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Op-Ed: Change is Built not Bought

Building support for change builds the trust required to implement and sustain change.

Recently, the how and who of school reform in Newark has focused on residents’ demands for transparency and community engagement. Tension between the so-called reformers and the segments of the community concerned about the potential privatization of their schools is obvious. Parents are understandably wary of yet another educational experiment foisted upon their children: They are tired of hearing government officials label their schools complete failures and their children ill-equipped for the world.

Few would argue the need for change. But for any new initiatives the school district is considering to take root and be sustained over time, Newark must move quickly on a herculean task: to build a foundation of trust to support change.

Those involved in the education of children in Newark must step up like never before. We need collaboration, humility and a willingness to recalibrate. Parents, union leaders, government offices, community groups, state agencies, charter school parents and traditional public school parents -- any stakeholder -- must seek synergy and common ground, while maintaining complete transparency and open engagement processes in order to deliver on our collective responsibility to educate all of our children.

Research published by the Harvard Business School suggests that seven out of 10 major change efforts fail. Margaret J. Wheatley, author of Leadership and the New Science, maintains that the involvement of those who are impacted by change is as important as the change itself.

In other words, new initiatives require the ownership of those who are asked to implement, as well as those who are affected, by new initiatives. No matter the size or scale of change, or where and why it is implemented, deliberately engaging stakeholders from the outset is an essential component of good planning.

As this process moves forward, The Newark Education Trust seeks to spotlight and support those efforts that will ensure a quality public education for all children in Newark. Among them:

  • Send teams of parents from throughout the city to visit high-performing district public schools and public charters. Let’s engage parents in a conversation about the qualities of great schools and how they can be spread to every classroom.

  • Launch a strategic and unified effort to identify, address, remediate and document progress on the specific components of the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC) -- the state’s monitoring and evaluation system that is required to accelerate a return to local control.

  • Make district schools more autonomous and charter schools more accountable. District principals need more control over staffing, and charter schools should not be allowed to return underperforming students to the district during the school year.

  • Partner with the unions -- both the Newark Teachers Union and the City Association of School Administrators -- to propose bold modifications for bold reforms.

  • Cautiously support recent actions to expand stakeholder participation in the selection process of the next superintendent as a positive step toward rebuilding trust. If the people are marginalized, "community engagement" will quickly be dismissed as the latest chapter of partisan politics.

  • Commit to setting a new standard for transparency and community engagement. District, city and state officials, as well as community stakeholders, will need to exceed expectations in order to strengthen the foundation of trust.

The keys to a good and productive life for tens of thousands of children sit in the hands of the Newark community. This community is not merely those who sit at kitchen tables each night going over homework. It’s also the teachers, principals, union leaders, community nonprofits, elected officials and state policy makers whose actions and decisions have an impact on children.

Building support for change builds the trust required to implement and sustain change. It is not complicated, just really hard -- especially with the children waiting. Whether Newark seizes this moment depends on everyone’s willingness to be a part of the larger community that is not only responsible for the efficient operation of a school district, but also the education of a generation of young people.

Ross Danis is the executive director of The Newark Education Trust, the city’s local education fund.

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