It was just a couple of weeks ago that I finally removed my hands from the cavity of a turkey. I’m the go-to guy for our family’s holiday meals, and the holiday season is kind of like my Super Bowl of creative cuisine.
I still managed — while in the throes of meal preparation — to squeeze in thoughts of my 22,000 students and their futures. What could possibly make cooking a huge, complicated meal analogous to my work as superintendent of Akron Public Schools (APS)?
I certainly don’t have to go to a professional to find the answer.
Cooking keeps me present, in the moment. So, as I reflect — and this often happens when I’m stirring gravy or stuffing the turkey — on our students, their families and our community in general, I’m amazed at the sheer number of moving parts integral to making it all successful.
So much has to be coordinated and organized without failing for it all to come together, and I often wonder how we succeed so many times given those odds. We have only so much control over the ingredients too, unless I raise my own bird, grow my own corn and harvest cranberries in a nearby bog (unlikely).
In both pursuits, there are lots of pieces and parts, many ingredients and the much-needed right environment to make it all come together. Timing is important, as are adjustments along the way when things don’t go as planned.
And when it’s done, I can appreciate a wonderfully done, finished product if all has gone well.
Cooking. Educating. I see similarities.
A Student’s Passion
Being superintendent is a labor of love. It comes from my passion for learning and love of children. Both inspire me.
But, our job as educators must be to learn what passions kids have and how to use those to promote high achievement, a sense of community and the self-confidence they need to be in control of their own lives.
I’m a father, and my own children probably half-believe anything I say. But, because I love them and want what’s best, I’m fairly insistent with them — expecting much — while reminding them that they must do the work because no one else will.
So why does it seem so many students struggle to achieve and succeed? It could be because of the excuses society provides and the rampant culture of low expectations. We need to find what our young people like, expect much, follow through and guide them along the path.
Helicopters in School
Too many parents and guardians have abdicated responsibility, made excuses and blamed schools. No school can do what it does best without positive and reasonable parental intervention. Not “helicoptering” and not disappearing, but balanced guidance. No excuses. Educating children is everyone’s responsibility.
And, given the myriad problems facing families from crime and poverty to mental illness, behavioral issues and low expectations, it’s reasonable to conclude that the challenge is great. It’s more important than ever that we focus on what is positive and what is right. This is no time to be stuck in deficit thinking.
Many families are in need today regardless of their economic status or social standing. And any problem that arises can be a barrier to student success because, in many instances, these problems can be barriers to parents’ ability to be successful parents.
I have a theory: Promoting a sense of responsibility in our children — a sense of self, leadership and self-actualization — can help them make it in the world despite some of the problems they may bring with them to school. Even less-than-adequate parenting could be overcome.
Many times we discipline students and have positive results from them following the handing down of a detention or a suspension, for instance. Often times, the trouble only begins when parents intervene. Most of the time, the kids understand what we’re about.
College and Career Ready
At APS, we focus on making sure each student who leaves us is ready for college and career. Nothing is more important than this. I want my children and all of our students to grow up prepared to take care of themselves while doing something they enjoy, something that sustains them and their families.
The most important role for me as superintendent is to provide opportunity for my students to excel in what and where they want to be in life. So, I try to provide all 22,000 kids with the proper tools for success and expand their horizons so they can see a compelling future, care about the Akron community and the world, develop a sense of their place in the world and take more responsibility for their own lives.
As adults, we have to remember that these are children. No matter how ‘grown up’ they may act, they need our guidance and support.
We have our specialty schools like Miller South, our National Inventors Hall of Fame STEM middle and high schools, our International Baccalaureate program at Firestone, and our New Tech program at Buchtel CLC.
However, we have many more programs and partnerships that serve the very diverse needs of our students.
Some of these programs include our Akron After School Program, the Wheels for Education Partnership with LeBron James and the LeBron James Family Foundation, and Project GRAD Akron, as well as partnerships with Summit County Juvenile Court, Stark State College, Lorain Community College, The University of Akron and Kent State University.
The City of Akron is partnering with us for the construction of 29 (and counting) new Community Learning Centers. We have redesigned our buildings to make learning more fun and technology more expandable (and to make our energy bills more affordable.)
APS has redefined its role, and we’ve become the place to go for dual degrees in high school and college; 33 career education programs, from veterinary tech to masonry, hospitality management and more; the accelerated learning of International Baccalaureate; visual and performing arts; STEM learning, top-notch preschool and more.
Our board is incisive, and our teachers are highly qualified and dedicated. The support staff at APS is terrific at managing dozens of facilities that cover more than 60 square miles.
Public education is a complicated recipe, but we love the planning, the preparation and always the outcome.
/ David W. James is the superintendent of the Akron Public Schools.
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