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Content series: Making the extraordinary ordinary

This SmartBlog on Education content series written by education change-maker Josh Thomases will explore the possibilities and challenges of making the extraordinary ordinary.  It will tell stories of hope and possibility, of teachers, principals, schools and districts doing extraordinary things with increased regularity, creating a different kind of momentum in public education.

I helped found an extraordinary school. El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice opened its doors in September of 1993 firmly rooted in El Puente de Williamsburg, a leading Latino community-based organization in Brooklyn.  It opened at a moment in public education when many had given up on the possibility of running a successful school in an historically under-served community where education was just one of many systems that had failed the children and families. Founded by Frances Lucerna, a community leader and a graduate of Bank Street College of Education — where I now work — El Puente sought to educate and graduate students, and more. We believed it was possible to create a school grounded firmly in the community that would be committed to mastery, to the arts and to social justice.

El Puente Academy succeeded. We built one of the first public schools committed to social justice and human rights in the country. We built a school that regularly outperformed its peers in graduating students from high school, including students who nobody expected to graduate. We built a school committed to and out of the community it served. We built a school full of arts and a commitment to social justice. Our students testified at city council hearings, analyzed bank records to build a report on redlining, organized voter registration campaigns and created huge community murals and performances. For 21 years, it has been an amazing mix that transforms the lives of young people, their families, their teachers and the community.

By no means alone, El Puente was one of the key schools that demonstrated that seemingly unattainable aims could be achieved in secondary-education reform. Making the impossible possible is essential for all of us in education. The belief that “all children can learn” is ubiquitous in our rhetoric. From the mission statements of schools to the expectations of NCLB to the preparation of teachers and leaders, we hear echoes of this conviction. While it is a critical aspirational goal, there remains enormous work to do.  The list of challenges rings out regularly in this country, from performance outcomes to classrooms to the job market to the level of participation in our democracy.

Given the yawning chasm between rhetoric and reality, one critical step in transforming public education is to find the extraordinary, highlight it, support it and expand it. Making the seemingly impossible, possible shifts the paradigm and causes all those who look seriously to reconsider their assumptions about what can be done. Everyone I have ever met in public education got into it because they believed in children and learning. Making the impossible seem possible can reignite the energy, imagination and sense of hope for all of us, and it’s absolutely necessary if we are to continue to energize our communities towards that critical goal of actually reaching all children.

Equally important is to make those extraordinary successes ordinary — of finding ways to ensure that an extraordinary idea born once and successful in one place can grow and impact many, many more people. I left El Puente Academy in 2004 to join the New York City Department of Education to take on this task, first focusing on scaling up the city’s small-school work, and then taking on responsibility for the citywide instructional work as we aimed all schools towards college and career readiness.

This SmartBlog on Education content series will explore the possibilities and challenges of making the extraordinary ordinary.  It tells stories of hope and possibility, of teachers, principals, schools and districts doing extraordinary things with increased regularity in ways that are creating a very different kind of momentum in public education. And it contains cautionary tales as well, pointing to the limits of our knowledge or skills, to the obstacles in our policies and to the gap between our stated value that all children can learn and our actions.  It is based on my experience working in one particular context in NYC as a teacher and leader in a school, a senior administrator in the country’s largest school district and now as the Dean of Innovation, Policy & Research at Bank Street College of Education, one of the preeminent practitioner-based schools of education in the country.

I hope you will find these postings interesting and provocative, and I hope you will share with readers your own stories of extraordinary achievements – and how we as educators can make them ordinary.  The more ordinary and regular they become, the more dramatic the shift we will see in what our children know and can do.

Josh Thomases is dean of Innovation, Policy & Research at Bank Street College of Education.

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