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Changing the Education System from the Ground Up



The most potent innovations are simple in design, efficiently produced and accessible to all.  Whereas commercial enterprise is wired for innovation—staying ahead of the competition provides a natural incentive to innovate with success defined by profitability and market share—civic innovation, by contrast, focuses on improving how government operates, interacts with and serves its communities.

Civic innovation seeks to capitalize on government assets or behaviors to serve the public more efficiently and effectively. Success is defined by a government that is open, accountable and inclusive in designing services that bring benefits to everyone.

Public education tries to innovate. But in large urban areas such as New York City, creative change faces many hurdles. The sheer size and scope of our public education system is enormous: more than 1,800 schools scattered across five boroughs, employing 135,000 pedagogical, administrative and custodial staff serve 1.1 million students between the ages of 4 and 21.  The NYC Department of Education’s operating budget for the current fiscal year is $25.7 billion. And, as in most urban areas, it’s a large and politically fraught bureaucracy with education experts, elected officials, parents, advocacy groups and private corporations all arguing over how best to deliver quality education to children.

Unlike the corporate sector, the civic or public sector does not have the luxury of “selling” innovation to consumers willing to pay for it. Private schools can charge what parents are willing to pay for innovations. Private tutors, test prep and extended learning programs that charge fees can also afford to innovate.

Charter schools are a response to public demands for alternative approaches to K-12 education. While charter schools receive government funds, they are not obligated to follow the same terms and conditions of the regular district schools. They can innovate in the number of hours their employees work since they don’t have collective bargaining agreements with teachers. They can also select who they want to attend their schools through applications and lotteries. No one is guaranteed a spot in a charter school.

NYC public schools are funded based on strict formulas with some allowances for additional services to high-poverty schools and kids with special education needs. But teachers and principals have to work the system and navigate the maze of constraints in order to meet their students’ basic daily needs.

“Principals, teachers, parents and students—the people whose daily lives shape and are shaped by public schools—know best what their communities require and how to improve the quality of learning and engagement.”

Achieving something truly innovative in public K-12 education requires dedication and extraordinary resourcefulness. Fortunately, there are parents and teachers who are passionately committed to bringing creativity and ingenuity to delivering education based not on financial rewards, but on the goal of inclusivity and universal benefits. Principals, teachers, parents and students—the people whose daily lives shape and are shaped by public schools—know best what their communities require and how to improve the quality of learning and engagement. Their innovations most often start from the ground up.

One successful example is a local New York City movement to rid school cafeterias of toxic Styrofoam trays. These trays clog landfills, taking hundreds or even thousands of years to decay. As recently as six years ago, the Department of Education (DOE) was purchasing 850,000 Styrofoam trays per day!

Parents from several Manhattan schools petitioned the DOE to create “Trayless Tuesdays,” while also campaigning to educate other parents and schools about the environmental and health risks of Styrofoam. A few schools also committed to raising the funds, through parent donations, to pay the difference to the DOE to purchase biodegradable sugarcane-based food trays. At East Village Community School, Helen Greenberg, a fearless parent advocate for healthier schools, began selling fresh popcorn as an afterschool snack to help finance the biodegradable trays.

In 2012, the movement celebrated a citywide victory. The New York city council introduced a resolution to phase out and eliminate the use of Styrofoam food trays in public schools. A year later, the NYC DOE issued a solicitation to purchase compostable plates to serve over 150 million meals per year in school cafeterias. Many schools have now converted to environmentally friendly organic food trays. Eventually, they will become the norm in all city schools.

Another such grassroots innovation evolved in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, where a school administrator, Victoria Armas, built a public middle school from the ground up. Her visionary school, City Knoll Middle School, incorporates daily mindful breathing for teachers and students alike. Using a program called MindUP, they engage in mindful breathing four times a day.

Nothing fancy, electronic or expensive here, but Armas’ commitment to embedding an age-old practice—breath meditation—in a novel setting can benefit everyone in the school.

To address the difficulty of efficiently sharing innovative ideas and information with disparate school stakeholders, two Brooklyn public school parents, Rachel Fine and Lisa Ableman, with support from City Councilmember Brad Lander, built an online network, PTAlink. This network is an independent, non-commercial website for teachers, parents and advocates to find resources and ideas for building school capacity. The goal: to ensure all NYC public school parent organizations have equal access to the information and support they need to engage families and enrich their schools. By recognizing a need articulated by parents and teachers throughout the city, these innovators designed and launched a low-cost tool to meet the challenge of sharing ideas across the public school system.

On a recent evening, as we sat around the dinner table, my kids, who attend a public elementary school across town from CityKnoll, excitedly told me about a new feature of their day at school-—mindful breathing!

Imagine: simple, innovative ideas that work to benefit everyone in public education!

The Public Good provides strategic planning and capacity building services for the public sector and its business partners. Our mission is to advance opportunities for success in the most diverse environments imaginable.

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