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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Patel: With children, let’s stay at it as we learn, grow and be better together

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It is with profound gratitude that I have served as executive director of Teach For America Indianapolis these past six years. What a privilege it has been. As I close my tenure in the weeks ahead, I sit in deep reflection and confidence in our community’s direction to provide every child the opportunity to attain an excellent education.

As with any significant change effort, tough choices will need to be made in the months and years ahead, but I trust in the values and honesty of those making them and, therefore, trust that we will continue our path toward education justice for all our kids, and for us all. I am further proud and enthusiastically confident in TFA Indy as an institution and the team we have in place to lead our work forward in the years ahead. Our staff, board and the nearly 800 TFA corps members and alumni in our community are a world-class bunch leading a profoundly important institution in TFA Indy, and I eagerly await all they will accomplish with kids and our community moving forward.

I am also reflecting on the many lessons I have learned in this role. As is the case with many among us, I find it deeply important to stay proximate to young people, centering on their interests, aspirations and lived experiences. After all, our kids have the most to gain and lose in it all. And what students have told me and my team — that they aspire to live good lives, build generational wealth and contribute to a better community — wakes me up every day and serves as my grounding purpose in the work.

Within this context, I’ve been thinking specifically about these questions: What might it take to fundamentally transform educational opportunity and opportunity, more broadly, in our community such that all young people have a legitimate chance to realize their potential and lead lives of their choosing, as they collectively contribute to a more vibrant and just Indianapolis? What have I learned these past six years (and in years preceding) toward these pursuits? While all my reflections might take volumes to share, I’ll spare you the litany, opting to convey just a few here.

My first lesson is that great schools and world-class learning can be transformative. Perhaps we all remember the teacher who made us feel we could be and do anything our hearts desired and our developed minds would allow. Some among us might further recall just how powerful our entire schooling experiences were and how they catalyzed the opportunities we have today.

Volumes of scholarly research bear out this claim: Great schools can narrow opportunity gaps and be true bastions in creating a more egalitarian society, including broader access to the American dream. Though some might say that the great schools as invoked here are merely standardized test factories, that they fail to develop the whole child. I disagree with these sentiments and their implications.

First, I question the premise. Modern standardized exams such as our Hoosier state’s ILEARN matter. They matter because they are rigorous and aligned to knowledge and skills that have currency for future citizens and leaders in the 21st century. I recently asked a member of my team to share with our board and staff examples of ILEARN questions on the third grade English language arts and fourth grade math exams. If you have not done such an exercise before, you should. The questions are hard. They demand students possess knowledge and skill in higher-order thinking; gone are the days of low rigor and categorical multiple choice. Therefore, should students pass ILEARN exams, they demonstrate genuine academic preparedness for success in school and beyond. I am excited that we are holding a high bar for our kids — they deserve nothing less.

This said, second, truly great schools do not narrowly focus on tests as the ends of learning (or their success), but rather as indicators and signposts. They focus on children’s academic acumen as well as broader capabilities such as identity, mindset, values, agency — foundations of young adult success in the 21st century, alongside academics. If you have not done so before, I encourage you to visit myriad schools in our community; you’ll see all that truly great schools are doing to prepare our young people for success and what it takes to meet this high bar.

A final thought here. Should we have genuine commitments to equity and excellence for children, we are compelled to pay discerning attention to where we are seeing differences in students’ ILEARN and other proficiency rates, and where we are seeing evidence of success in developing children holistically. And then we must do more of what is working, and less of what isn’t. We must make decisions that allow more and more children to access truly great schools until all children are able to do so (which should be soon). This is a values test, this is what love requires, and this is how we keep our moral commitments to children.

My second lesson is that myriad factors impact the likelihood of a child’s educational proficiency, development and lifelong opportunities. Racism is systemic, creating clearly visible, as well as invisible, barriers to opportunity for children. To deny this fact is to be delusional at best, cynical at worst. Poverty is endemic in our community, a further stain on our moral fiber and social fabric. Nearly 1 in 5 Marion County children, and 15% of Hoosier children, are living in poverty — these truths in the country we love, and which possesses infinite abundance.

Children suffering the effects of racism and poverty have a relatively steeper opportunity mountain to climb, and yet often, kids courageously accept the challenge of showing up to school every day. And so as we take on and accelerate the hard work of improving schools, learning and rates of academic and other proficiencies with our children, we should also openly consider every opportunity to sustainably alleviate the effects of both racism and poverty, for doing so will not only support children and families out of school but in school as well.

Supporting working mothers and fathers who struggle to pay the bills and house and read to their children at night is essential. Supporting neighbors in accessing good and promising jobs, those that enable family stability, individual dignity and upward economic mobility is paramount. Fostering broader and deeper relationships across class and racial lines is good for us all. Ensuring children’s basic needs are met is foundational for their success, in school and beyond. And these efforts are not and should not be the sole province of schools and educators; though schools and educators, social servants and other community members can of course get more engaged in tackling these challenges, together.

Doing so is not a distraction from growing great schools and fostering world-class learning, they are imperatives to enable them to flourish. In short, should we have genuine commitments to equity and excellence for all our children, we should responsibly and carefully widen our apertures in defining what is truly required within and outside our schools to reach these aims.

I believe the questions moving forward for all among us who aspire to create a just and vibrant city, and therefore, just systems of education and opportunity are these:

Will we continue the hard — sometimes unforgiving and unsexy — work of ensuring ALL children have access to a high-quality education, no exceptions?

As we do so, will we widen our aperture to tend to the broader factors that influence young peoples’ lives — in and out of school — and see this as a BOTH/AND rather than EITHER/OR?

As we do so, will we work together as a community truly in the best interests of our children (and all of us), working through lower-order needs, old resentments, and artificial barriers, to make for a community worthy of our childrens’ unbound virtue and brilliance?

My conviction is that the answers to these questions are YES. Let’s stay at it.

Amar Patel serves as the outgoing executive director at Teach For America Indianapolis, an education nonprofit organization that recruits, supports and develops diverse, equity-minded leaders that drive change in our education system, starting in the classroom. Teach For America is working toward increasing student achievement in Indianapolis while advocating for policies and practices that support family and student success.

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