Sep 18, 2011

What if? Thoughts on Ron Clark Academy, Parents and Teachers

In 2009, I attended  the Risky Business Conference for educators who work with at-risk youth. Mr. Ron Clark was the keynoter. I don't think there was a single person in the audience who wasn't captivated by his presentation. He is an entertainer, and both his classroom and his school (Ron Clark Academy) are lively places. Watch this video to see what I mean.

Ron Clark is very innovative. He has a unique style of teaching, leading, and talking about education. The overwhelming quality I sensed in his presentation at Risky Business is passion. He loves what he does and he loves his students.

Looks great, right? Here's some background on the Ron Clark Academy (from the RCA student FAQ page):
  • Potential students must apply while in 4th grade.
  • Approximately thirty 5th graders are admitted each year. Students in grades 6-8 are not admitted.
  • 5th graders are expected to remain in the program for 4 years in order to achieve the greatest success from the Academy's program of study.
  • Average class size is 30 students (these are not all gifted students; a majority have learning or behavioral issues.)
  • It costs money to attend RCA. There is a sliding scale for tuition and many fees are offset by scholarships, but admission may be limited if there are not enough corporate donations or sponsors.
There are many teachers across the country who have a lot of passion. But their passion is sometimes limited by barriers that the Ron Clark Academy has worked hard to break down. Due to corporate donations and sponsorship, RCA has a beautiful building with up-to-date technology. Class size is limited--the school only has about 120 students, on average 30 kids per grade. Those kids stay together for four years, which means they really build a strong sense of community. They have relationships with each other and with their teachers. And I guarantee you, that RCA parents and teachers also get to know each other pretty well. How could they not when they are together for 4 years in such a small school?

Many things strike me about the Ron Clark Academy. First and foremost is that I think the vast majority of teachers and students would thrive in an environment like the one at RCA. With proper resources, a nurturing environment, and lots of stability, amazing things can happen. Throw in high-interest curriculum that engages students' bodies and can it fail?  

The reality is that most communities and school districts can't break down those same barriers without strong intervention from our government. It would take a great deal of change to make your average public school look anything like the RCA (not to mention a great deal of money.) What can change? On a small in-your-classroom level, teachers/parents/students can work on building better relationships. Education needs to be personal. It needs to be individual. We need to look at each kid for who they are and what they can do and tailor our instruction to meet their needs.

On September 6, 2011 CNN ran a piece by Ron Clark, titled "What teachers really want to tell parents." It caused quite a stir in the Twitter-verse, with both parents and educators taking issue with many of his points. Lots of people have written responses. CNN ran a piece based on comments to Clark's post. Doug Goldberg of Special Education Advisor wrote a piece expressing his frustration with Clark's seemingly antagonistic view of parental involvement that you can read here. In another post about the controversy, 6th grade teacher, Josh Stumpenhorst, reminds us that while there most definitely are some bad parents and some bad teachers, we cannot make assumptions about all parents or teachers. Each individual must be approached as an individual. 

I agree with Josh on that notion of individualizing each educational situation.  That said, I kind of wish Ron Clark had simply sent his letter out to the parents in his Academy. They have a history together, a relationship where such commentary could be like extended family talking after Thanksgiving dinner--sometimes you don't all agree, but in the end you're still family. The rest of us are not a part of that dynamic, not involved in that relationship. I don't know of any other school quite like the Ron Clark Academy. Issues there are not the same as issues in other schools. Most schools don't have the same physical environment (does your school have a slide from the second story to the first?) Few schools have such up-to-date  technology (digital keyboard accompaniment to math songs! and SmartBoards in every classroom!) Most schools don't have such limited class size, and are unable to keep the same small group of kids together for four years. Most schools don't have such a small student:staff ratio (this photo shows 20 staff for about 120 students. Also, note how many teachers of color there are! The staff actually reflects student demographics!) Maybe if we all started out with the same corporate-sponsored structure in place we would have a better chance at creating close enough relationships with parents to say the things the Ron Clark said in his piece. 

Currently in education, we are suffering from a climate of blame. Many teachers blame parents, and many parents blame teachers. One thing many have discovered as a result of the recent Ron Clark controversy is the fact that both groups need to communicate with each other better. There is a common goal here: educating our kids.  The focus should be on how to work together to eliminate barriers to learning; how to turn our schools into strong communities where students, teachers and parents have effective relationships, and are united by a common goal: success for our students. I encourage teachers and parents to reach out to each other--to really listen to each other. Don't blame, and don't assume that what works in one educational situation will work in all situations. Treat each other as individuals. I think that if we all do that, we can start to build relationships, to work together, and to eliminate barriers to learning. What if we all learned to treat each other individually? What if we could stop making assumptions about parents, teachers, students, schools? What if we could truly individualize education? 

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