard. Incredibly hard.
It’s too easy to blame it on lack of effort. It is too easy to point to the examples of self-medication in these communities. Are we so willing to give up on and demonize each other? Doing so is an easy way for us in the middle class to assuage ourselves from guilt, but in order to fight poverty, we have to do more.
I have a simple ask for you for the new year. It is the same ask I gave my friend who said, “People don’t have the right to be in poverty in America.” Stop and reflect on the invisible stepping-stones that led you to success today. How many different people contributed to your current stability? This is not a game of who’s been more wronged by society. It is humans living in a very imperfectly structured world learning how to see each other as humans.
Don’t settle for the easy answer, and ask the difficult questions, like:
· What can we do as a society to lift everyone into the middle class?
· What is that “other” person going through?
· Why do I value their struggle so much less than my own?
Remain curious and have empathy. When we create artificial social boundaries, all we do is dehumanize people who live in low-income communities. Instead ask, “What part do I want to play?” and find a way to make a difference.
I believe that communities have the power, potential and the will to lift themselves out of poverty. In East Palo Alto, a poverty-afflicted community in the San Francisco Bay Area, it was not uncommon to hear that the high school drop out rate was 60%. But for that salient statistic, we can look at the converse and realize that in East Palo Alto, 40% of the kids were NOT dropping out of high school. Who are these kids and families? Amid a turbulent and poverty-afflicted community, why and how were these students successful?
When I worked at a college access nonprofit organization, I saw firsthand the reasons why these kids and families were successful. They leveraged the social capital that was around them. They had a loving teacher or nonprofit program manager who pushed them. They had a trailblazing mother or cousin who led the way for the entire family. It’s people talking to people, working together to find solutions for each other. Through this critical network we leveraged every single connection to ensure that our students were on a path to personal success.
I believe that this network can be scaled up to entire communities. What if we built the connective tissue in communities so that people could access this human-powered network at a larger scale. What if all families, community members, educators, nonprofit workers, business people, and leaders took ownership and responsibility for the future success of all children.
However this will require a shift in the way we currently think about the purpose of education. A few years ago I was planning an event that showcased our students’ successes to the community and needed a large venue. Naturally I thought to ask the neighborhood schools to see if they would allow us to borrow their gym for an evening, and I was shocked when a school principal was completely unwilling to help. She aggressively asked, “How many of MY students are you serving?” When I named only a handful, she rejected my request stating that she only allowed use of her premises for “her students.” It’s this kind of insular attitude that hinders relationship-building in the community. Instead of thinking just about “her students,” how can we change the community conversation to “our students”? I knew there had to be a better way.
The good news is that hundreds of nonprofits, community-based organizations and innovative schools and initiatives across the country have already made progress and action. There is a movement happening in the education sector towards rebuilding the system from the inside out and from the outside in. Although we’ve got a lot of new and innovative initiatives happening all across the country, many of these initiatives work in isolation, don’t collaborate, or don’t communicate — they’re still acting like that isolationist school principal, thinking about “her school” and “her students.”
We can change this.
With your help and with the help of many other supporters from communities across the nation, we will launch Connective Possibilities (CP, a working title), a social movement that will connect kids and families to vital poverty-fighting resources.CP aims to build the connective tissue in low-income communities to transform our lowest performing schools.
The vision is to create a human-centered platform in low-income communities across the country that will help to strengthen and innovate entire education systems from the ground level, rather than from the top-down.
The first phase of the movement will start at the ground level to address poverty-related issues that plague students and families from low-income communities. We will build a one-stop shop of all of the resources in the community in low-income schools. It’ll have a “Wikipedia” for who to go to for whatever issue kids and families are going through. We will staff them with heart-driven, innovative college students so that teachers can focus on teaching. There are a hundred more details about how this will work, and if you want I can even share the business plan with you.
Starting a new nonprofit organization is a daunting task, and I’ve spent enormous amounts of time in solitary reflection and in consultation with many supporters about the concept. However the time for action has come, and I’m incredibly excited announce that we will launch (and incubate) Connective Possibilities this year and do a full launch during summer 2012 (after I graduate from my masters program at Harvard).
