What is a high quality school?

I was asked an interesting question the other day from a scholar interested in learning more about the foundation…he asked “How does a foundation participate in the creation of high quality profit-free schools? Isn’t that what public schools are?” It led me to the question – what is a high quality school?

It’s easier for me to remember than some I suppose, my school days aren’t super far behind me. I still remember the hallways and layout of my high school, where my locker was, what the cafe and gym were like, and the odd choice they’d made for where the art and music classes were, pretty much on the other side of the school so you could never get there on time from another class. I liked going to school every day because it was a comfortable environment, clean, orderly, well-lit and I felt safe going there. There were tons of fields to play on before and after school, a computer lab, a workout room, and other places to hang out and do things with friends. When I went to high school the school day ran from 8:30am to about 5pm. Not because that was the schedule…but because there was enough to do at school that you never really minded staying and hanging out to take the late bus.

I think we always frame our ideas of something being “good” from our direct experiences, be they our own or from images we’d seen growing up. My direct experience with a high quality school had to do with a mix of a great environment and wonderful teachers. I felt all of my teachers were smarter than me, and I got that feeling not because they were older or had degrees, but because they always seemed enthusiastic about sharing what they knew with the rest of us. People who know things and know them well love to share. People who don’t really know a subject inside and out tend to be much less enthusiastic, and much less engagement – because engagement leads to questions, ya know?

Don’t get me wrong. I had teachers I didn’t like, but that was usually because they never bent the rules. If homework was done on wednesday at the start of class, that’s when it was due…not a minute later or you get a zero for the assignment. I had a few teachers like that, and as an adult today, I’d like to thank every last one of them for helping me learn the importance of following through.

I would say my old high school was a high quality school. Why?

(1.) The teachers – our teachers were knowledgeable and showed they cared about us and were interested in us as individuals.

(2.) The environment – our school was clean with well-lit and spacious hallways, great lockers, clean and well-designed classrooms, clean bathrooms, a really nice campus, and lots of activities outside of academics for students to explore as well as lots of vocational opportunities that are critical for engagement like wood shop and cooking class.

(3.) The tools – we had great tools to succeed. In addition to having a library on our campus, we had a computer lab in school, plus our science classes were always stocked with the chemicals, apparatus, and tools we needed to perform experiments and explore the world around us. We always had new text books, televisions in every room, we even had our own news broadcast the upperclassmen put on for homeroom daily. Music class had instruments. Sports teams had the gear and uniforms they needed. We never had to fundraise for anything…even taking class trips.

(4.) The support system – our school regularly had events for our parents to come to, and to ensure they did these events were often held after-school or on weekends. Parents were part of the support system as were guidance counselors. We had enough of them that they knew us individually and could help guide us through just being teenagers which is so important. We had a full-time nurse who took care of all kinds of issues, and as I remember, she could spot a phony “cough” in a hot second.

(5.) The curriculum – as a child I never appreciated it, but as an adult now I realize how good it really was. We had to have 4 years of science, math, and english. The key was that classes were available to meet you where your skill level was, instead of assuming you needed to be at a certain level at a certain grade. I did well with applied math, so I was fine with chemistry and physics in school because the equations and methods made sense to me. I was able to take 2 years of algebra, a year of accounting which I still remember today, and a year of calculus which really kicked my butt. The point here though is the rigor came from the persistence of the curriculum…you had to take 4 years of the core subjects. If I wasn’t good in the sciences there was always earth science, oceanography, geology, and planetary science to fall back on. You’d learn a lot regardless of whether you were in the higher division classes or the lower ones or in AP. Not to mention my old school challenged you to at least explore other languages. There was a requirement to take an intro to at least 1 foreign language course (we had spanish, german, and french). There were lecture classes where we sat in tiered-style classrooms and experienced Shakespeare, Whitman, and Brontë, and had spirited debates about civic issues and legal events. I think those did a nice job of getting us to listen with our minds and truly learn to appreciate the power of words. I don’t remember ever getting test preparation. We took tests, but there was not a whole week or two where the curriculum changed into this test-prep type format.

So what does a low-quality school look like? Well I’ve had the experience of visiting one. I was born in Philadelphia, and grew up there. My mom refused to let me go to public school…I was going into 7th grade when I’d asked, so the only public school she’d let me go to was with my Nana in the rural suburbs of Philadelphia. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I got an opportunity to see why.

