Viramontes: We cannot build a better education system alone

At this time last year, I was weeks away from my daughter’s due date and months away from my new role as Executive Director of Teach For America (TFA) Bay Area. I was preparing for a new phase in my life that I could only conceptually understand would be particularly challenging and fulfilling. It wasn’t until I became a parent that I realized how this would inform my perspective as an educator.

Holding my baby in my arms has made it clearer the importance of honoring the humanity of every child by surrounding them with communities that help each of them thrive.

My personal milestone as a parent coincides with a milestone for TFA Bay Area – the 30th anniversary. For decades, we’ve partnered with schools across the Greater Bay Area, including many in San Jose, to build a stronger education system for all children. As I reflect on the past 30 years and the future, here are three key lessons for making that goal a reality.

Make schools a haven for students and families

Educators engage students by nurturing their minds and hearts and giving them valuable life skills. We need students to feel comfortable with their teachers so their families can have peace of mind knowing their children are being cared for beyond school.

In recent years in particular, school leaders have gone beyond the usual scope of their role, helping children to feel seen and safe.

Edgar Rodriguez-Ramirez, TFA alumnus and principal of Garfield Elementary School in Oakland, believes families need a strong community for transformational change to happen. His school launched the Focal Five, an initiative that brings families to campus every two months for personalized recordings of academics and goals. The emphasis on meaningful family engagement and partnership in the service of student success and growth is a unifying factor for families and school staff.

Outreach outside the classroom goes a long way, according to a study by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research. Families and staff reported feeling more invested in their school culture through activities such as family events, literacy nights, routine wellness checkups and home visits. Family interactions create stronger communities.

Prioritize supporting teacher well-being

California passed a law this year requiring all health courses to include mental health in the curriculum. Can we extend this focus on mental health to teachers, as we do with students?

TFA Bay Area invests in the well-being of educators by integrating a focus on well-being into teacher training and addressing broader challenges in the environment, such as financial barriers. Reducing financial barriers is especially important in San Jose, which often ranks among the nation’s most expensive cities for renters.

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

During the pandemic, concerned members of the community have joined forces to address pressing education issues.

Research from the Public Policy Institute of California found that nearly 40% of low-income college students in the state lacked reliable internet access. That’s why elected officials and educators are working to close the digital divide for the San Jose community through the Digital Equity Coalition. Similarly in Oakland, TFA Bay Area alum David Silver, director of education for the mayor’s office, leads #OaklandUndivided, which helps bridge the digital divide in Oakland by providing students with access to a computer, reliable internet and ongoing technical support.

Other community partnerships have focused on addressing the impact of the housing shortage on teachers. Teachers Rooted in Oakland is an organization that aims to retain Oakland-based educators through affordable housing options, training with teacher mentors, and free financial counseling services. The Berkeley School District Board is launching an Affordable Housing Initiative to create 110 affordable housing units for teachers and staff.

To ensure that the education system can help all children thrive, we need action from all stakeholders, from school leaders to community partners to elected officials. I find hope in the many ways I have seen community members come together to create solutions to meet the needs of our schools. Thirty years from now, our education system could be stronger than ever, if we keep moving forward together.

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

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