05/19/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Are Public Schools in Crisis or are Communities?

When it comes to improving public education there are a lot of ideas and opinions about how it should be done. Some say we should close failing schools, fire teachers, increase funding and address issues related to standardized tests.

When asked who is to blame for failing schools, the finger pointing begins. It's the teachers, unions, the parents, school board, chancellor, etc. The reality is that no one person or institution is to blame and since there is more than one cause of the problem it will also require multiple solutions. Solutions that address not just the school and its performance but the role of the entire surrounding community in helping children achieve academic success.

That's because the label "failing school" tells us more about the community than it does about the school. It tells us that many of the children are not succeeding inside or outside the classroom. It is likely that where you find failing schools you will also find high unemployment, poverty, crime, lack of economic opportunity and other challenges which impact children, parents and the entire surrounding community.

Perhaps the key to finding real solutions that do not cast negative labels on one group or the other is to start with a different question, What do failing schools tell us about the community? When we hear that a school is failing, it's usually a symptom of an even more urgent problem that exists outside the school. Rarely if ever will you find a failing school in a thriving community -- one where employment is high, businesses are thriving, the streets are safe, and home ownership is stable.

As someone who grew up in a low income community and was bused across town to school, I know from experience that when some students are failing it may not have anything to do with the teachers, the school board or anything related to the system. And while there are many parents in these communities who are doing their very best to read to their children, help them with homework, and prepare them for success in the classroom, there are still those other children who need someone else to step in and be a source of support.

In communities where schools are failing and the community is in crisis you will also find children who are dealing with a host of issues outside the classroom that make it extremely difficult to focus inside the classroom. Many of these kids have to deal with the pressures of gang recruitment, crime, parents who are substance abusers, drugs being sold in their community and because of poverty they may go to sleep hungry and wake up hungry as they prepare for school.

In cases like this, it's not the teachers fault, the system or even the parents. In fact, the question is not who is at fault but who is going to help the child overcome these challenges so that he or she can have a better future. In many instances the person who takes on that role is a teacher. There are countless stories of teachers that go above and beyond to help students with clothing, food, books, and even rides home to make sure that they are safe. This type of leadership can't be assessed by test scores or teacher evaluations but these men and women do it because it is simply the right thing to do. When we close a school that is failing and fire teachers, for some children we are taking away the one person and safe place they could count on -- their school and their teacher. As much as we hear about violence in schools, for some kids, their schools are a safe haven and their teachers are the only source of hope.

We should not be so quick to close schools when we hear that they are failing, rather we should be asking what we can do to help a community in crises. Rather than pack up and give those children yet another sign that the people they were counting on are leaving them behind our elected officials and others who make decisions about schools should find ways to work with the community and address the deeper problems that influence a child's success in the classroom.

Although we have changed the name from No Child Left Behind to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act let's make sure that no matter what it's called, it doesn't take the easy way out when schools are faced with difficulties and communities are in crises.