I’ve always done the student mentoring thing since my late twenties. My reasoning was simple, as a professional young black male I wanted to make sure other young men got an opportunity to learn that you don’t have to exist in the boxes society creates for you, you can make your own reality. But I went into that message as a black man who grew up in the upper middle class, and was never challenged by society the way these inner city kids were. My first career day activity was at a high school in an area of Philadelphia prone to crime and poverty issues. The outside of the building seemed more like a government building than a school. I had to pass through a metal detector to get into the school which was really weird because it just made me wonder about my safety entering the building. The inside resembled a prison more than it did an institution of learning and imagination. Nothing like the schools I attended in my youth. It had old dingy windows that didn’t seem to open and were covered by iron gates, dirty floors and walls with fading and peeling paint in typical contractor colors: you know the colors I’m talking about…asylum grey and jailhouse ecru. Even the office had a big metal door with multiple locks on it and safety glass, the kind with the metal mesh in the middle so you can break it but you can’t get through. The cafeteria had a fence inside, I still don’t know why, and the hallways were narrow and dimly lit. No student-made artwork on the walls, or display cases of achievements. No banners of pride or inspirational framed posters. The science classrooms had those typical desks with non-reactive surfaces but no bunsen burners or stands for flasks or other apparatus. Hell, they didn’t even do actual chemistry experiments – they usually watched them on video or read about them in books because they didn’t have the chemicals or protective gear anyway. The music department teacher told me about the money they raised through public donations and I thought “well at least the community is chipping in”, but those donations were from loose change and small bills placed in buckets alongside major thoroughfares around the school. If it weren’t for the money raised there wouldn’t be enough resources for instruments, tuning services, or even sheet music. The art department worked with watercolors and charcoals because they were cheaper. There was no wood shop or metal shop.

My eyes were opened so much my first response was anger. You know how when you learn something for the first time and you feel like the most oblivious person on the planet, and your go-to emotion is anger? That’s the way I felt…like people were pulling the wool over my eyes for years, like I was being lied to. My high quality educational experience was nowhere near how it is less than 50 miles away. And the fact that my own community was living in this reality was even more painful.

We, as a society, expect these kids to stay away from everything that’s bad and become model, high-performing members of society, but we don’t give them the tools to do so. We don’t inspire them to achieve…we demand it through tests and untested, idealistic standards.

We’ve allowed our governments (yes I’m placing the blame at their feet) to make education more like a business than an investment. What’s the different between a business and investment you might ask? Well I’ll tell you what my definition is. You get into a business because you expect a return, a consistent return, as soon as possible. Cash goes in, cash comes out. And you don’t want it to take too long, you want as instant a gratification as you can get. With an investment you go in knowing that you may not see a return right away, if at all, but nonetheless you hold out hope that the investment will pan out, and you do everything you can to nurture it so it does. That’s the difference. And policymakers don’t seem to understand that legislative changes today affect the investment, not the business; so the ramifications are felt long after the bill has passed. I get frustrated by a system that doesn’t understand what we mean by high quality. Forget the test scores…they don’t give you any truer a view into quality than a customer survey would. Stats tend to underwhelm that way. I’m talking about students who are engaged from the moment they walk into the building. They want to be there because the structure itself makes them feel like something good is bound to happen. High quality schools are inspiring inside and out, are full of teachers who are super smart and enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge (so they have to feel good about being in the building too), and the curriculum invites students to push at their pace rather than forcing them to meet a very generalized standard for very non-generalized learners. High quality schools are at the center of their communities, have guidance counselors available for students to talk to and bond with, and provide students with an atmosphere that makes them feel like they’re as important as they really are. I feel frustrated when I have to find a quick way to explain that to people, because folks just don’t seem to get it – school is supposed to be an experience. Similar to going to a fancy restaurant, or visiting a new city…if you’re made to feel like you belong there and you want to be there, you will be, and you’ll enjoy your experience which makes you come back again and again. I get frustrated by the arguments that inner city kids are lazy, and their parents are consistently absent, and their teachers are just there for a paycheck. I get frustrated by the excuses…that it takes a million dollars to paint a school. No it doesn’t. We all know a group of college kids who’d do it at cost over summer break, just buy them a couple of pizzas and a case or two of red bull. I get frustrated by the folks who say these are short term fixes; so we should ignore them? We’ve been swinging for the back fence for decades, maybe a small ball approach is apropos at this juncture?

Those frustrations are why I got into this fight personally and have been advocating ever since. Should all public schools be high-quality schools? Absolutely. But the fact is that today, many of them aren’t…and we need to do something about that…quickly.

Endre Walls
Endre Walls
endre.walls@franklinfound.org

<p>The Franklin Foundation for Innovation’s CEO and Chairman first founded the non-profit back in 2008 with the idea of improving America’s education system to protect the future of American Innovation. An award-winning technology executive and father of 2, he believes anything is possible, and is willing to do whatever it takes to ensure unlimited possibilities for America’s children no matter where they live.</p>