By Jonathan London
The Davis Unified School District has initiated a strategic planning process to inform the future priorities, structures and resource allocations for our schools. While Davis is widely and largely appropriately credited as having great schools, there are clearly many areas for improvement.
A thoughtful and participatory process to bring the Davis community together around a common vision and strategy can be a powerful asset for improving the educational experiences and outcomes for all of our children.
The district has assembled a talented and diverse strategic planning team of teachers, administrators, students, parents and other community members to take on this ambitious task. As one contribution to this important effort, I offer several suggested topics (in no set order) that could serve to promote dialogue by the committee and the larger community.
* Place diverse student perspectives at the center, not the margins, of the process and the strategic plan. The committee includes two accomplished students who undoubtedly will bring great value to the plan. To build on this crucial student voice, the planning team could draw on the 10 years of action research conducted by the high school students through the Race and Social Justice class (and its earlier stages as Catalysts for Social Justice and Youth In Focus), including the student-produced film “From the Community to the Classroom.” (http://www.communitytotheclassroom.com/the-film)
* Address values of equity and reducing educational disparities as core goals of the plan. While the district has made some important strides at closing the achievement gap associated with race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and other issues, there are still significant challenges in ensuring that all students have the support needed to thrive. Promoting this vision of equity will require improvements to the curriculum, school climate, counseling and other systems.
These are profound challenges, but improving educational equity is a powerful way for Davis to merit its reputation for great schools.
* Attend to the emotional, mental and physical health of the student body. Reports of students taking drugs meant to treat attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder to stay awake for late-night study, self-medicating for stress through alcohol and drugs, cutting themselves and even contemplating suicide are causes of extreme concern.
There are many causes for such behaviors, many of which lie outside of the direct responsibility of the school. However, there is much that schools can do to reduce stress and to serve as a source of support for students in these challenging life situations. Restoring funding to the heroic but over-stretched counseling staff ought to be one action priority.
* Couple strategies to improve school-site supports with exploration of how the district can better coordinate with other local and regional youth support systems, such as mental health, foster care, migrant education, court diversion and probation, to leverage resources and develop collaborative solutions. Stepping outside of institutional silos can reap great benefits for all youths, and especially the most vulnerable.
* Support and spread innovation drawn from the many educational models in the district. We are fortunate to have many creative approaches underway in the district, including the Da Vinci Charter Academy, Montessori, Spanish Immersion, Alternative Instructional Model (formerly GATE), Davis School for Independent Study, King High School and others.
The committee should consider how the learning from these diverse approaches can be integrated across the district. This does not mean, for example, that all schools should become language immersion, but it does mean that there are some instructional insights that immersion teaching might offer to non-immersion schools. Treating these models as resources to share rather than territory to defend can yield benefits for all schools.
* Explore an expanded role for vocational and Regional Occupational Program courses — not only as an “alternative” to the college track, but as rich learning opportunities for all students. Research on multi-intelligences and the ways in which different learning modes (listening, speaking, writing, computing, kinetic) stimulate and build different mental capacities suggest that auto shop is not just a place to learn how to tune up a car, but an experience to tune up one’s mind.
* End the “GPA arms race.” It is certainly valuable to offer a wide variety of challenging courses, including Advanced Placement and honors classes. However, the drive to use these weighted courses to achieve GPAs above 4.0 as a competitive edge for college admissions may be doing more harm than good. The committee should explore options such as enforcing a limit on the number of weighted courses students can take and other ways to reduce this pressure.
* Address the roots of the educational funding crisis, in particular, the funding of a schools-to-jail pipeline at the expense of cultivating a schools-to-college/career pipeline. While it may be a limited direct problem in Davis, we are all affected by state funding priorities that have dedicated increasing proportions of our own taxes not to educate and support our young people but to incarcerate them.
How many teachers, counselors and coaches, could be hired with the savings from the approximately $40,000 annual cost for incarcerating one prisoner? How can we channel some of the inspiring Davis parent and community educational advocacy toward influencing legislative priorities to fund education (and mental health, drug treatment, violence prevention, social support) over the dead end of incarceration?
These suggestions are admittedly a very heavy lift for any one strategic planning process. Many of them require investments of funding we don’t (yet) have; building bridges where there are now isolated silos, and expanding the vision of education from what happens in schools to the ways in which communities and regions nurture their young people.
Ambitious? Yes. Worth it? You bet.
— Jonathan London, Ph.D., is a Davis resident and parent. He shares this monthly column with Jann Murray-García. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org