Sunday, July 14, 2013

Urban Magic and the Wild Wild West

This week's "Drinkwine at School" blog is a guest post shared by Dr. Ryan Jackson, the Dean of Students at Metro-Nashville Public School's Maplewood High School. Dr. Jackson's passion for serving at-risk students is infectious and his views need to be shared. There is no doubt you will enjoy this post! Feel free to reach out to him with any questions you may have. You also need to follow him and his school on twitter to keep abreast with all of the amazing work going on.
Working as an educator can be a tough yet highly rewarding profession. Working as an urban educator, however, can be a seemingly impossible yet life-changing experience.

To add a bit of clarity, let’s define “urban education” as teaching and learning in an impoverished area, where the local economy barely sustains its citizens let alone supports the public schools charged with preparing students for success after high school. Honestly, I almost hate to call it “urban” because although the school where I work serves students living in the inner city, we at times mirror challenges and barriers faced by our rural brethren. (The issue is really poverty and the lasting effects and severe stressors that come with it.) However, for the sake of semantics and the adage mentioned in the title of this blog, we’ll stick with “urban education.”

For ethos purposes it’s worth noting I work and have worked in urban education for the past six years.  More specifically, I work and have worked at a school that is only five years removed from a near mandatory state-takeover. (A takeover that would have been realized if not for the stopgap efforts of a legendary administrator cajoled out of retirement.) Now, I’ve heard countless professionals refer to working a year in urban education to that of working two years anywhere else, thus spurring the burnout rate and keeping urban schools in a perpetual state of teacher-turnover. Needless to say, though, my only experience with teaching is through the lens of poverty, social stigma, and the harsh realities that come with both.

This purpose has become my niche, my specialty. And I value it greatly.

My journey through urban education has been filled with countless peaks and valleys, and more acutely, daily ebbs and flows. However, the last two years have been somewhat of a metanoia for me. I have actively watched, supported and participated in a complete overhaul of the school I serve, from the proverbial top-to-bottom. New leadership meant a new vision; a new vision correlates to change; change promotes hard conversations; and hard conversations, historically, have been something we have avoided.

This particular blog entry isn’t designed to inform the reader of the specifics surrounding my school’s turnaround, but it’s worth noting that Jensen’s assertion, in his book, Teaching with Poverty in Mind, that principals have the greatest impact on student learning in urban schools is – if my school serves as a microcosm – surgeon-like accurate.

Let me simply say, the school I serve is doing better. Much better.  Are we where we need to be, no. Are we satisfied with our efforts, therefore resting on our laurels, of course not? But, we are making progress. I don’t just mean value-added bright spots, either. No, this school is making genuine, hard fought, no-holds-barred progress.  In fact, it’s the school’s progress, or more like the effort that’s supplying this continuous improvement movement, which forced me to write this timely blog.

What’s happening here isn’t magic. It’s certainly not urban magic, whatever that means. No, sir, what’s happening at the school I serve is far removed from any spell, mysticism, hocus-pocus - pick your Harry Potter reference - you get the picture. Frankly, there is nothing-supernatural going on.  Quite the contrary, this school’s turnaround is a direct result of strong leadership, shared vision, moral purpose, and sweat equity. As if all of these attributes weren’t enough, I must still repeat the fact that there is no “magic” happening at this school and to say so, to even imply it, is not only insulting to the students, faculty, staff, and stakeholders who call this school home, but it also undermines the value of goal setting, collaboration, and perseverance.

You can’t change the culture of an organization with magic, and I’m convinced that no matter how many times you scream “Ta-Dah!” the hard conversations will not get any easier. Yet, that’s what we’re doing: changing an entire school cluster’s mindset so that it believes in itself while striving for something better. There’s nothing magic about it, just facts and professionalism.

Furthermore, I would be remiss if I didn’t speak to the media’s role in perpetuating a stigma that has left an entire school cluster leveled. Instead of detailing the injustice here, I’m opting to simply showcase that this school has taken the fight to cyberspace’s version of the wild west: Twitter. No longer will we sit back and hope that the media picks-up positive news pieces about our school’s continued success or that our re-branding efforts are enough to catch the eye of a sympathetic editor-in-chief or program director. Instead, once again, we have opted not to wait for magic to happen. We merely empowered ourselves using a platform that serves as the world’s largest jumbotron. Or, as Jay-Z so succinctly put it when thumbing his nose at the archaic Billboard paradigm: #newrules

Now every tweet serves as a mini-commercial, supporting, documenting, and redefining our continuous improvement movement. It’s not magic; we work really hard at it. Follow us @maplewoodMNPS. We’ll show you what we mean.

I’m Dr. Ryan B. Jackson and these thoughts & opinions are my own. Oh, yeah, follow me, too: @ryanbjackson1

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