Weaving Our Lives Together

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New York Times columnist David Brooks published a column on February 18 titled “A Nation of Weavers.” In it Brooks laments the social fragmentation we are experiencing in America today: “our lack of healthy connection to each other, our inability to see the full dignity of each other, and the resulting culture of fear, distrust, tribalism, shaming and strife.” In response to this, Brooks has begun something through the Aspen Institute called Weave: The Social Fabric Project.

This project seeks to lift up and learn from “those who are weaving communities everywhere, establishing connection, building relationships, offering care and creating intimacy and trust. We want to spread the values they live out every day. We want to be part of a cultural revolution that replaces a culture of hyper-individualism with a culture of relationalism, a way of living that puts our connections with one another at the center of our lives.” Brooks challenges us to be weavers rather than rippers.

For the last three years I have been working with several charitable foundations in Fort Worth who have come together under the shared value that every child in Fort Worth deserves access to a high-quality public education. One of the things I have come to learn is that there are a number of different avenues by which our children and their families are finding such a quality education — neighborhood schools, district schools and programs of choice, and public charter schools.

For many, many children, traditional school districts are doing a remarkable job. For example, over the last two years I have been amazed at the work of Fort Worth ISD’s five leadership academies. These schools, in some of our city’s most underserved areas, have found a way to achieve tremendous success in giving some of our must vulnerable kids access to the highest quality education.

John T. White, one of these leadership academies, serves one of the highest-need populations in the district, and they have been on the state’s “Improvement Required” list since the school first opened about eight years ago. Practically all of the students are economically disadvantaged. And many lack stability — moving from apartment to apartment every few months. John T. White has a 40% mobility rate — 40% of their student population turns over over the course of a year.

After one year as a Leadership Academy, John T. White has done something amazing. They moved from a state rating of an “F” to a “B” in one year. In their socioeconomic category, John T. White ranks number one in the state in academic improvement. The culture of the school and the behavior of the kids has changed dramatically along with the academic performance.

I am impressed with the way Fort Worth ISD’s district schools educate so many children (86,000 in all!) living in so many different circumstances. I know from my own children’s experience what a high-quality education FWISD provides to so many.

I have also come to see that there are some public charter schools doing remarkable work with children, particularly those in poverty. For example, IDEA Public Schools and Uplift Education intentionally enter parts of our city with the highest need and fewest resources and specialize in helping those kids get to college — often as the first members of their families to do so. I was at a community meeting a couple of years ago listening to a presentation from experts from Cook Children’s hospital about how they are learning to identify neighborhoods where children are experiencing the highest levels of maltreatment. I saw representatives from IDEA and Uplift approach those experts after the meeting to see how they could learn more about where those areas are, because that’s exactly where they wanted to build their schools. Another time, I heard Todd Landry of the Lena Pope Home tell about how at their charter school, Chapel Hill Academy, they send staff members to the apartment complex nearby that has a large refugee population to make sure those families in particular know about Chapel Hill and have the opportunity to attend.

In many cities around the state and country, school districts and charter schools fight each other tooth and nail to protect their own interests, and we see people try to pit traditional public education and charters against each other for their own political purposes. But in Fort Worth many of us have asked, What if we could see the education system in Fort Worth not as a disjointed jumble of adults’ competing interests but as one interesting, beautiful fabric of education for all — maybe something like a quilt with many different pieces woven together and where the whole is greater than its parts? Here in our city, the Fort Worth ISD and local charter schools are working together every way they can with the best interests of Fort Worth kids at heart.

Last month a coalition of the FWISD and 8 local charter schools held a fair at Tarrant County College’s South Campus to help parents learn about quality education choices for their children. These parents who are seeking the best for their children were able to learn about FWISD schools and programs of choice and charter schools all on one location. This is what happens when we are more concerned about children having access to a quality education than about which school system “wins.”

Every month this same coalition organizes an event where community members are given a tour of a Fort Worth charter school and a FWISD school or program of choice, highlighting the good things that are happening in our local schools — charter and traditional alike.

I am always proud to see our leaders reject distrust, fear, and strife when it comes to our children’s education. And I am always disappointed when I see our leaders give in to those destructive temptations. We need more weavers and fewer rippers.

My good friend, Ralph Emerson, Pastor of Rising Star Baptist Church in southeast Fort Worth, made this his theme for all of last year; he called it “Stronger Together,” because we all have a deep need for each other — whether we admit it or not — and we all need to be part of something bigger than ourselves. And when we weave our communities together, it is almost always stronger and more beautiful.

High up in the Winchester Cathedral in England sits a stained glass window that is extremely unusual for the time in which it was created — the 17th century. It doesn’t represent a scene from the Bible. It doesn’t memorialize a saint.

It’s a kaleidoscope of colors, a very contemporary looking stained glass window. It’s as if someone from the 20th century traveled back in time to the 1600s and designed it.

This window is a relic from a destructive time. Troops from Oliver Cromwell’s army used iron bars to shatter the Winchester Cathedral’s ancient windows and break up all the statues. The troops left the ground outside the cathedral littered with fragments of glass, which the people of the town picked up and saved.

Years later, when this violent time had passed, one cathedral worker volunteered for the difficult task of re-installing the window. High on a scaffold, he assembled all those broken pieces into an abstraction of color.

It resembled nothing in Europe at that time, and even today it stands out. And no one can deny that that window of reconstructed bits of glass is a work of great beauty, a work of art. The light from the sun filters through to illumine the cathedral with a constantly changing mosaic of colors.

Even when the social fabric comes apart, new life and beauty can come from the pieces when they are put back together. The pieces can become raw material for the creation of something new and beautiful — something that establishes connection, builds relationships, offers care, creates trust, and makes our communities better places for all.

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Working toward the goal that every child in Fort Worth, Texas has the opportunity to receive a quality public education. tellaboutit.blog

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