Last week I attended a conference sponsored by November Learning (BLC2018) which is focused on children and how to help them learn effectively. Jonathan P. Raymond was one of the speakers. His new book Wildflowers: A School Superintendent’s Challenge to America got my attention. As an author, I don’t know much about school administration. Raymond followed Rudy Crew as the superintendent of the Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD) in August of 2009 to December of 2013 with 46,000 students of which 75% had family incomes below the federal poverty line and spoke more than forty different languages. It was also the period where the State of California was in its sixth straight year of budget cuts to school districts.
Raymond moved to Sacramento with his family and entered his three children in the public schools. Then he spent the first hundred days visiting every school in his district, sometimes as many as three a day. He came armed with a vision of educating the Whole Child— “head, heart, and hands”—a philosophy that looks at children as individuals and addresses issues of readiness to learn (like good nutrition), and reaches out to the parents and community as partners in this vision. He identified the six worst schools and decided to make them a priority. He hired insiders, with proven value, to become part of his team. He is anti-standardized testing and is profoundly influenced by John Dewey and the contemporary formidable educator Linda Darling-Hammond. All of these things made me sympathetic to his journey.
There was one aspect of Jonathan P. Raymond’s preparation for this job, however, that gave me pause. Raymond briefly summed up his early career as a lawyer and politician who became a Broad Fellow at the Broad Academy for ten months in preparation for an administrative job in education. Diane Ravitch offers this post on some of what the Broad Academy has done and what it stands for. His belief in educating the Whole Child and his experience of the Waldorf school progressive education overrides some of what he learned from Broad. Here’s what Raymond says about “school reform” and teachers:
“It’s no secret that some people in the so-called “school reform” movement are at war with teachers’ unions, and whether they intend it or not, are perceived as being at war with teachers themselves. What I learned in Sacramento and keep learning as I move forward personally and professionally, is that no effort to transform a school or a district can succeed without recognizing the dignity and worth of teachers [italics, his] through appropriate compensation, opportunities for professional development and positive collaborative working conditions.”
He also said:
“The Broad Academy did me no favors with it came to union relations. ‘People who come from outside education are more used to working in performance culture versus entitlement culture,’ Broad’s director told The Sacramento Bee when my appointment was first announced. Disparaging hard-working educators by calling them ‘entitled’ is not how I would have set the table. “
His last chapter, “Solutions: Five Keys to Reimagine Schools,” puts leadership in the center with input from students, teachers, and community resulting in compromise in which all factions have buy-in. He is at odds with the entrenched top-down organization that is a tradition in most districts.
Jonathan P. Raymond’s title Wildflowers is a metaphor for the potential of all children to find a way to bloom when they encounter the proper nurturing environment for the special idiosyncratic germ within them. This is a passionate, thoughtful book that can bring vision and hope to our public schools.