What happens outside of school matters. A lot.

From the Field: A periodic reflection by Chiefs for Change CEO Mike Magee on the most important conversations happening today among state and district school leaders.


How much does what happens outside of school affect what happens — and what’s possible — inside the classroom?

Few people seriously doubt that there’s an important connection. But today, educators’ understanding of that connection is becoming much deeper — even as rapid changes in our nation and communities are making that understanding crucial and timely. The consequence is an important leadership moment — one that I’m hearing reflected in the conversations and work of many leading Chiefs.

One thread here is sometimes called “social-emotional learning,” which encompasses compelling research about the impact of stress and trauma on learning, the importance of school climate to academic outcomes, and the positive effects of racial and economic diversity. These, as well as other areas not directly related to matters of curriculum and instruction, have many Chiefs for Change members thinking hard about their own in-school policies and practices, as well as the degree to which they, as leaders, should weigh in on what happens to their students outside of school.

The last “From the Field” previewed a forthcoming article by CFC members Robert Runcie and Antwan Wilson regarding the connection between grit, resilience, and equity. That connection has spurred Runcie and Wilson to make big bets on systemic approaches to social-emotional learning as well as on innovative partnerships with public safety. Runcie, we noted, worked with leaders from civil rights organizations, law enforcement, the courts, public defenders, social services agencies, and the legislature on a task force aimed at breaking the connection between “the schoolhouse and the jailhouse.”

Changes in our nation, our communities, and our society have made this question even more pressing. Our members are increasingly concerned about federal immigration policy and the civil rights of the young people they serve. These issues are politically complex, and many CFC members are in the process of deciding when and how and to what degree to address them. In late January, on behalf of our members, we urged the Administration to maintain vital protections for young people currently covered by the DACA policy. Our statement was both principled and practical. Principled, in that we believe these young people deserve the protection of the law; practical, because they are integral to our members’ school communities, and could not be forcibly removed without wounding those communities: their friends, their teachers, their neighbors.

DACA is unlikely to be the only non-education federal policy to affect the school communities of our members. Indeed several of our members are already reacting to actions by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to expand the scope of deportation investigations. While about 800,000 undocumented students are currently protected by DACA, their parents are not. The mere threat of deportation can have an effect on the behavior of those parents, the stress of their children, and children’s preparedness for school, if and when they show up at all. Terrified of contributing to their parents’ deportation, some are staying home.

Recently, explaining his decision not to allow ICE access to Palm Beach County schools for immigration enforcement purposes, Superintendent Robert Avossa took to Twitter to say, “My job is to protect kids not engage in political debate … I need kids to come to school!” He’s right. It’s actually against the law for school officials to ask a student his or her immigration status. And the law says once a student is in your classroom, you educate them. Period. But beyond that, it is plain to anyone who has ever set foot inside a classroom that student absenteeism, whatever the cause, is disruptive to schools and bad for communities.

This issue is particularly personal for CFC member Avossa, who entered public school in the U.S. as an Italian immigrant child. His memory is of a community that embraced him despite the fact that he couldn’t speak English. Similarly, Tommy Chang, Superintendent of Boston Public Schools and also a CFC member, vividly recalls his first day as a Taiwanese-speaking six-year-old in an American public school. Of his first grade teacher, he writes, “She defended me on my first day of school…She was my hero.” Chang’s message to students now, like Avossa’s, is clear: “We will welcome and teach every single student who enters our classroom.”

Schools are the most important public institutions in America. More so than perhaps at any time in our history, they are the primary place where whole communities gather. In their auditoriums, gyms, and on their ball fields, we figure out together what it means to be a community and what it means to be American.

Immigration law is complex and the politics more complex still. CFC membership is not taking a one-size fits all approach to these issues. But we would all do well to emulate their approach to leadership, to community building, their relentless focus on kids, their moral obligation to serve them, and their acknowledgement that what happens to those kids in their own neighborhoods and homes matters, a lot.

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