Just like I believe that a community has to work together to improve schools, I believe that I can’t launch this organization by myself. Well, technically, I can, but that completely goes against the core beliefs that undergird this startup. I hope you’re intrigued and curious. I also hope you can join our growing movement to help families fight poverty and transform our nation’s schools.
This week I met with three critical stakeholders in Boston to learn about the existing fabric of care that supports people living in poverty-afflicted communities as part of my feasibility research for launching Connective Possibilities (more on that to come later). LIFT and Healthleads are nonprofit organizations that provide resources to community members. Maicharia Weir Lytle, LIFT’s Boston Executive Director, gave me a tour of their multi-service center in the heart of Mayor Menino’s audacious Circle of Promise in Roxbury. Community members work one-on-one with LIFT volunteers to find jobs, secure safe housing, make ends meet through public benefits and tax credits, and obtain quality referrals for services like childcare and healthcare. Sonia Sarker, Healthleads’s Chief of Staff, also shared with me their similar model — except their volunteer-staffed “help desks” are located in hospitals and clinics that low-income people frequent.
Both services help people navigate through the turmoil inherent below the poverty-line, and provide support so that people don’t spend more in money, time, hassle, and exhaustion. No one thinks about the lines and bureaucracy that the poor have to wade through. Weir Lytle showed me a thick stack of papers, which represented all of the various applications for private subsidized housing that a person would have to fill out to look for a safe and stable home. A LIFT volunteer collected all of these applications, scanned them into PDF files, and uploaded them into an internal wiki of resources, so that people don’t have to traverse all over town to pick them up – a savings of at least 10 hours of travel time.
One of my main questions about Healthleads’ model was whether connecting clinic clients and hospital patients to resources was leading to a fade-out effect. Sarkar explained how Healthleads’ model actually made hospital interventions better. Currently the healthcare system reacts to the exacerbated ailments of poor clients. A doctor might prescribe an inhaler to a child with chronic asthma, but she can’t do anything about the child’s apartment that is crawling with roaches. Healthleads aims to fix this by being “Physician extenders” and unbundling this social responsibility off of the physician’s plate so that she can “work at the top of her license.” Healthleads fills a missing operational gap in the value chain of hospitals that serve high-poverty communities: Doctors => Nurses => Social Workers => Healthleads volunteers (who release the pressure off the previous three positions so that they can work at the top of their license.
My third and final visit this week was with Principal Cynthia Paris-Jeffries at one of Boston’s turnaround schools, Blackstone Elementary in the South End. Blackstone is a K-5 school with a largely Latino (80%), Black (15%), and poor (over 90% on Free/Reduced Lunch) student body, and because the school failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress in both English Language Arts and Math for several years, they’ve been labeled a “turnaround school” and provided resources from the district. My meeting with Principal Paris-Jeffries reminded me of Isaacs and Sawhill’s conclusion that the best intervention to improve social mobility is to focus on high quality, early childhood education targeted at children from poor families. Paris-Jeffries compares the job of a good principal to that of a skilled chef — every school needs a healthy mix of carefully and artfully chosen services and partners. Some principals just throw in every intervention or partner into their school without really thinking about how that affects the school as a whole. Paris-Jeffries alluded to making a simple, yet effective set of interventions tailored especially to early childhood education for children from poor families, which includes partnerships with City Year, READ Boston, South End Health Center, the Power Lunch Program, and Big Brothers/Big Sisters.
Each of these three organizations tries to tackle the poverty-related issues that cause family background to play a role in why families and kids fall behind or get ahead. Providing resources and connections, like the informal social capital in middle and high-income communities, helps kids and families receive the resources they need to do better. And although poverty has risen to 13.2% (Sherman, et. al) — its highest level since the 60’s — it’s reassuring to know that communities, organizations and schools are doing their best to fight poverty and the hidden issues that poverty brings. However, it’s also clear that more needs to be done, and we have just touched the tip of the ice berg in regards to the full effects of the recession on people living in poverty.
