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Viramontes: You can't build a better education system alone

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July 22, 2022

At this time of last year, I was a few weeks away from my daughter’s due date and took months to take on my new role as Executive Director of the Teach For America (TFA) Bay Area. I was preparing for a new stage in my life. It was only conceptually understandable and will be unparalleled and challenging and fulfilling. It wasn’t until I actually became a parent that I saw how it would help my view as an educator.

Holding my baby in my arms revealed the importance of respecting the humanity of all children by surrounding them in a community that helps them prosper.

My personal milestone as a parent coincides with the 30th anniversary of the TFA Bay Area milestone. For decades, we have partnered with schools throughout the Bay Area, including many schools in San Jose, to build a stronger education system for all children. Looking back over the last 30 years and the future, here are three important lessons for achieving this goal.

Make school a paradise for students and families

Educators attract students by nurturing them and giving them valuable life skills. Students need to feel comfortable with their teachers so that their families can rest assured that their children are being cared for beyond school.

Especially in the last few years, school leaders have helped children see and feel safe beyond their normal roles.

Edgar Rodriguez-Ramirez, a TFA graduate and principal of Oakland’s Garfield Elementary School, believes that families need a strong community to make a difference. His school launched Focal Five. This is an initiative to bring families to campus every other month for individual check-in on schoolwork and goals. Focusing on meaningful family involvement and partnerships that help students achieve and grow is the unity of family and school staff.

Outreach measures outside the classroom can be very helpful, according to a study conducted by the University of Chicago School Research Consortium. Family members and staff reported that they felt that their investment in school culture had increased as a result of activities such as family events, literacy nights, regular wellness check-ins, and home visits. Family interaction builds a stronger community.

Prioritize supporting the health of teachers

This year, California passed a law requiring all health classes to include mental health in their curriculum. Can this focus on mental health extend to teachers as well as students?

The TFA Bay Area is investing in the well-being of educators by integrating wellness focus into teacher training and addressing a wider range of environmental challenges such as financial barriers. Lowering economic barriers is especially important in San Jose. San Jose is often ranked as one of the most expensive cities in the country for renters.

Schools, community groups and elected leaders need to work together to improve the education system

During the pandemic, members of the relevant communities worked together to address the pressing issues in education.

Nearly 40% of low-income students in the state lack reliable Internet access, according to a study by the California Institute of Public Policy. That’s why elected officials and educators are working to fill the digital divide of the San Jose community through the Digital Equity Coalition. Similarly, in Oakland, David Silver, a graduate of the TFA Bay Area and director of education in the mayor’s office, leads #OaklandUndivided. This helps break the digital divide in Auckland by providing students with computer access, reliable internet, and ongoing technical support.

Other community partnerships focus on resolving the impact of housing shortages on teachers. Teachers Rooted in Oakland is an organization that aims to retain Oakland-based educators through affordable housing options, mentor teacher training, and free financial advice services. The Berkeley School District Board has launched an Affordable Housing Initiative to create 110 affordable homes for teachers and staff.

For the education system to support the prosperity of all children, action from all stakeholders, from school leaders to community partners to elected officials, is required. Seeing community members come together to create solutions that meet the needs of the school gives us hope in many ways. Thirty years later, if we continue to move forward together, our education system could be stronger than ever.

Beatrice Viramontes is an executive director of the Teach For America Bay Area, which is affiliated with schools in San Jose, South Bay, Richmond, Oakland and San Francisco.

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