This year, I am spending a lot of my time inside the beltway, advocating on behalf of students and families who have been traditionally underserved.
While the children themselves are always top of mind in the advocacy work we do, the voices of teachers and school leaders who serve them well are also incredibly important. In communities across the nation, these educators are doing the remarkable work of getting all students, including those who arrive at school behind, to reach high academic levels. Their work provides important evidence of what is possible.
As Congress continues to debate what should be in a reauthorized ESEA, it is important for Members to hear from some of the teachers and principals who serve students in some of our most distressed and impoverished communities.
I want to share with you thoughts from one of them: a principal at a high-performing public school that serves a student population that is largely poor and of color.
This is what she wants Congress to know to help make sure that kids like hers perform at high levels.
Don't Let Our Kids Fall through the Cracks
By Ana Martinez, Principal
I recently had a remarkable Saturday.
The morning began with a graduation ceremony for parents at the Chicago Public School where I am the principal. We were celebrating the parents' completion of Stand University for Parents, an intensive family-engagement program by Stand for Children. Our parents spoke about how they now understand how their children are doing academically and what they, as parents, can do to support them.
From there, I hosted a working lunch for 15 of our teachers. These educators volunteered to give up part of a precious weekend so that we could collaborate and strategize on how to ensure continued success for the students and families we serve by tackling some of our challenges head on. Their commitment and expertise in meeting student needs are inspiring.
This was a remarkable Saturday, not only because of how dedicated these adults are to educating our country's future leaders, but because the students we serve come from deeply underserved communities. The student population at our school is 87 percent low-income, 97 percent minority, and 32 percent limited English. Yet, we are beating the odds: Our school has a "1+" rating, the highest rating possible for CPS schools.
Now, Congress is threatening to take away an important component of what makes our public school so successful.
Congress is considering whether to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) through a bill they're calling the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015. I have to admit that the label "Every Child Achieves," makes me feel a bit cynical. You see, I had the opportunity to travel in January with other educators and parents to meet with Senators and staffers about this issue. And from what I saw in D.C., and from what I have since read about the bill's progress, I am not convinced that enough legislators truly care about every child.
A critical reason that the teachers and parents at our school can help our students excel is two-fold. First, assessments provide objective information on how our students are performing academically. Second, after analyzing that data, we use our professional expertise to put in place interventions that help every student who is not on track to graduation.
The current write-up of "Every Child Achieves" would make interventions like these optional, essentially creating a system of "Only Some Achieve."
While the educators and parents at our school refuse to let any of our children slip through the cracks, history shows this is not the case for all schools. Allowing schools across the country to throw their hands up and not be required to act to help all students would put us back 50 years in the fight to ensure every child has access to a quality education.
Before ESEA put in place accountability measures, schools could coast by without ensuring all students, regardless of race, income, disability, or language barrier, were improving. Before ESEA, schools were not required to take prompt action if they were not meeting expectations for any group of students. These requirements ensure that we are, in fact, responding to the needs of every child.
When we coach and support our children, and have high expectations for them, they rise to the occasion. When we measure their progress, set goals, and hold ourselves responsible for helping them meet those goals, great things happen. We owe this to the taxpayers whose funds pay for education, and we owe this to the children we serve.
Look at the education gains our country has made under ESEA.
For example, African American, Latino, and low-income students have improved faster than at any time since 1980, according to the results of the longest standing national examination, the NAEP Long Term Trends Exam.
Moreover, the number of low-income fourth-graders at the below-basic level in math was reduced by more than half since 2000, and the number performing at the proficient or advanced levels tripled in the U.S, according to the main NAEP exam.
High school completion rates are also up: For African American students, they have climbed from 59 percent to 68 percent; for Hispanics, from 66 percent to 76 percent.
This legislation is still being crafted in the Senate. There is still time to make it truly live up to the goal of helping "Every Child Achieve." I urge my fellow Illinois residents to let Senators Mark Kirk and Dick Durbin know they want them to support strong, smart accountability measures. And, I encourage everyone else in other states to also do the same with their U.S. Senators.
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Ana Martinez is a principal at Rowe Elementary Charter School, a public school serving students from grades K-8. Rowe Elementary has a 1+ rating, the highest level possible for a public school in Chicago. Its students are predominantly low-income and Latino or African American.