On this day of personal reflection and national introspection, it’s not hard to think about the dramatic changes that have occurred over the last decade. Since the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, our lives have changed to include more ubiquity of digital tools and technologies, like cell phones, social media, and broadband internet. I can’t help but imagine how our reactions, lives and society might have been different if we had today’s technologies back then.
A decade ago I was a resident advisor at the North Residential College at the University of Southern California. At around seven in the morning several of my residents hurriedly woke me up to show me the frightening news, and I felt like I was having a nightmare. At that time, I just got a cell phone, I was still a year away from signing up for Friendster, and email was reserved for the nerds (i.e. me). As an RA, it was my responsibility to disseminate information to my residents about cancelled classes and events — so I walked up and down the halls and talked to my boys one-by-one. Later that day I posted up a flyer in front of a classroom to alert club members that our evening meeting was cancelled. Today, I would have broadcasted the same information via email, text and tweets in a matter of minutes.
During today’s anniversary ceremony at Harvard, David Gergen, professor at HKS and director of the Center for Public Leadership, said that right after 9/11 our initial instinct was to embrace our family, and by that he meant to nurture and care for our close loved ones — and over the last decade we’ve used emerging tools to embrace our families. Facebook groups to stay connected with loved ones. Flickr, Instagram, and Youtube to “see” them. Skype and FaceTime to keep the communication lines open. Gergen, however, urged us to embrace our larger extended families, and by that he meant communities of people outside of our own networks who are suffering and marginalized — those who live in the shadows of the recession while we live in the light.
In Clay Shirky‘s book, Here Comes Everybody, he suggests that technology and social tools are ubiquitous, but the underlying assumption is that everyone has access to these tools and technologies. While working with low-income students and families in the Bay Area, I tried to use cutting edge forms of communications tools, like blogging, wikis and email, and I realized that wasn’t working. The young people and their families weren’t using the same technologies, partially because they didn’t have access to computers and/or high-speed internet access. I had to shift my strategy from forcing technologies onto my students to understanding what technologies they use and how they use them. Because of this mind shift, I noticed that although computers and internet access were prohibitively expensive for my low-income families, most of them had cell phones and more recently smart phones. Rather than using the more conventional tools like emails and blogging to organize my students and their families, I used texting and Facebook tagging to foster community and mobilize the group to act. And then something happened that I wasn’t expecting — my students started to self-organize. The more vocal ones began to forward my text messages to others, and they created subgroups within our group to tackle issues. It was kind of like Wikipedia’s spontaneous division of labor, except in a tangible way within a community of about 300 students.
I didn’t introduce this mode of communication to my students — I merely discovered that they were already texting each other and forming informal groups online. And I guess the common point is that people throughout all generations are having and will continue to have conversations on and offline. People will continue to form groups on and offline. If we have to communicate one-by-one by knocking on people’s doors or if we text hundreds people at the same time, it doesn’t take out the base fact that we are communicating and connecting with people. After all, “Conversation is king.”
It’s been nearly six months since my last trip to the Philippines, and I still am having trouble synthesizing the immensity of the lessons that I received from that visit. I’d been to the Philippines several times since I received my green card back in 2003, but there was something incredibly different about my latest trip in January 2011.
The visit changed my life, and altered the way I think about the Philippines and about how ordinary people can make an extraordinary impact on society.
It all started out on a rainy November day in Harvard Yard. I came to listen to Gawad Kalinga’s founder, Tony Meloto, speak about how his organization is fighting intergenerational poverty in the Philippines. Tito Tony (as he is called by Filipinos who know him and means “Uncle Tony”) spoke emphatically about GK’s mission and vision for two hours, and I was hooked. I promptly sought him out after his talk, and after a few email exchanges, I agreed to do a volunteer consulting project with him and his brand new social innovation office in Manila.
I went to the Philippines because I thought I was going to impart all of my American wisdom on my Filipino countrymen, and what I found was that I was on the receiving end of some of the most important lessons of my life.
