What criteria do we use to determine how well our schools are doing? More often than not, we wind up looking at things such as grades, graduation rates, and test scores. This kind of data is relatively easy to measure and widely accepted as relevant to the mission of our schools. It is also conducive to flashy presentation in graphs and tables designed to catch the public’s eye.
But with the number of today’s youth who are gravely impacted by issues like depression, anxiety, drug abuse, suicide, and gun violence, do these easy numbers really get at the heart of what needs to be happening in our schools? Too many of our young people are growing up alienated, separated, and disconnected. And even a compass is useless if you have no idea the direction you need to be going.
One criterion that I believe could help ensure our schools are doing what we truly need them to do is that of “connection." Are our schools creating the kind of deep connections our youth need to flourish and become the adults we want them to be— adults who know who they are, what they stand for, and where they belong? Adults who are engaged in life and committed to doing their part to make our community work?
What if we asked ourselves these questions about our schools?
1) Are our schools building connection to PEOPLE? Our youth need friends they can count on and trust. They need to understand and value people who are different from themselves. They need strong relationships with elders and mentors who can provide them with support, guidance, and encouragement. How can our schools help build these connections to people?
2) Are our schools building connection to PLACE? Our youth need a strong sense of belonging and ownership in our community. They need to know the geography, the ecosystems, and the stories that form the context of their lives. They need to take responsibility for where they live and for the generations who will live here in years to come. How can our schools honor this connection to place?
3) Are our schools building connection to CULTURE? Our youth need the wisdom, knowledge, values, and pride that are preserved in their culture. They need to be empowered by their own cultural heritage and learn to appreciate the culture of others. How can our schools respect this connection to culture?
4) Are our schools building connection to PURPOSE? The tools of knowledge and skills are empty without a strong sense of meaning and purpose for their use. Our youth need help exploring the “why’s” of their learning and discovering the reasons they are on this planet. How can our schools nurture this connection to purpose?
5) Are our schools building connection to SELF? Our youth need to discover their unique gifts and talents so that they can realize their full potential and become contributing members of our community. Are we helping them explore their particular interests, passions, and aptitudes? How can our schools foster the development of diverse individuality, learning, and growth by valuing this connection to self?
Evaluating our schools through the lens of “connection” may not seem as objective as the numbers we currently use, but a wise person once observed that not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted. We owe it to our kids and to ourselves to broaden the conversation about what our schools can and should be doing.
Jim Strickland is a teacher at Marysville-Pilchuck High School and an advocate of Student Centered Education. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.