by Steve Evangelista

Until we decide as a nation that we are going to ask ourselves tough questions about where our bright young pupils wind up five, ten and fifteen years after they pass through our classrooms –- and act courageously to address the shortcomings we will inevitably find –- educators will continue shortchanging the families we purport to serve.

As the co-founder and co-director of a charter elementary school in Harlem that only this summer graduated its first class of fifth graders, I think about these tough questions as often as I can these days. With school back in full swing, it’s easy to focus only on the 300 charges in front of me, but a recent incident brought questions about the future back to the forefront.

The chaos of dismissal in the first two weeks was winding down. School had been open for us for a week and we had our basic routines down, but the three district schools with whom we share a building were only just beginning their year, adding a new layer of complexity to our dismissal. Still, within 15 minutes of dismissal each bus had the right students, every child had been picked up, the partner after-school program’s escorts had checked their lists twice and were on their way with their small groups of kids. So when my co-director came to me that late afternoon and said, “There’s something you’ve got to see on the fourth floor,” I thought, “Oh, no, and I thought I could finally get some paperwork done!”

When I got up to the fourth floor, where our two fifth grade classes are located, she pointed the way to one of those rooms and I saw what she wanted me to see: three sixth graders, sitting around the table with a social worker and a teacher. After their first day of school at their new middle school downtown, Qiana, Mark and Ashanti had come back to Harlem Link because they just couldn’t stay away. In my letter to them as part of our first graduating fifth grade class this summer, I promised them that we would have our first annual reunion in October 2012, that we would continue to support them and be part of their lives, and never lose touch with them. As our social worker said, “They walked right in like they own the place.” And I responded, “You know what? They do!”

The rapid return of our first few alumni – and the certitude that they and their classmates will continue to return – reminded me of the Roseto Effect, with which Malcolm Gladwell opens his recent book, Outliers. The 1966 Roseto study describes two communities with the same diet, exercise and physical environment but with different patterns of community interaction – and radically different heart disease survival rates. Researchers concluded that members of a community confer a significant physical health benefit upon themselves by spending quality time together, supporting each other, caring about each other.

The smiling faces of Mark, Qiana and Ashanti, a couple of inches taller, but sitting around a table in their old classroom like they were still in fifth grade, also brought to mind another famous author writing about 2,300 years earlier. Aristotle described the four causes of any object, the most metaphysical being the final cause – the thing’s purpose or reason for existing. The final cause of a chair is to allow people to sit. The final cause of our school is to graduate scholars empowered to take an active role in their own learning and citizens who are part of a safe, supportive learning community. The three alumni reminded me of that final cause.

I’ve always believed that it’s only possible to create an environment where powerful relationships between students and teachers develop and where students are engaged in productive learning at school when there is coherent community agreement on the final cause of education. Where the principles of community health, as it were, apply to the very purpose of schooling. That’s why, when I started teaching in the 1990s I was surprised at how little agreement there is on such a basic question as the final cause of a school. I’m not talking about agreement at the federal level, or even the state level. Or district level. I’m talking about how little agreement there often is about the purpose of schooling within an individual school.

It’s the popular fashion today to say that all the problems in schools can be fixed by having great teachers. I discovered early in my teaching career, in my futile attempt to become one of those great teachers that I could only do so much by myself. This concept of community health, of agreement on the final cause, is an essential ingredient to the existence of great teachers. A logical conclusion that should be obvious to anyone who has observed schools in a variety of settings is that a great teacher at your school might not be a great teacher at my school, and vice versa. A great teacher is not so great if he or she is not swimming in the same direction as the rest of the community.

So educators: what happens to students ten and fifteen years after they leave your care? Can you answer that question? If I went up to any random individual who works at your school with you, what would that person say? That’s my test for whether your school community’s final cause facilitates long-term relationships between students and teachers. Unfortunately, given my experience and knowing the pressures and the direction of education reform in our country, I would wager that in most at-risk communities school staff would have a hard time answering the question.

I know that we are on the right track at Harlem Link, because when Mark, Qiana and Ashanti came storming in like they owned the place, one of the first things they asked was, “Are we really having our first annual reunion in 2012?” These three students, and their many classmates with the same attitude, understand that our school’s community goal is focused on their long term success. Would that we had some kind of national agreement on the point.

This post also appears at Dropout Nation.

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