Guest Post by Allan Sherer, New Way Global
The documentary Waiting for Superman captures the failure of American education for many minority and low-income students. The film argues our education systems often inhibit rather than encourage academic excellence and equity. In the opening sequence, education pioneer Geoffrey Canada recollects a formative moment in his early childhood: “One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me Superman did not exist. I was like, ‘what do you mean he’s not real?’ And she thought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus is not real, and I was crying because there was no one coming with enough power to save us.”
For over two years we have watched the devastation COVID-19 has caused our children. Complex studies and simple observation both demonstrate conclusively this devastation once again disproportionally impacts children who were already disadvantaged. Covid both uncovered and exacerbated a stubborn opportunity gap. For decades we have promised to eradicate this opportunity gap; yet, those closest to the reality of education in our poorest communities struggle to maintain hope. What hope is left is taking a serious beating as Covid stubbornly persists.
Years ago Canada warned, “There is an education cliff we are walking over right this very second.” Covid gave our poorest children a mighty shove. And it hasn’t been lost on the education community. Said Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, “We haven’t seen this kind of academic achievement crisis in living memory.”
The tragic reality is, Superman isn’t coming to make it right. As Canada said years before Covid, “I’ve met with several presidents, several secretaries of education… and there’s no plan. If you want to save our children, you’re going to have to do it yourself. It’s just us.”
The silver lining of Covid is the story of how individuals and organizations across America spontaneously took initiative to serve our least-served children. Churches, charter schools, businesses – organizations of every description mobilized to empower children to not only survive Covid, but to thrive educationally throughout the crisis.
In my city, Greenville, South Carolina, churches, businesses, educators, and community organizations coalesced to open ten learning pods for minority and low-income children in our poorest communities. More than 200 children received personalized educational support in venues situated within walking distance or a short drive from where they lived. The majority of children entering these pods at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year were failing in several subjects. By the end of the school year, the overwhelming majority of these children were honor roll students. We saw real change is possible when a community takes the lead in education.
Community-driven collaboration is more than a passing phenomenon. Covid surfaced a latent ecosystem with the potential to create unprecedented educational excellence and equity. Perhaps we have grossly underestimated the potential of communities to assume a greater role in reversing the education gap.
My organization, New Way Global, is working to build a new, community-based educational ecosystem that will create educational opportunity for our children who need it most. We believe hundreds of excellent and innovative schools will be started in our poorest communities over the next twenty years.
While this vision may seem audacious, even outlandish, it is not a new idea. In the early 20th Century Booker T. Washington, president of Tuskegee College, partnered with Julius Rosenwald, philanthropist and president of Sears Roebuck to open innovative community-based schools for the descendants of former slaves. In roughly 20 years more than 5300 schools were erected across fifteen states in the rural south. By 1928, more than one third of black children in the rural South attended Rosenwald Schools, including such notable leaders as Maya Angelou and John Lewis.
Is it really possible for the private sector to support education on a broad scale? Consider, who would have imagined only 20 years ago that Space-X, Blue Origin and other private companies would be leading the way in space exploration and colonization?
In a recent interview, Elon Musk was asked why he has spent billions of dollars trying to go to Mars. He responded, “I’m going to Mars for one picture: A lush green landscape in front of a red dirt mountain… That picture is going to invite every Ideator, every Inventor, every Explorer, every Investor to say, “This is possible.” It takes entrepreneurial vision and innovation to forge major change, especially in systems that are essentially self-propagating monopolies.
We believe in less than 20 years we will see clearly that the community-driven response to Covid ignited a wave of education reform that broke the monopoly of a bloated and outdated bureaucracy and dramatically advanced education opportunity.