Entering the new school year, I, like many people who work in education and youth development, am constantly thinking how are we going to make this year better than the last. The education debate is coming to the forefront of the national agenda, and with films such as "Waiting for Superman" being released, which explores the current state of public education in American and how it is affecting our children, the education system has come to grips with itself. Serious change must occur in order for our kids to compete globally, and my colleagues and I are continually frustrated with the problems facing our system. Its not just schools, but communities and individuals that are needed to ensure that all students are successful.
Now that summer is coming to a close, its time to get back to work with educating and enriching the lives of kids. I've been interested in learning what successful educators are going to do, and have been following a guy named Dr. Steve Perry. You may have seen him on CNN's "Black in America 2" special. He's the Founder and Principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Connecticut. He's very vocal on the education system and has the credibility to back it up. In addition to having an awesome name, he and I share the same views on education. Dr. Perry took some time to speak with me about the upcoming school year.
SL: Tell us briefly about your proudest accomplishments as an educator?
SP: I'm most proud of Capital Prep's success because it has made the notion of sending 100 percent of seniors from the inner-city on to college seem typical. I was told by so many people, including the former superintendent of my district, that it was impossible. Now, we've done it so many times that they expect it; it's become typical and they want to know what's next.
SL: What do you see is the current problem with the education system?
SP: The labor is the biggest issue because the teachers' unions are fighting for their lives in an age where the discussion of school choice is no longer reserved for the wealthy or weird or white, but has become standard conversation among all people. The traditional neighborhood public school has become an option that less and less people want to experience and labor is fighting vehemently to keep the traditional school system in place, even though it has failed our country miserably. Even though the traditional public school system has failed our country, the teachers' union is fighting to keep the system exactly as it is with little to no accountability.
The only reason they do this is to keep their job.
SL: With your amazing track record do you find it challenging to keep your 100 percent graduation rate?
SL: What will you do differently (or the same) this upcoming school year to ensure you keep your track record?
SP: This year's class is one of the toughest classes we've ever had. What we will do differently is to be more diligent than we've ever been to be on the students more, and put more colleges in their faces more than we have for classes in the past. Also, we will look at more types of colleges, different opportunities. We will get 100 percent, but it will not be easy. This class is heavy on personality, but light on productivity.
SL: What kind of enrichment activities/programs do you think kids need to keep them well-rounded in school?
SP: Music, art, and sports. They have to stimulate their creativity, mind, and body.
SL: What is the role of the school/community in ensuring that youth become successful?
SP: Public schools are the most important investment and greatest example of America's value on children. A lot of times, Americans get a bad rap for not caring about kids, but I don't believe that's so. I believe if you look at our nation's financial and legal commitment to public education, you'll find that it's significant. Eighty-five percent of local property taxes go to education. Other money that we have nationally like federal taxes go to poor cities and states through Title I. It's illegal to keep kids at home without educating them. We're spending anywhere from 20 million to half a billion dollars to build new schools. We hold teachers with high regard. If someone tells us they're a teacher and they crash our car we think "ohhh" and we almost forget it, but not if they're an attorney. We think teachers have a hard job, some think it's the hardest in the world. People think education is important, but the product we're getting is so paltry that smart people are looking for other ways to educate their children.
SL: What are your top three lessons for success that you would pass on to struggling schools?
1. Love the children as you do your own -- tell the students that you really love them.
2. Set high expectations, but have high support.
3. Schools need to re-figure their calendars to accommodate more learning... many private schools go to school on Friday nights.
SL: Are there any other schools, districts, or cities that are doing amazing work with youth?
SP: There are lots, hundreds. Harlem Children's Zone, Achievement First, KIPP, Ron Clark, and SEED schools in D.C. A host of Catholic schools are also doing a great job and struggling to stay open.
SL: What can everyday citizens who may or may not know about the education system do to get involved?
SP: Visit a school, ask someone there to tell you what they need. Do research before you get there because even the most well-intended guest or volunteer can come in and get in the way, so if it seems like the first time you try to help is an inconvenient time, try again until you can make a positive difference.