Dana Elementary,
an extraordinary school

Today, The Columbus Dispatch kindly included an opinion piece I wanted to share.

Their editor provided the headline, “City schools offer many signs of hope.” I think of it as: “Stop blaming the schools. It’s not that easy. Things are not what they appear.” (That’s why I’m not editor of the editorial page.)

Here’s the article, and the text is copied below.

The overall message, to me, is that despite having a cute, inspiring name (No Child Left Behind), our federal legislation doesn’t really measure the effectiveness of our public schools.

Here are better metrics for judging the effectiveness of our public education.

Why do I care? Ethically, we should all care. What’s the cost of even one student lost to a life of ignorance, underemployment and unhappiness?

Philosophically, it’s the failure of the American dream. But I’m not a philosopher. I’m a neighbor. And we can’t sit on our hands when the family down the block is failing. That’s the real result of ignorance, underemployment and unhappiness: another family — real people — who are vulnerable, rather than self-sustaining.

For now, here’s the text of the opinion piece in today’s Dispatch

City’s schools offer many signs of hope
By Artie Isaac

After long grumbling about the failure of Columbus Public Schools, I’m no longer grumbling; I’m mystified at how wrong I was.

On Nov. 7th, through the district’s annual publicity program, I was a “Principal for a Day” at Dana Elementary in Franklinton. Federal standards indicate that the district is improving, but Dana is still listed among failing schools. As an MBA, I figured I’d walk into the school and immediately see 10 things I’d change.

However, as soon as I met Principal Dave Kindinger, I began to question my preconceptions. He is a second-generation principal, a practical and joyful entrepreneur who really knows his business. He has enormous command of the metrics that run and assess his operation. “Mr. K” walks the halls and is warmly addressed and respected by students, teachers, staff and parents. Kids hug him. He offers thoughtful management, facilitated by very impressive, constant communication and quick, intelligent decision-making.

How’s this for entrepreneurship? A basement room (the 1911 building’s original coal bin!) is repurposed as a parents lounge, with coffee brewing and Web access for job searches. Sure enough, parents are there, ready to volunteer for Dana. Their presence says, “Not only is education important, school is a place that is worth attending.”

The teachers and staff are equally impressive. Every classroom has great teaching. Students are well behaved and focused on learning. Throughout the school, teachers work as teams, capably handling the large groups of students. I spoke with the teachers, administrators, librarians, nurses and custodians. Dana is a serious career for each and every person.

The students are, of course, dear. While the majority are white, Dana represents the nation’s diversity. The kids are eager to learn and overcome their hardships. They are the pride of their parents. They are kind to each other and polite to this visitor. They are affectionate. One even hugged me.

And, surprise, the classroom technology is advanced. Teachers use “smart boards” (a camera, computer, projector and touch-sensitive screen) to immediately project student work, spark classroom discussion and make notes on the document by writing on the board. Teachers are comfortable with the technology — and so are the kids. In one room, I saw dozens of students tapping into the wireless Internet on laptop computers.

And Dana is more than teachers teaching and students studying. There were also many student teachers from local universities, learning from the seasoned teachers and practicing their skills. Dana is a tremendous learning environment for all.

So why have so many of us given up on the city’s schools? How can Dana Elementary be both a failing school and an enormous success?

But, wait, this isn’t just about Dana. Afterward, all 130 “Principals for a Day” met to share their experiences. And everyone said the same thing: “I expected to see failure and chaos. I saw peaceful, energetic learning.”

Nationwide’s CEO Jerry Jurgensen, who chaired the program, described a boy he met that morning. Two weeks earlier, this survivor of civil war in Somalia had never seen a pencil, a tile floor or a bathroom. Yet, that morning, the child wrote a sentence in English. What enormous progress, but the federal standards will judge that child a failure if he can’t make the grade. “As a businessperson, I believe in performance standards,” Jurgensen said. “But the drafters of No Child Left Behind never contemplated this child.”

He’s right. Here’s what I had never contemplated before I was re-schooled. The schools are not broken, but they are:

• Swamped with turnover. By November, Dana Elementary already had 29 percent turnover. By June, Kindinger projects more than 420 students (the size of the student body) will have come and gone. Imagine teaching a class with net annual turnover of 100 percent.

• Hindered by poverty. Many Dana families are on what Kindinger calls “the 90-day plan.” They pay one month’s rent and a one-month security deposit. But that’s all they can afford, so they are evicted after 90 days. The families are on the move.

• Dealing with students who begin kindergarten with nothing. They don’t live with books or pencils. They haven’t learned basic numbers. How many meaningful conversations have they had with adults?

“We’re entitled to have our opinions about public schools. It’s a free country,” said Jurgensen. “However, if you haven’t ever stepped foot in one of our schools, I question the substance underlying your opinion.”

Here’s my new opinion: It’s time to stop grumbling about the schools. They just might be doing a great job. Now, it’s up to us to help. Why not start by calling and then visiting a Columbus Public School?

Artie Isaac is president and chief strategist of Young Isaac, a Columbus advertising agency.