The pre-existing social change frameworks that I used were blown up.
I realized that the American way of thinking about social change is very compartmentalized and actually quite narrow in scope — even the largest nonprofit organizations in the States have an incredibly narrow view when it comes to tackling our largest social issues.
On my first day of work I got a crash course on the inner workings of GK. My pre-visit research taught me that GK transforms Filipino shantytowns from slums into beautiful, livable and clean communities with the support and investment of the shantytown residents. Over 2,000 barangays (or villages) have made this transformation and over 200,000 families were affected thanks to Gawad Kalinga. But I thought that was it, and, like Habitat for Humanity, I thought all GK did was build houses for Filipinos.
I was completely wrong. During my orientation meeting, Karl, a member of the GK Center for Social Innovation staff, shared that GK is involved in food/farm development, child and youth development, health care, environmental issues, entrepreneurship, disaster management, government partnerships, tourism, and many more. As I listened to Karl, my understanding of GK became hazier and more cluttered. My American sensibilities doubted that this one organization (with only about 200 full-time and part-time employees scattered across the 7,000 Philippine islands) could handle such a large number of priorities, and I began to wonder about the efficiency levels of the organizations’s dizzying multi-pronged strategy. How could the organization adequately implement all of these projects? Who was funding this confusing bundle of priorities? How were they tracking the impact of the varying projects across the country? All of these questions immediately surfaced as I learned more.
I think I came off incredibly judgmental that day, and I’m not exactly sure how Karl felt about our fast-paced and intense question-and-answer session, but I was just so fascinated. I later learned that I needed to soften my fast-paced, judgmental American demeanor because Filipinos don’t respond well to it–they much prefer slower relationship-building conversations over San Mig Light (a popular Filipino beer) and enormous amounts of food.
In the back of mind, I kept thinking about all of the traditional American ways to conduct business (even in a nonprofit): have a strong and targeted mission, maintain tight control of your brand, understand and leverage your core competencies, quantify and use data to drive your organization’s efficiency, and most importantly stay focused. While GK borrowed and was influenced heavily by these American lessons, they certainly were not singularly focused on one or a few main priorities. It seemed like they have dozens of missions all working together at the same time. And these missions have a singular vision of nation-building.
This may have been the most important lesson I learned on my trip.
Traditional nonprofit organizations, like Habitat for Humanity or the Red Cross, treat their operations like a business, divided into projects, strategies, competencies, and the like. GK, does that too, but does it through a lens of nation-building. GK is nation-building. I heard this several times during my trip, and I didn’t quite understand it until I traveled with Tito Tony and his team to the small island of Negros, where we met with local businessmen and thousands of GK villagers at a large celebration for GK. The sun boiled the little town’s largest meeting space where thousands of villagers gathered, wearing T-shirts in primary reds, blues, yellows, and greens, which denoted which village they represented. The cavernous and sweltering hot convention center (cooled only by oscillating fans) was adorned with bright banners that read “One Family,” “One Community,” and “One Nation”. The murky philosophy suddenly became clear to me. While traditional nonprofits were busily rallying people around their projects, whether it be to stop child trafficking, fight for gay rights, or reform the education system, GK wasn’t focused on running a “project,” like transforming slums into livable communities. GK was in the business of nation-building; which means every Filipino citizen (whether he is actually in the Philippines or not) is a stakeholder, a builder, a fundraiser, a partner and a steward of not just GK’s mission but of the country.
I learned from Tito Tony that by sharing your vision and following how others may innovate and challenge your vision, partners can become stewards of your vision (and they also become volunteers, fund-raisers, evangelizers). This was radically different from the way I saw American organizations running, which is by and large still operating under the auspices of philanthropy and charity. GK was about patriotism, and being patriotic means stewardship, not charity.
I see a lot of room for growth in the American social sector. Instead of tackling a compartmentalized mission, how can we go back to the days of truly advancing large scale causes that galvanize people to become stewards of that cause–kind of like effective activism. How can we transform our philanthropic sector to also become partners of the vision rather than enablers.
