Two Emails I am Keeping in 2016

I’ve received at least 100,000 emails in my professional life (probably more), but last year I got two messages in less than three months that I printed and carry around with me. They were sent by individuals who participated in school visit activities we supported this year, and in less than 150 words challenged and changed me in ways the senders may not have anticipated.

A bit of background first . . .

Last year we invited a broad swath of the community to think with us about ways we could support productive conversations and activities related to Kansas City education. What evolved from those early meetings was a series of visits to cities with concentrations of higher-performing urban schools representing different approaches to achieving strong academic results for lower-income students and students of color. Based on feedback from participants, we plan to continue these visits in 2016 and invite you to learn more here >

One reason for the visits is to see different district and charter school models and learn from the parents, students, staff, and community leaders working in and around them. An equally important purpose is to provide diverse groups of educators, parents, business leaders, clergy, and civil servants 48 hours to sit together on busses, around dinner tables, and in classrooms talking about their experiences and observations from both the visits and from their lives in Kansas City. These groups are made up of people who may not typically have opportunities to talk with each other about much of anything, but on these trips have the space to begin a dialogue about schools, students, and how we as a community can continue to serve them better. You can follow the conversation on Twitter by following the hashtag #KCGreatSchools.

Two career educators from very different backgrounds sent emails following two different visits. They each shared a bit about their careers and offered thanks for the chance to be part of the school tours. They also wrote that some of the notions and biases they carried with them into the visits were dissipated as a result of seeing and learning from the schools in which they each spent time. In different ways, they pledged to bring that thinking back to their jobs here.

There was no reason for either of them to reveal this in their emails. Based on what they shared, they each had career experiences very different from my own, and we would likely have different views regarding public education and addressing its critical needs. Neither suggested they were compromising a desire to see all students succeed – a desire all three of us share – yet they had the courage, integrity, and maturity to say, “I have done this for a long time and I am still learning.”

When I received the first email I was moved. When the second one arrived, I was humbled. Where was that same courage inside myself? Was I as willing to listen, learn, and be vulnerable in the same way as these two people who had dedicated their lives in service to public education and would reach out this way to a relative stranger?

The reason I carry those emails with me is because the short answer to the questions I asked myself was, “No.” The longer answer is, “No, but I want to get better.” Not just at a personal level, but also in ways that will impact the approach we take to our work in education at the Kauffman Foundation.

Those emails will continue to remind me that we should approach our work with humility, but also with the sense of urgency students deserve. We will find every way to do our work with the families and communities most impacted by our grants and activities. We will also do a better job of sharing the information, perspectives, and data used to make decisions regarding those grants and activities (this blog is part of that effort).

None of this is to say there will be universal agreement in these areas. The public education sector is a place where ideologies can get in the way of what actually happens to students. It is also a space where excuses are readily available for both why students struggle in some schools and why they succeed in others. Everyone, including me, is susceptible to those temptations.

There is a long road ahead and as a community we will not solve our problems overnight, but that does not mean we don’t start working on them tonight. There are no 100 percent solutions to the challenges we share in public education, however we can endeavor to find the right combination of 5 percent, 10 percent, and 20 percent solutions to ensure every student has access to great public school options. At the Kauffman Foundation, we will make a greater effort to collaborate and pursue shared goals with others, in ways those organizations or groups could not do alone.

Those two emails? They will stay close in 2016 and I will remain grateful for the lessons learned from two educators who were teaching well outside their classrooms.

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Aaron North

Aaron North is vice president of Education at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Prior to joining the Foundation, North served as the founding executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association (MCPSA). Before leading the startup effort at MCPSA, North worked in Minnesota as a charter school sponsor, school resource center director, and in the Minnesota Department of Education's Office of Choice and Innovation. He also served as secretary for an urban elementary charter school board in Minneapolis.