School Reform: Doing What You Can and Doing It Well

Guest post written by: Andrew Yaspan

2014 has started off as a strong year for those who have wished to see increased funding and resources for high school students who have been disadvantaged by the college admissions process.  In mid-January the Obama administration unveiled a list of more than 100 commitments, monetary and other, from colleges, universities, and philanthropic organizations, to assist students in overcoming the obstacles in the process.  And while it is important to note how such financial investments will benefit our nation’s current and future high school students, it is also important to emphasize the contributions of people who give their time and effort to help college hopefuls navigate the, at times daunting, college admissions process.  In 2014 Let’s Get Ready continues its mission to do just that- essentially, connecting current college students with current high school students to help them with the college admissions process.

In an earlier blogpost that I contributed to, I expounded upon the importance of the exchange that takes place between Let’s Get Ready site directors, coaches and students.  This exchange provides the inertia that keeps LGR rolling, but the organization also has to rely on a stable mechanism to be able to serve disadvantaged college hopefuls the way it does.  This mechanism was established through a simple, yet focused mission and scope of work.  The two components together make for a highly effective and efficient organization.

Although I have only worked for a handful of organizations, I can confidently say, however surprising, that the two aforementioned elements are not present or consistent in every organization, and that Let’s Get Ready’s strengths lie in its ability to consistently facilitate exchange and focus on a specific scope of work.

My work at a rebuilding non-profit and elementary charter school in New Orleans, LA, have provided me with experiences of working for organizations that lack either the inertia, mechanism or both to run effectively and efficiently.  A mission or scope of work that is constantly in flux, either for a lack of focus or conforming to grant requirements, destroys inertia.  Workers’ minds begin to wander, leaders’ intentions questioned, and the drive to work becomes misdirected or lost.  While the missions of the two organizations I mentioned may be well-intentioned and noble, they also failed to propel their organization or sustain their inertia due to a lack of understanding about what it was they really could/can/want to do.

Charter schools and alternative teacher programs in New Orleans are known to thrust ridiculously broad and lofty expectations upon eager college graduates or career changers who participated in 5 weeks of intensive “classroom management” training (as many of the 7500 local public school employees were never rehired after they lost their jobs post-Katrina), explaining to them that they are solely responsible for ending the achievement gap and the school-to-prison pipeline.  Included in the experience is the possibility of having similarly trained supervisor breathing down teachers’ necks about the improvements they can make in their utilization of Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion techniques.  There are very few messages about facilitating any sort of meaningful exchange.

At the rebuilding non-profit workers were subject to base-level training, unreasonably speedy deadlines, and given mixed messages about what the quality of their work should be.  Even more, while many employees (many of them Americorps members living on a stipend) chose to work for the organization to have an impact on a particular group of people devastated by New Orleans levee failures, the work employees were asked to do seemed to be for an ever-expanding constituency.  All the while, there were consistent complaints about communication between the various specialty teams, leading many to be disillusioned.

In both cases, those I worked with and myself, were excited about the work we were doing and the cause to which we believed we were dedicating our time.  And in both cases, I witnessed those people and myself become disgruntled or unenthused.  Of course, we still worked hard and did our best, but a better product is produced when people are happy to be at work and to be working.

Alternatively, in the time that I worked for Let’s Get Ready, I worked with equally eager young people adamant and confident about doing what they can to assist young college hopefuls with a process that they had recently completed themselves.  Those college students had the chance to lead, inspire, invest time and energy in the betterment of others, as well as learn and be inspired.  Former LGR coaches often speak about how they leave their LGR experience with a sense of shared-ownership over the achievements of their students and that young people doing everything they can to reach their goal of attending college had inspired them.  And while LGR has also taken on the task of seeing their students through college, the organization has not imposed any additional scope-of-work conflating tasks upon those who have given up their time to achieve the specific goal of helping disadvantaged high school students get admitted at the college of their choice.

Everyone I have interacted with who has had the privilege of working or coaching for Let’s Get Ready has mentioned it as a positive experience.  Such success is predicated upon its facilitation of exchange, and its focused mission.

So as the country recognizes those willing to open up their purses and wallets for the advancement of high schoolers from disadvantaged communities who wish to attend college, it should also recognize the great work of the individuals and organizations who spend time with students, giving those students the tools they need to overcome obstacles inherent to the college admissions process.