Educational Success: Stories of Innovation from the Utne Library

| Online Exclusive: January-February 2009

It’s easy to be grim about the state of public education in the United States. Every week seems to bring fresh news about how American students are lagging behind brainier kids in Europe and global upstarts like China. Add to that the litany of reports about “failing” schools, identified by the failing No Child Left Behind Act, and it’s enough to make you want to—as many conservatives argue—wash your hands of the idea of public education all together. 

In our Jan.-Feb. 2009 issue, Utne Reader takes a look at how to reengage citizens in the effort to revitalize our schools. Part of that is not falling victim to the negative news cycle. “Americans have become accustomed to a debilitating media diet of negativity and cynicism, especially when it comes to education,” Hannah Lobel writes. “It’s time to refocus on the success stories, for inspiration and replication”.

Luckily, Utne Reader’s got a library of 1,500 alt-press publications that routinely highlight stories of success and innovation. Here’s a sampling of some of the bright ideas that we’ve come across over the past several months.  

One of the best ways to improve a school is by getting parents involved in their kids’ educations. So how can we encourage parents to buy in? Have them run the schools themselves. That’s the idea behind the parent-cooperative preschools profiled by Next American City (excerpt only available online). At these preschools, numbering about 1,000 across the nation, working parents can defray tuition costs via oversight and a little “sweat equity.” Next American City explains what families put into and get out of the deal:

Co-op families bond over floor scrubbing or late-night teleconference calls—or over complaining about both—and become something more than parents who share drop-off and pick-up times. They become a free-floating neighborhood and de facto civic group, planting gardens, picking up recyclables from local businesses, agitating for cleaner streets. Parents often start co-ops when they find there’s nothing locally that emphasizes economic and racial diversity—a powerful model of voluntary integration for parents as much as children.

It’s not just the media that’s focused on the downfall of kids today. Sociologists share a similarly negative myopia. Peter Benson, the president of the Search Institute, argues for a different approach that puts the emphasis on promoting positive youth development (pdf). In Sockeye, Benson talked to Jay Hutchins about how to create environments where young people don’t just get by but thrive:

kathryn liss
1/18/2009 10:22:36 AM

I am interested in finding examples of schools that work, programs that involve parents in communicating with teachers to become allies to one another in promoting the success of all students. I get the value of protest, but I'd like to hear about collaborative efforts. We recognize the problem. We are not resisting solutions, but seeking them.

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