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The Good Long Road | Commentary by Jennifer Fischer
| Saturday, May 24, 2014

JenniferFischer

In November of 2011, the J. Michael McGrath Elementary School located in Newhall received the prestigious National Blue Ribbon Award. The school has a large number of students who are low income, as well as a significant number of English Language Learners. Similar schools in California and Los Angeles County average proficiency rates somewhere between 50 and 70% — some are even much lower. McGrath generally tests as 80-85% proficient in Language Arts and Math, sometimes higher in Math.

A few years ago, my husband and I worked on a documentary about this school, which set out (at the beginning of the 2010 school year) to reach the goal of 90% proficiency and wrote letters inviting President Barack Obama to come to the school if they achieved that goal. At the end of that year, they fell short, but still improved their scores significantly and received that National Blue Ribbon. My greatest lesson from the documentary, Underdogs, was the value of building a community of support, love and belief at a school — and of the power of a strong work ethic among staff and students. I saw the benefit of setting high goals for all students and of inspiring everyone at a school community –allstaff, teachers, administrators and students — to get excited about that goal.

Working on the documentary about this school served as an important reminder to me of how valuable educators are. Even if changes are needed, and I believe they are needed, I maintain that teaches are invaluable. Today, as summer draws near and the school year comes to close, I want to remind us all to take the time to thank the educators we know — whether they be friends, family members or the individuals that teach our children. It is a challenging job in a field that is constantly under attack. The individuals who commit themselves to education, and all of the challenges wrapped in it, deserve our gratitude and respect.

I grew up with a mother that was a public school teacher for much of my life, and many of my friends are educators. I know the dedication and hard work that so many teachers give to their students. I recall the long hours my mother worked, the late nights grading papers. I recall summer days my mom spent at school as she prepared her classroom.

I also acknowledge the challenges facing our public education system here in the U.S. and in countries around the world. The world has changed and the public education system, perhaps, has not changed enough.

I do not wish at this time to begin a debate or discussion on what must be done to fix public education or of the benefits of charter schools, home schools, unschooling or private schools in relation to traditional public education. That is a discussion for another time. Further, I have personally witnessed the benefit of each of these educational approaches for various children and families that I know. So instead, here, I hope to remind all of us to appreciate the educators we know — including parents who homeschool their children. Education is an important (and often thankless) job. As we all know, many other jobs pay much more, but I would argue that few are more important.

McGrath Elementary Principal Larry Heath

McGrath Elementary Principal Larry Heath

The film, Underdogs, which we made about McGrath Elementary School, demonstrates that despite the many, many challenges facing public schools, particularl low-income schools, there are schools that succeed. There are schools that empower students to achieve at high levels, and this gives me hope — and, once again, reminds of the importance of educators.

Personally, I want public schools to succeed because I want all children to succeed and to be given the opportunity to strive for their dreams and have the skills they need to do so. I want women like my mom and my friends who teach to be celebrated as quality educators and to be supported in the system.

And I want us all to move toward a constructive and supportive dialogue about education — a dialogue that makes space for different learners and different approaches to schooling. I want to believe that a film about a successful low-income public school can contribute positively to constructive debates about public education reform — and I hope to see more people join me in believing that every child can learn and succeed. Most of all, I want the film to inspire us all to overcome the challenges we face in life so that we can reach our goals. And chances are that when we do reach our goals, we’ll look around and realize that there were some very valuable teachers along the way who contributed to our success. When we do, let’s take the time to stop and thank them.

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