Putting Kids First By Serving The Whole Child…Every Child

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” -- R. Buckminster Fuller

By Wendy Zacuto

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The Los Angeles Unified School District is in trouble. As a California educator, parent, and now grandparent, I have seen the same problems for over 50 years, despite attempts at reform. Today the rising number of independent charter schools and magnet schools provide alternatives for parents seeking higher performing schools, which is great for those who manage to get in but can also exacerbate the problems of already challenged neighborhood schools. Adversarial union leadership and the LAUSD Board push against one another in an environment of insufficient and mismanaged resources, with no solutions in sight. 

It seems apparent that our district needs a new model. In his short book, Wildflowers: A School Superintendent’s Challenge to America, Jonathan Raymond, who headed Sacramento City Unified, explains an approach that “puts children first” and provides strategies for leadership, community voices and partnerships among stakeholders with the hope of facilitating lasting and effective change.    

In the center of Raymond’s model is “The Whole Child.” Putting children first means true support for all children. It means listening to their voices and helping them to find real power in their ideas. In other words, as we view the intricacies of district policy, curriculum, data collection and decision-making, our first question should be: “How does this affect children?” Raymond articulates that the “Whole Child approach...is about beliefs… Whole Child educators view each child as unique, gifted, and deserving of the opportunity to reach her fullest potential.”   

As a district teacher, I saw firsthand what a non-Whole Child view entailed. For example, I was directed to focus my instruction on the second quartile of students in my class. If those students improved, the school scores would rise the most. I was told to leave the highest quartile of students and the lowest two quartiles of students aside in my planning. Of course, I did not do that. What teacher would? In another situation, a parent whose child had just received an IEP requested that her child repeat 5th grade so she would have skills developed before attending middle school. I supported this logical request, especially since the child was quite young for the grade level, but was told by my principal that current district policy only allowed retentions in 2nd and 8th grade.

With a Whole Child view, testing and data analysis result in children feeling optimism rather than defeat, regardless of current academic levels. In today’s district schools, children often see success targets as unattainable and become discouraged. Raymond advocates “honest reporting,” but he is right in saying that unless children feel encouraged about succeeding, we have failed them. We should shift the definition of success from meeting specific raw test score targets to an emphasis on growth. Social and emotional skills are also as important as academic skills in Raymond’s approach, a concept that is supported by current brain research about learning. Additionally, as student success improves, teacher efficacy is heightened. While teacher pay and benefits will continue to be issues throughout the change process, increased teacher efficacy strengthens teacher morale. “In general, helping teachers feel a greater sense of control over their professional lives in schools will increase their sense of teacher efficacy and make for greater effort, persistence, and resilience.”

Raymond suggests a model for change that includes:

·       The needs of students at the top

·       Leadership in the center

·       Community and teacher perspectives

·       Both/and compromise

·       A vision and culture that supports change

Principal and district leadership hold responsibility for creating a vision and culture in which decision-making aligns with children’s needs. Without an articulated vision and culture for learning, change is rudderless, and administrators are tethered to district policy, as noted in my personal examples above, rather than support for all children’s academic, social and emotional growth. When stakeholders interact within a respectful environment, listening and hearing one another, “both/and” compromise is possible, as each faction stands willing to shift its desires in order to implement the plan. Of course some stakeholders will be disappointed. An important part of school and district leadership is creating a culture and vision embracing conflict resolution as a constructive process, modeling the same for students.

Change is a messy process, and Raymond experienced both successes and failures during his tenure in Sacramento. He identified several problems that greeted him as he assumed his position as superintendent: 

·       Using data to punish children and teachers rather than supporting growth

·       Inadequate funding or use of resources

·       Unclear or missing “vision”

·       Cynicism about young people

·       Insufficient curriculum that was test driven, uninspiring and lacked individualization for student skill levels

·       Underestimating the importance of relationships among stakeholders

·       Not putting children’s needs at the center of decision-making (no ideological attachments or alignment with “sides” other than taking the side of children)

Although the financial challenges to LAUSD are real and must be addressed, there are shining spots of success even now, within the district. It’s time to look at the schools where kids’ needs come first, and magnify the practices and strategies already in place, instead of continuing with our failed tried and true roads to reform. It’s time to put children first. Perhaps Raymond can share some valuable insights that can guide us through much-needed new ways of leadership that will serve the needs of the entire school community, starting with the children.

 — Wendy Zacuto Wendy has worked as a teacher and administrator at multiple schools in Los Angeles.