Photo: Flickr user DCJohn.

I was a principal at a struggling urban school. I realized could do more to help my students from the outside.

The following is a guest blog post by Kristi Rangel, a former principal of Kashmere Gardens Elementary in Houston’s Fifth Ward. Rangel left her position at the end of the 2014-2015 school year and today works as an educational consultant on the My Brother’s Keeper program at the City of Houston Health Department. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research or its staff.

After 18 years in public education, what would make me leave my job as a principal?

The answer is rooted in my unwavering belief that a community’s strength is critical to the success of children and families.

The struggle for many students starts from birth and is dictated largely by the zip code in which they are raised. The factors that lead to the achievement gaps between poorer children of color and their white counterparts start well before kindergarten. Poverty, food insecurity and inadequate healthcare all make a difference in a child’s readiness to learn and a family’s ability to provide support.

My understanding of these stark truths goes well beyond research and numbers. I, like countless other educators, have lived these realities with my students and their families. I understand that the intense helplessness of moms who don’t know where their children will sleep at night never fades away. I am familiar with the workings of Child Protective Services and the foster care systems. Hunger, fear and violence are facts of life in many communities.

These are the communities I chose to call home because of my deep desire to be where I could make the most difference. My drive to be an agent for change with students in my classroom earned me awards and accolades. Reluctantly, after five years in the classroom, I accepted a promotion to the district office as an instructional specialist.

Coaching teachers and supporting instruction became my life for six wonderful years. I was happy with professional growth, but I missed the real action of being on campus. So I became a school-based instructional specialist, then an assistant principal. I jumped at the opportunity to become principal of Kashmere Gardens Elementary School.

Disempowered schools

I knew that Kashmere Gardens was a small school, historically African-American and located in one of Houston’s most struggling neighborhoods. What I would come to know is the vicious cycle of generational poverty and how it leaves time for little more than stopping each daily crisis. Four years of stress and struggling to keep my school afloat alone – with no other administrator, counselor or nurse –left me exhausted and physically ill. My passion and drive were not enough.

The challenges facing my students were not confined to the classroom. I could tell you the story of the 5-year-old with a black eye from his mother’s boyfriend. Or the heart breaking details of the third-grader who suffered a psychotic break at school and tried to kill himself. Maybe I could tell you about the countless weekends and holidays that I wondered how many of my students were hungry or in crisis. These types of stories are the well-documented norms of “urban” schools.

What has also become the norm is for teachers and schools to become disempowered. Educators often become victims of the same circumstances facing the communities they serve.

The “no excuses” rhetoric in education has created the unrealistic expectation that social and economic factors can be overcome simply by educators willing to work longer and harder. High-stakes testing and raising student accountability standards puts pressure on schools to perform, regardless of the well-being of the students they serve. As a result, teachers and administrators spend even more time at school with their students doing what the state considers “good” work.

“Good” work is conducting tutorials – during the school day, on weekends and on holidays – focused on content covered in the STAAR standardized tests. It’s asking STAAR-aligned questions based on STAAR-aligned texts. Educators spend countless hours of planning and instructional time focused on what will yield the result that counts most: passing the standardized test.

A scarlet letter

And yet, there is little time or support for tackling the real life issues – things like homelessness or trauma – that often are the root cause of a student’s inability to earn an “acceptable” store. There are many organizations and agencies dedicated to helping children and their communities. Connecting families to services and agencies does not guarantee timely resolutions because these organizations are overwhelmed and burdened by budgetary constraints. Schools end up applying Band-Aids to gaping, ongoing problems because a single test administered on a single day dictates whether our school is considered failing.

There are zip codes in Houston where all the schools have been rated “D” or “F” by the reform organization Children at Risk. My old school sits in such a zip code. It has been deemed an “F” school, based on a system that correlates how well students perform on STAAR to how well a school is serving its students. Soon the state will issue grade-level ratings of its own for every school in the state.

Schools now wear the label their neighborhoods have worn for years through years of generational poverty and isolation from the greater community. Who wants to be labeled a failure? The goal is to get the score.

I was a terrible principal because I couldn’t bring myself to focus solely on scores. My school opened an hour before school started, not solely for extra instructional time, but because many of my single parents had shift jobs that dictated they drop their children off well before 8 a.m. Many parents visited campus once a week, not to learn how to support STAAR-like thinking, but to get 60 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables through the Brighter Bites Program. These are just few of the many times I didn’t “maximize” my school day. There are consequences for these choices.

I remember a grandmother taking care of three grandchildren. She cried because the extra food we helped provide her family allowed her to pay the light bill. I remember families that opened up about dire living conditions. As a result, we were able to work to find non-profit organizations to support those families. Time was not wasted on those efforts, even though they weren’t directly related to test prep. The lives of countless children and families – not to mention my own – were changed.

A different approach

I realized the constant worry and nagging voices inside my head were because I was not doing enough. I wanted it all: healthy kids living in happy homes within functioning communities who earned the “right” score. Accomplishing this goal is possible. I heard the stories of it being done. I asked. I researched. I partnered with organizations.

What I learned is no one school or system can make it happen for areas plagued by generational poverty issues. There has to be the coordination of services that impact the whole child and his or her family.

Geoffrey Canada proved this with the Harlem Children’s Zone. Canada changed lives long-term within the ecosystem of a School Zone, not a singular disconnected schoolhouse.

Research led me to understand that public health, where I’ve started a new career, is more than just giving vaccinations at school and figuring out responses to measles outbreaks. It is caring for the whole child. In public health, there is no attempt to separate a child’s well being from the stability of his or her family. Both physical and mental health are closely connected to each other, and in public health, we acknowledge that they affect education. Ironically, the education system itself is often unwilling or unable to address these links.

Great educators like Canada are not just “doing school.” They are using their understanding of public health and policies to construct communities that are working, regardless of which measuring stick you use.

My shift away from schools is not a shift away from children and families. It is a shift that will allow me to focus on the entire well-being of students and their families, including – but not limited to – their test scores. I am following my truth, deep-rooted in the belief that children, their families and communities all matter.

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