The Last Word April 2012

By Anne L. Bryant

Our most impoverished children --  the least among us --  live their lives “against the odds.” These are children from homes where books are rare gifts instead of a right, where being read to at night is unheard of, but being hungry on a Saturday afternoon is the norm. Their families might not speak English or might not understand the long-term consequences of dropping out of high school.

As school board members, you have your own sets of challenges --  budgets, administrative policies, lack of community support. Beyond those duties, our primary goal is to make sure public education is the best we can make it --  we are committed to providing an excellent education for every child. It is up to us to beat the odds for our students.

It’s a huge goal, and we know that in many places the need for reform is real. As school board members, you may try to tackle these issues on your own, or you can look for advice and training through your state school boards associations and NSBA --  even through this magazine you’re reading.

Here’s my advice: We can make an even bigger difference by reaching out to others. Collaboration is key. All the hurdles I mentioned above cannot be overcome by a single superintendent, a solo board member, or a lone teacher.

I’m struck by Geoffrey Canada’s great success in the Harlem Children’s Zone. Canada is often seen as a solo act, but at NSBA’s 73rd Annual Conference this month, he’ll speak about the critical need to reach out to other agencies, businesses, and individuals to contribute to these children’s well-being. His “zone” includes comprehensive health care, after-school activities, and counseling and other assistance for their families.

The Harlem Children’s Zone succeeds because of collaboration. This works at the local, state, and national levels --  our state school boards associations have shown how it’s working in their states. Ask the Georgia School Boards Association about its Vision Project. Ask the New York State School Boards Association about “Be the Change for Kids.” Or ask the California School Boards Association about its funding coalition. Collaboration is essential --  NSBA also is more effective when it reaches out to other like-minded organizations on broad or far-reaching issues, which we do frequently and strategically.

For instance, NSBA recently collaborated with four influential state and local governance groups, brought together by the National Governors Association, to call on Congress to fix the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and provide more flexibility for states and school boards. Joining with these groups strengthens our stand and gives Congress a much greater incentive to move forward with this legislation.

And the Learning First Alliance, a coalition of 16 major education groups, works every month on the issues confronting all of us. Our collective voice has weighed in on several critical issues facing the U.S. Department of Education.

And how can we be more effective at securing more funding for schools? NSBA is a leading organization in the Committee for Education Funding, a coalition of 100-plus organizations that fights on behalf of prek-16 funding.

But this work is not easy and it takes time and patience. Here are some basic rules of collaboration:

• Many heads are smarter than one but differences in opinion cannot be ignored.

• To truly collaborate, each party must know each other, trust each other, and understand each other’s self interest and mutual interest.

• We must build on each party’s respective strengths.

In my February column, I talked about the power of the school board voice and the power of one person who meets with Congress, state lawmakers, and the community. That is true --  school board members are the best advocates for their schools and students, and need to speak out on issues important to their communities.

But if we’re going to make a difference in the lives of the children who are “up against the odds,” we simply must join together. Healthy, thriving, learning communities can be the engines that beat the odds.  

Anne L. Bryant (abryant@nsba.org) is the executive director of NSBA and the publisher of ASBJ.