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November 6, 2012 | by Ted Christians

One Key to Educational Reform

_IMG3595.JPG“We’ve got to stop worrying about the particular plants we are planting, and worry more about the soil.”

This is what Charles Payne, a University of Chicago professor, told U.S. News and World Report in an article about high school reform. It is all about the soil. When I think back over Umoja’s history, that’s been a key premise from the beginning: if we can shift the makeup of the soil – the critical supports and experiences that allow students to thrive – then we can shift fundamental outcomes for our young people and schools. By creating a culture that challenges students to push their boundaries while surrounding them with a web of purposeful relationships every step of the way, our young people can indeed experience and live into the best versions of themselves.

There is no shortage of research that points to the importance of great principals and great teachers, and that strong curriculum delivered with creativity, cultural relevancy and rigor is essential. But in many of Chicago’s communities hit hardest by poverty, disinvestment, and violence, it is increasingly clear: organizing around academic content alone isn’t going to create the transformation we need to see. So yes Professor Payne, Umoja agrees – we must pay attention to the soil.

What does that look like? For Umoja, partnering with schools to change the makeup of the soil means focusing on three areas – college & career readiness, social & emotional learning and restorative justice. It means eliminating the disconnect that far too many students feel between their current educational experience and their future.  It means building trust and making certain students and adults are safe and healthy – physically and emotionally. And it means reducing conflicts and restoring relationships by keeping all of our young people in our school buildings and in our classrooms – with us, where we want them – rather than pushing them out onto the street.

As Chicago Public Schools delivers its version of reform and the educational landscape continues to shift, I remain convinced that transforming struggling high schools is as much about changing culture as it is about changing curriculum. Umoja understands that everything that is done with students and teachers, in schools and across the district – to meet our academic goals and ultimately equip our young people for postsecondary success – will either prosper or fail depending on the soil.