I’ve had the opportunity to work at the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) for the past two weeks as part of LEE’s Summer Fellowship program. I sought out this summer position for a few reasons. I’ve always been a big picture thinker, and I was very interested in learning about the entire leadership structure affecting public education, especially as it relates to constraints placed upon teachers. I had my fair share of frustrations with bureaucracy over the past two years, which piqued my curiosity regarding how decisions are made at different levels of organization. Admittedly, I also wanted to see how the MDE functioned given Mississippi’s infamous reign at the bottom of state education rankings. At the same time, however, I hoped to contribute my skills to helping the MDE achieve better outcomes albeit in some small way. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect.
Two weeks in, I have to say that I’m enjoying the experience a lot. I miss my kids as well as getting a built-in workout around my classroom everyday. I’m trying to get used to having an hour-long lunch in which I don’t have to supervise a table of 25 teenagers. Still, I do miss that daily interaction.
“SIG funds provide an unprecedented opportunity for educators to implement innovative strategies to improve education for academically at-risk students and to close the achievement gap in Title I schools.”
I’m loving this mission-critical work for a few reasons:
1.) Creativity: the proposals we review include innovative ideas and provide opportunities for schools to “lift themselves up by their bootstraps.” We allow flexibility within the guidelines while also focusing on doing what works.
2.) Comprehensive: in order to be successful, I’ve been able to draw upon my prior experiences from student government finances to teaching. The workload of my office is a fascinating mix that seems like the work of a foundation and a consulting firm. My supervisor has a “Whole District, Whole School, Whole Child, Whole Community” approach, if you will, in order to ensure alignment between key stakeholders.
3.) Compassionate Capacity: just as a successful teacher works closely with each student to understand their individual needs, my supervisor doesn’t advise schools with cold, one-size-fits-all mindset. I’ve really enjoyed the human qualities she brings to the daunting task of disbursing $65 million dollars. While it would be easy to be condescending towards administrators of struggling schools, she instead seeks to attain mutual understanding in order to build capacity for the schools to “get their wings.”As my mother would say, the tone is “firm but loving.”
4.) Cool Factor: at four full-time staff members, my office is among the smallest at the MDE. That said, it’s unquestionably also among the coolest. I felt like a part of the family from day one, and it’s fun working with people who have a strong sense of passion and purpose for their work (and a good sense of humor). There is rarely a dull moment in the office and I enjoy being involved in the various day-to-day and long-term projects.
5.) Charter Charter Bo barter Banana Fanna Fo Farter. Me Mi Mo Marter…: I’m not strictly against charter schools, but I wish they served their original purpose! As explained by Diane Ravitch (yes, I know, but she often makes legitimate claims):
“[P]ublic school teachers could get permission from local authorities to open a small experimental school and then focus on the neediest students. The school would recruit students who had dropped out and who were likely to drop out. It would seek new ways to motivate the most challenging students and bring whatever lessons they learned back to public schools, to make them better able to educate these youngsters.
The original vision of charter schools was that they would help strengthen public schools, not compete with them.”
In a way, the SIG competition and accountability measures put in place offer a chance to see this original vision fulfilled. I love the sense of a learning community my office brings to the process in the sense that we get to see which ideas work and which don’t (the 17 schools receive on average ~3 to 4 million dollars over a three year period). Charters can be wonderful assets (*side eye*) that serve a vital mission, but the public needs to understand that traditional schools can achieve gains too!
I’ll elaborate more within the next week, but it will be bittersweet when I have to leave the office. With that said, I’m excited by the sense of possibility my work with the Office of School Recovery has given me. For all of the problems facing Mississippi, there are bright spots where competent, dedicated school leaders and teachers are working to turn the tables on the lingering Achievement Gap. I once was worried about leaving the Delta with a grim outlook on the future, but I now can authentically say I am more optimistic. Slowly, but surely, a change is going to come- and it’s going to come to those who make it happen for themselves.