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It's no secret that the public education system in the Bay Area is and has always been scrutinized and criticized.

In an effort to shift perspectives and gain an understanding of the landscape, we sought out a group of educators and non profit & philanthropic leaders for a DIALOGUE on education and the impact of engaging the greater community to create change.

In her candid post below, Caroline Damon, reflects on the evening.

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On education & building community // caroline damon

An old man was walking on the beach one morning after a storm. He saw a young woman picking up starfish and gently throwing them into the ocean.

“Young lady, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?”

“The sun is up, and the tide is going out, and if I do not throw them in, they will die.” She said.

“But young lady, do you not realize that there are many miles of beach and thousands of starfish? You cannot possibly make a difference.”

The young woman listened politely, then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea.
“It made a difference to that one.
— Loren Eisley

Rimma pulled me aside after the Education & Building Community dialogue, a lively conversation that took place last August, at Park Life. “How was our dialogue helpful to you in your work?” she asked. “I was hoping to identify more solutions.” But I was glad for the opportunity to untie myself from any particular solution or ideology, at least for the evening. Working daily against what some have called the rising tide of mediocrity in United States schooling can get a bit tiring, after all. Taking a pause to breathe, remind ourselves why we do the work we do, and reground in the overarching goal – to provide all students the education and opportunities necessary to meet their potential – can be quite powerful.

Our DIALOGUE brought together educators, nonprofit and philanthropic leaders, and parents, to discuss the role of education and community in the 21st century. To an outsider, our conversation may have sounded pessimistic; indeed, we spent the bulk of it analyzing and reframing various shortcomings in education, particularly in low-income communities. But I was impressed by the discipline that it takes for a room of self-identified reformers not to jump straight into advocacy mode, not to peddle solutions or take a side, but rather to step back and consider the challenges from various angles, from diverse perspectives.

Artwork (left to right): David Shrigley & Anthony Discenza @ Park Life  Photo Credit: Vinobosh Photography

Artwork (left to right): David Shrigley & Anthony Discenza @ Park Life 

Photo Credit: Vinobosh Photography

The tendency to identify and then advocate for a silver bullet to “solve” education disparities and widespread, systemic inequity has been widely documented, and the notion that such a silver bullet exists was again challenged during our dialogue. Though we seemed to all agree that a more holistic, careful, and community empowering approach was needed, we also acknowledged how our various personal agendas (as parents of education consumers, as employees of education reform organizations, as US citizens) can anchor us to a particular ideology or reform strategy, rooting us to one tree rather than allowing us to consider the whole forest.

In one of my all-time-favorite analogies, education scholar Anthony Bryk compares school improvement efforts to baking a cake. (Because come on, who doesn’t like cake?) The ingredients (strong leadership, family outreach efforts, high quality instruction etc) are essential, Bryk says, but any one ingredient is not sufficient on its own; all must be present and must interact to achieve success.

Bryk likens the process of baking a cake to that of designing a great school, however, I think that a great school, even a network of great schools, is merely one ingredient among other critical factors in a child’s education: out-of-school enrichment activities, community empowerment efforts, access to sufficient housing, public transportation, and economic opportunities. And there, I believe, lies the delicious truth: the cake is bigger than you. It is bigger than each of us; it may be bigger than we can possibly imagine.

So should we pack in our baking tools ala Kristin Wiig in Bridesmaids, the problems so large, complex, and entrenched that we are destined for a cake wreck? Hardly. We simply need to pause before dumping that cup of sugar in, the exciting reform strategy of the moment, and consider the other ingredients. Only together, with humility – and with the “whole cake” in mind – can we truly help all our children prosper.

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