Tito Tony is a visionary. He’s a master planner, but not in a rigid way. He understands that he wants to end poverty, but he’s not mired in the details of what it takes to do that. Yet he boils down GK’s message to something that is both tangible and aspirational. The process of building a nation is easy to grasp, and he uses that to galvanize supporters. He’s an evangelizer, storyteller, and philosopher. I felt like I was spending time with someone who shares the same energy as Martin Luther King, Jr. or Gandhi. He has a presence that is welcoming, challenging, and inspiring. He has a way of making you feel like you are an incredibly important person. This is how he gets people to join the nation-building movement from all over the world.
He challenged me to keep the Philippines in my heart, and he inspired me to rethink about the way I can make a tangible impact on education reform in the States. Because of this trip, I’ve dreamed up a vision of a national education nonprofit that will innovate low-income schools and and create human-centered networks all across our nation. I’ve written enough on this post, but very soon I’ll be writing more about the launch of this new educational social venture.
Until then, I want to thank again all of the people who supported me and believed in me enough to sponsor such a crazy trip. I also want to think the folks I worked closely with at Gawad Kalinga–Tito Tony, Karl, Shannon, Jerry and many others. And perhaps most importantly, I want to thank my family, especially my Tita Badette, Tito Bong, Jovic, Gelo and Bea, who took care of and housed me while I was in the Philippines.
This was just a small sliver of the lessons I learned from the Philippines, and it mostly centered around what I learned from Tito Tony. I hope to also share the lessons I learned from other aspects of my trip. I’ll end it with one more quote from Tito Tony:
The root of poverty is the perpetuation of a culture of elitism.
Parental Involvement seems to be the holy grail of education. We all want it and know that there are major benefits when you get it, but it seems too elusive, particularly in struggling low-income communities. In a recent reading for my Achievement Gap class, â€œFamily Involvement in Middle and High School Students Education,” the authors recommend creating more small schools because “teachers at small schools are able to communicate with parents more frequently and provide parents with the information and knowledge they need to support their children in school.”
I definitely see benefits to having a smaller teacher to parent ratio, but I doubt that this is a realistic systemic recommendation particularly in entrenched, large schools in low-income communities. With budget cuts in our nation’s most struggling school districts and with the recent revelation that small schools aren’t all that they’re cracked up to be, class sizes are growing and the divide between parents and teachers will continue to grow. Should we then add more to teachers’ plates by requiring them to maintain tight communication streams with their students’ families? Conversely, how can we think about unbundling this strategic piece off of teachers’ responsibilities while still maintaining a steady flow of information that parents need.
I don’t mean to sound mechanical, but I think technology can play an integral role in providing steady, reliable and consistent information about a student’s progress to parents. I actually think technology can empower teachers to do this better and more efficiently than ever before. Why have we clung to the physical quarterly report card system when we can check get instant access to current trends in both the world news and our own personal social circles with the click of a button? Imagine having a system that allows parents to track their students’ progress academically and behaviorally in a Facebook-like instant stream. And imagine if you can communicate with both teachers and administrators in such a system. This vision isn’t too far off because the technology exists. However, it won’t do any good for our current systems, but if we can start to embed some of the principles of a system like this–quick feedback, instant and consistent communication between parents and schools, parental buy-in–we may be able to start unbundling this piece from teachers’ plates.
What we do need in the meantime are schools (regardless of their size) that create a culture of community rather than compliance. Parents often have an antagonistic relationship with schools, and they may only come to school because of behavioral issues. I can’t tell you how few of my students’ families came to open houses (maybe less than 30% of our students). The parents don’t see it as relevant because they’re frame of school is what they have known: compliance. How then can we start to involve parents and family members in a way that gives them quick feedback on their students, and instant and consistent two-way communication streams? Answering this question may lead us to that holy grail.
My fall semester at Harvard has been a great mental playground. I learned a ton about the enormity of the problems with our national education system while also starting to dream up some potential solutions. I recently wrote a business plan for a national social venture that aims to solve some of our nation’s issues, and below is a portion of an essay that I wrote that catalyzed that plan. The prompt was “Why has it proven so difficult to create more good schools in the US, particularly in urban areas?”
