Sunday, January 23, 2011

"EduKare"- A new paradigm for struggling urban schools...

Education reform is a hot topic. The media is all over it. So many stories, editorials, features, columns and documentaries revolve around the "drop-out factories," as some urban schools are infamously referred to, and what kinds of educational leadership tactics can be put in place to reform these institutions and their practice. I've been wondering when all this talk is going to turn into something tangible that will actually reform the way we teach and learn.

Michael Josefowicz (@ToughLoveforX), one of the key idea-tappers at #ecosys (Twitter chat every Wednesday at 9:00 EST) and I have been discussing some radical improvement possibilities for the so-called drop out factories of large, urban centers in North America. Michael is from Brooklyn and knows a thing or two about urban issues, and I have a lot of respect for his point of view. We're using the term EduKare to describe a very new and different perspective toward teaching and learning in our most challenging urban environments.

For the most part, schools are designed to effectively serve the average student in the average community. Our system is deeply rooted in Bell Curve thinking; we teach very effectively to the mean and not so effectively to the students who fall away from the mean to either side of the curve. The more students deviate from the mean, the less effective our education system is at addressing their learning needs. Instead of thinking differently by taking a hard look at what these kids need from us, we simply move on and continue doing what we've always done in schools we've always had. In doing so we inadvertently deem kids that don't fit our mean as acceptable collateral damage. If we are to be judged by how effectively we serve our neediest students, this routine is failing the grade.

EduKare is a paradigm shift away from Bell Curve thinking. Instead of teaching to the mean and feeling good about the success of let's say about 65% of our students, an EduKare approach measures success with all students based on the evaluation of how effectively their needs are met as individuals displaying distinct learning variables. An EduKare teaching and learning environment considers pivotal learning variables in each student's story... the story already written, the here-and-now story and the future story every teacher helps write. EduKare is an approach based on the foundational belief that every child can learn, but that detractors to learning can be powerful debilitating forces in a child's life. If these forces are not mitigated, learning will not happen effectively. The EduKare teaching and learning environment very simply provides the services required to mitigate powerful learning detractors in the lives of young people so they can then focus their energy on achieving relative academic success.

Poverty, addiction, social problems, relationship problems, depression, family issues, learning disabilities, violence, gangs... all examples of powerful learning detractors. EduKare is a philosophy stating emphatically that unless kids are able to overcome the negative effects of these detractors, learning in a traditional sense is simply not going to happen. Paint-by-numbers turnaround efforts targeting increased academic performance largely ignore the social variables affecting kid's ability to learn in a traditional school environment. EduKare posits that through a wrap-a-round service provision model in schools, many if not all of these sorts of detractors to learning can be effectively neutralized allowing for renewed focus on academic learning.

A wrap-a-round service provision model is one that places student resiliency as it's top priority. Facilitating resilience in students is the primary goal of an EduKare wrap-a-round model. By drawing a circle of support around kids who live in the margins, EduKare strives to know each one of them as a person first, a student second understanding that teaching and learning is a process that involves people; it's a social interaction, and until a positive and trusting relationship is established between those involved, one that is unlikely to produce top-shelf results. Resilience involves mitigating risk factors and supporting strength factors in a person so life for these students doesn't become a world of stress and unrealistic expectations. Strengths are what matters in education, but we've been tracking a deficit-based model for so long, we've forgotten that each child is a gift that comes wrapped with individual strengths and unique possibilities; all we have to do is make the effort to unwrap them. It's time to get serious about how this should look for all students, but especially our most challenged and struggling.

I'm not going to hide behind the "funding fallacy" on this one. EduKare is not a program; it's a philosophy. The concept of EduKare is scalable on a number of fronts that don't require massive injections of money or physical resources. EduKare does require collaboration, time and commitment to thinking differently though. We can create these elements by redistributing our time to notice where our efforts are failing, focus on how we can think differently, consider our options and engage solutions via the altered lens we would then be looking through. This is a process that every teacher, administrator and paraprofessional in a school can initiate for free. Distributing collaborative and reflective efforts to re-tool our teaching and learning environments so they are oriented more toward individuals and their specific needs doesn't require any seed money at all. This is a people variable... where there's a will, there's a way.

I actually perceive a possibility that an EduKare approach would cost less than what our traditional schools cost us today. In order to effectively and efficiently provide a wrap-a-round EduKare environment, access to supports for kids have to be readily available and accessible. I think fondly about the traditional one-room school houses of my regional past. Schools used to be places where people gathered; they were community hubs that hosted any number of events: church; community meetings; celebrations; elections; rallies; concerts or even just a family picnic at the park outside the school. The school was a non-threatening place where all were welcome and where people shared their thoughts, skills, resources and time. Somehow we've lost that spirit of community in our schools. EduKare aims to restore it.

Government spends millions to maintain social services in multiple locations throughout the urban landscape. Assuming the idea is to make these services accessible, I can't think of a better place than schools to house and provide them. Continuing with the school as community idea, why not put social workers, health nurses, police officers and probation officers in schools... even community mentors or senior citizens as significant others willing to volunteer their time in support of kids. These are people resources that perhaps already provide services to children, but could do it more efficiently from within a school where kids already spend much of their daily time.

As schools are renovated, redesigned or built new, physical EduKare elements could be built into them. Community halls, recreational facilities, health clinics, libraries, satellite police stations, social service agency offices... these could be built in to the new building reducing cost of maintaining multiple facilities. Shared costs between agencies and school boards in providing these collaborative service spaces would save money. Thinking way outside the box, why couldn't senior citizen facilities share the same buildings as well? Sugatra Mitra is connecting senior citizens with the time and so much more to offer our youth in a global context; why not bring his "granny cloud" concept to every school? If we can connect significant others to kids in a global context, surely we can make the connection locally within our schools.

I think it's time we realize fully that until we have happy kids, we won't have well-educated kids. Schools that weave themselves into the fabric of the community understanding that theirs is not an environment immune to the social, emotional, physical and psychological ills that affect it are taking the first step toward an EduKare approach. Collaborating with significant others and non-teaching professionals who provide services for students addressing their learning detractors in a holistic way is the second step. Working with these partners to engage individual students and their home families in solution-focused strategies to mitigate problems, and preferably doing this collaboratively within the school building, is the third step.

Looking forward, when we think about education we need to ponder how we provide support to kids in a broader context. Redesigning our physical spaces to include a broader spectrum of authentic learning (living) spaces would allow schools to become so much more than schools. They would become special places that recognize that authentic teaching and learning extends way beyond the traditional classroom, and they would strive to be first-line providers of learning supports, spaces and experiences that draw kids and their families to them.

We need schools where "everybody knows your name," and that offer a place to enjoy life in multiple ways. Contemporary society needs more from its schools than reading, writing and arithmetic. To me this is simply reality.
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