01/30/2014 05:35 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2014

Turn Around and Find the Keys

As I left my home recently, it was necessary to turn around and go back in because I had left my car keys behind. Like many of us these days, the need to turn around happens quite often --when we're lost, or because we simply forget where we've left something. Our minds are cluttered with information, the obligations of work and the complications of modern living.

But when we stop and retrace our steps, somehow we find what we're looking for, or at least end up on the right road.

My mind also has been much preoccupied of late with the fate of five principals in Newark, N.J., who were suspended -- summarily dismissed without formal charges being filed for exercising their First Amendment rights by speaking out at a community forum where Superintendent Cami Anderson's school restructuring plan was being opposed.

When news of the suspensions broke, my union's Newark affiliate, the City Association of Supervisors and Administrators (CASA) Local 20, found itself inundated with community leaders, labor organizations and parents lined up to voice their support. Because of this pressure and the advocacy of CASA Local 20, the suspensions were lifted on the five principals. Three of the principals were permitted to return to their schools, while two were reassigned to the district's central office.

Devoted school leader Lisa Brown is one of the reassigned principals who has not yet been allowed to return to her school, despite the support of the school's parent leader. He told the Newark Star-Ledger, "If this is really about the kids, you'd keep the best leader you can get at the school, and that would be Lisa Brown." He said Brown had improved the school and helped the students meet the state benchmarks.

The plight of the Newark principals puts in mind for me what we might consider as 2014 moves forward. As educators and policymakers, our minds have become cluttered with how to win the race in education, rather than how to adequately educate all children.

Indeed, characterizing education as a race is at the heart of some misguided judgments on how to turn around our schools. "Winning" in education means there will be losers. Singapore scored well on the PISA because it excluded some children from the test. Unlike Singapore, U.S. educators are committed -- or should be -- to ensuring every child is a winner and deserves a quality education.

That's why I suggest it's time we "turn around" by going back and retracing our steps. By looking not only at what needs to be done, but at what has been lost in the flood of experiments and the reframing of education as a race.

I am not talking about returning to yesteryear and forgetting the many innovations that have occurred since we first opened a classroom door. Most school leaders agree that "turning around" the lowest-performing schools is a good thing, and resources and monies should be devoted to them to produce results. But money and resources are only part of the solution.

What would school leaders and policymakers see if we "turned around?"

We would see a time when schools were adequately staffed with teachers, counselors, social workers, psychologists, a nutritionist, art and music teachers, teacher's aides, coaches and a curriculum specialist.

We would see a time when we cared for the whole child and his or her family, with school clinics and nurses who would administer immunizations, dental care, physical exams, hearing and eye services.

We would see a time when students could receive clothing, shoes and yes, even a toy at Christmas. We would see a time when the curriculum was rigorous, offering honors and advanced placement courses as well as career pathways like culinary arts, carpentry, automotive, dental hygiene and cosmetology.

We would see a time when the educational leader and his or her staff had time for professional development and an opportunity to meet with one another to make individual plans for students or develop thematic units that were used across the curriculum and a time when food wasn't frozen and prepackaged to be heated in ovens at the school.

Now trying to recapture this may seem impossible. But there is an old saying that the way to eat an elephant is one bite at time.

The first bite should be for school leaders to begin rebuilding their school communities by building coalitions. By participating as community activists, as the principals in Newark did.

Schools are not independent buildings that exist in a vacuum. People move into communities based on the rating of the schools. Businesses locate in areas because of the schools.

I can remember when there was a residence clause in my hometown that required administrators to live within the city that employed them. I am not suggesting you have to live in the community. But I am suggesting you need to be a leader in the community. And I am certainly suggesting that superintendents should not punish school leaders for elevating their calling to include community activism.

And the need goes beyond calling on superintendents to behave more civilly. It extends to calling on school leaders to engage their communities in advocating for needed changes.

I believe school leaders should bring all of the people that surround their school community together and begin to have the conversations about what the school means to the survival of the student, the family and the community.

I am suggesting we not sit in our offices with our doors closed. Instead, we should get out and meet and greet the storekeeper, the minister, social and activist organizations and the neighbors surrounding the school.

Once this rapport has been established, we should begin to build coalitions. In this coalition, the school's story needs to be shared. What your successes and failures are. What your needs and wants are. You invite the community to help and you listen to them so that you may help them as well. Make your school the hub of the community. Learn to build power.

Our union's Newark local found the power that coalition building can achieve by winning reinstatement of the five principals who were unjustly suspended. So perhaps the way to achieving turnarounds should begin with us building, as the school leaders in Newark are, the coalitions that help school leaders have a stronger voice as we try to "turn around" schools and put in place the best practices we have learned that make our schools work in every community.