Stronger Schools from Stronger Communities
The exploding growth of the American economy in the past century created a platform for incredible educational opportunities for middle and high-income communities, while simultaneously limiting educational opportunities for those in low-income communities. In his book Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol (1991) gives us a disturbing view of how high poverty East St. Louis was plagued by struggling schools that are choked by a lack of resources. The problems of creating and scaling effective schools in urban America are due to the pervasive social inequities inherent in low-income communities like East St. Louis. In order to tackle this root cause, solutions need to address the social context in high poverty communities. A promising solution lies in building a strong network of support within and around schools in low-income communities to provide a network of comprehensive wrap-around services for students and families, while promoting the school as a community hub.
Critics would argue, however, that creating such a network of services to fight poverty is not only beyond the scope of schools, but also beyond schoolsâ€™ means. I contend that building this network of support within and around schools in high-poverty urban areas is a small price to pay for positive results. Another solution is to give families school choice so that students can theoretically attend schools that provide a higher level of academic and social support for students and families. Yet because we want sustainable solutions, we must build scalable solutions that start at the local community level. By building a strong network of support within and around schools, students will do better academically and families will have more access to the services they need to lift themselvesâ€”and their communitiesâ€”out of the shadow of poverty.
Poverty Bleeds into Schools
In urban communities, students bring the most pervasive social issueâ€”povertyâ€”into school everyday. As stated in the Coleman Report (1966), â€œA schoolâ€™s poverty level is a stronger predictor of how a child will fare in school than any other factor save the childâ€™s own socioeconomic (SES) background.â€� Attending a high poverty school likely means that the student comes from a high poverty family and community. As Traub described, â€œeducational inequality is rooted in economic problems and social pathologies too deep to be overcome by school aloneâ€� (2000). The current educational system cannot handle and sustain the heavy case management required to help students and their families deal with the plight of poverty. When students face problems, like health and dental issues, poor nutrition, violence, gangs, and drugs, school becomes a low priority (Kozol 1991). Because the problems are so commonplace and the interventions are â€œso slow and heavily encumbered with red tapeâ€�, teachers and administratorsâ€™ perceptions of normalcy have become skewed; they learn to operate and live with the glaring social issues (Kozol 1991, 21).
We can see then that high poverty urban schools are unable to swiftly address student needs outside of the classroom because they lack capacity and, furthermore, it has not been the schoolsâ€™ responsibility or goal to lift students and their families out of poverty. Our society has drifted away from the common school movement of the 1800â€™s when â€œspreading prosperity and ending povertyâ€� was an important aspect of creating public schools (Wirt and Kirst 2005, 32). In this day and age there is no unified expectation for schools to address student needs that stem from poverty, and thus schools have no incentive to do so. However, if studentsâ€™ basic needsâ€”like housing, health care, nutrition, and safetyâ€”are not adequately met, we also cannot expect schools alone to compensate for the consequences of poverty (Warren 2005).
A Network of Community Partnerships
It is interesting to note, however, that in any given urban community, a myriad of external service providers already exists to support low-income students and families. The issue seems to not stem from the dearth of social services, but rather from a lack of direct links between schools and the necessary service providers. In my own work experience at BUILD, a college access nonprofit organization, we provided direct services to students in low-income communities like East Palo Alto and Oakland, California. I observed that while there were a plethora of service providers in the East Palo Alto and Oakland, they almost never collaborated or shared resources with schools and with each other. Furthermore, many of the service providers had only marginal relationships with the surrounding schools. While the service providers perceived that they were doing good work in the community, there was only a tangential relationship with surrounding schools during the fall recruitment season.
By consciously partnering with community development organizations, schools can work together with the community to directly raise the level of social and economic health of families. By addressing problems that students face in a holistic manner (e.g. if students had adequate healthcare, received proper nutrition, and were safe from violence and drugs), students would be healthier and safer and schools would thrive. However, there is a link missing between service providers because oftentimes schools do not build relationships with them.
By strengthening the schoolsâ€™ relationships with external service providers and also connecting service providers with one another, we strengthen the network that can support not only students, but also families. It is not enough for external service providers to fill a void that schools are unable to because teachers and counselors often do not have the capacity to research service providers, pick out ones based on a studentâ€™s need, and refer them to the appropriate one. However, if a school is the hub of a community, we can create a centralized and organized system that connects teachers, students, families and service providers in an efficient manner with one another. This centralized system could serve as an efficacious information-sharing process that students and their families can use to access servicesâ€”like homeless shelters, job training programs, and food banksâ€”that will likely improve their livelihoods.
I’m currently reading a book called Better, by Atul Gawande, that shares insightful stories about medical practice from a surgeon’s perspective. The stories highlight how medical professionals are only human and therefore must always be diligent and resourceful in fulfilling their duties — and the stories have lessons that spill outside of the hospital and even into the education system. What stuck out to me was a story about how hospital microbiologists tried and failed at getting medical staff to wash their hands more frequently — as you may know med staff were/are the primary carriers of infectious bacteria in hospitals so minimizing the amount of bacteria on their hands dramatically decreases the rate of infection in hospitals.
A hospital in Pittsburgh brought in Industrial Engineer Peter Perreiah to solve the problem of hospital infections in one wing of the hospital — and he created systems and structures that â€œmade each hospital room work more like an operating roomâ€� (where they are very diligent about being disinfected). For a while his â€œSearch-and-destroyâ€� strategy worked: â€œInfection rates for MRSA fell almost 90 percent.â€� However, after two years these great ideas only spread to ONE other wing at the hospital… Why? Perreiah came in and told people how they had to change rather than â€œbuilding on the capabilities people already had.â€�
After reading an article about how Save the Children changed their approach to improving child nutrition in poverty stricken villages in Vietnam, he came across the idea of Positive Deviance, which “is an approach to behavioral and social change based on the observation that in a community, there are people (Positive Deviants) whose uncommon but successful behaviors or strategies enable them to find better solutions to a problem than their peers, despite having no special resources or knowledge.” Through the positive deviance approach, an important assumption is that communities already have the solutions to the problem. They are the best experts to solve their own problems.
So this time they tried the positive deviance approach with a series of 30-minute, small group discussions with all the health care workers in hospital. They had no agenda: â€œWeâ€™re here because of the infection problem and we want to know what YOU know about how to solve it.â€� And from this came great discussion and furthermore ownership of the solutions. And the results were staggering: rate of MRSA infection dropped to zero the next year and stayed that way.
What does this have to do with education or for any kind of initiative, you ask? If you think about it, organizations–whether governmental, nonprofit or business–approach problems like that industrial engineer approached the problem initially. He used his expertise to to minimize waste and increase efficiency, and above all he mandated the solutions to the hospital. Many organizations purport to have the best solution, most efficient way to handle a situation, or the most optimal way to eradicate a problem. But how many of those solutions actually stick around once the organization leaves? And isn’t the point of a nonprofit organization to work its way to nonexistence — because by reaching the nonprofit’s mission, you thereby render that nonprofit irrelevant.
Yet there are many examples of organizations that operate in communities without drawing solutions, ideas, and representation directly from the very people in the communities. Please note that I’m not criticizing how well these organizations operate. In fact, some operate extremely well. But if that organization, or that group of people, left the community, would their lasting legacy be a self-sustaining system that empowers the people of the community or would their lasting legacy be forgotten in a dusty pile from those who tried and failed to create something that the community embraced?
This makes me think of the renewed energy in the New Orleans’ education sector where most of the schools are now run by national charter management organizations and staffed by bright-eyed outsiders. When the appeal of “saving” New Orleans runs out, will these people stay? And more importantly, when shaping the new education landscape, did they elicit solutions from and empower the citizens of New Orleans to create a sustainable new education system?
I hope so. Sustainability and a community-based approach should be tantamount to any organization that wishes to improve the livelihood and well-being of those living in poverty.