What a Vision for Teaching the Whole Child Looks Like in Action

EdSurge Podcast

What a Vision for Teaching the Whole Child Looks Like in Action

By Stephen Noonoo     Dec 4, 2018

What a Vision for Teaching the Whole Child Looks Like in Action

It’s one of the biggest buzzwords in education today: the whole child. Basically, it’s the idea that educating students is about more than what’s said in class. Factors like nutrition, home life and out-of-school relationships can all play a huge role in how kids learn—and it’s something more schools are starting to pay attention to.

The theory behind whole child is one thing. How it gets put into practice is something else entirely.

That’s something Jonathan Raymond had to learn on the job. Raymond is former superintendent of Sacramento City Unified and author of “Wildflowers: A School Superintendent's Challenge to America.”

In his new book, Raymond notes that he walked into his role with a strong vision centered around the whole child, and he wants others to follow his lead to “relinquish dogma and ideology” and focus on putting children first. Yet his arrival in Sacramento coincided with the Great Recession, and six straight years of funding cuts. His ambitious vision began to run up against hard realities.

At the recent EdSurge Fusion conference, Raymond spoke with us about that vision, what it looks like when applied to things like budgets and summer vacations, and what leaders can learn from his missteps.

Listen to the discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you listen. The transcript below has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

EdSurge: Whole child is a huge topic, and it's a big focus of your book Wildflowers. Can you give us the 30-second elevator pitch about what it is and why it's important?

Raymond: When I talk about whole child education, I like to talk about questions. We often start with, “What are the hopes and dreams of your child?” Or, “How can we give your child what he or she most needs?” And simply, “How is your child?”

It starts with a set of questions, but then it really recognizes that our children are full human beings. We need to really think about educating their heads, making sure that they have the knowledge and the skills and the tools to be intellectually curious and inquisitive. We also need to recognize that to really engage kids, we’ve got to figure out how to get them active and passionate about what it is they're learning. Often that means being able to see that what they're learning is real and has relevance in the world and in their community and they can literally get their hands in it.

We also need to remember that true learning really comes from the heart. Are we paying attention to how we're teaching our children to be understanding?

I would say that whole child education recognizes that we need to educate the whole person, and it also means we need to engage our families, our parents, and our community as partners in this process.

Summer slide is a very well-known phenomenon. Students can lose a lot of ground during the summer months when they're not in school. Can you talk about some of the specific programs you put in place in Sacramento?

My kids were fortunate. They could go back East with grandparents and go to camps. But the majority of our families—75 percent—lived in poverty. They didn't have those options.

When I got to California in 2009, the mantra was, Close schools down [for the summer]. Turn off the lights, turn off the air conditioning, shut down. The reality was most of our kids were either on the street or home in front of television sets without adult supervision because parents were out working. We decided that to really change things, we needed community partners. We were fortunate at the time that there was a grant opportunity that enabled us to create our Summer of Service Program.

This was a summer program for incoming middle-school students and incoming high-school students where they could actually go to their schools. They could meet their new classmates and some of their new teachers. It provided mentoring opportunities for upperclassmen at both the middle-school and high-school level, and most importantly, these young people got to choose their own community service project that they could work on over the course of five weeks. Some chose to work with homeless. Some chose to work with those who had drug addictions. But the point was that it’s the student's choice. When school started, these kids had already been on their new campuses. They had new friends, they knew some of their teachers and they had a project that they could work on throughout the school year.

I'll never forget driving by one of our high schools at 7:30 on a Monday morning after school had ended the previous Friday. There were hundreds of kids out front waiting to get into school. Who gets up early on summer vacation? Well, kids get up when they know that there's going to be something really valuable, exciting and meaningful for them.

In the book, you talked about rethinking the parent-teacher conference. What does a more integrated approach look like?

We started by building trusted relationships with our parents. I was fortunate that we had the parent-teacher home visit project. It had been started in Sacramento about nine years before my arrival, and it was only in about 20 of our 67-plus schools. It's a program where teachers get trained to go with their colleagues into the home of their students as a way to begin to build a relationship and break down some of the stereotypes and the stigmas and the blame that occurs. During the first conversation the question is always, “What are the hopes and dreams for your child?” And it's amazing what that dialogue can do to start to create a relationship. Our parents are our children's first and most consistent teacher, and we need them.

Building off of that program, we wanted to do something different. At the high school level, usually you have to really push to get a conference, and there's no time to really get into understanding what is happening with my child with four or five different teachers. So, we said, “How about if we take that time and we do something different?”

In the schools where we had the parent-teacher home visit program, we asked ourselves, What if we invite our parents to come to school every quarter as a whole class, and we engage and empower them by showing them their students' work? We gave them a couple things they could do for their child at home during the week, say, something in math and something in English language arts. And we created some goals with them. Then we came back in six or eight weeks and we're able to show the progress that their student had made, and let them ask questions.

That's what I mean by rethinking. How do we use our time and resources? These things don't have to cost more money, but they can yield better results.

Your tenure coincided with the Great Recession. How do we really show families that they're important during budget cuts?

We can start by listening to them. We can start by asking them questions, asking for their ideas, getting their involvement and their input. We would hold community forums around our budget. We would ask our school communities to understand our situation and what we're dealing with. We would ask them for ideas.

When people know that they have a say—but not necessarily that it's going to go their way— they're really appreciative, and they're more willing to lend their shoulder to the wagon to help push it up the hill. You'll be amazed at what kind of resources are available to you within a community when you ask.

You wrote that Americans have a tough time thinking through problems that involve inequality. If we assume that to be true, where do we even start if we can't even think through these problems?

We have to be honest about what we're trying to address. The whole child approach at its very heart is about all children, and it recognizes that we must give children not equal treatment, but equal consideration. Some children in some families—simply by the nature of the challenges that they're facing—need and require more. We just need to be honest about that, and then be willing to do something about it.

I didn't come to Sacramento to necessarily change the way we feed our children. But when you have a vision that's about putting children first and you realize that three-quarters of the children eat the food that we serve them, it makes you start thinking differently about the kind of food you're serving. That's what I mean when I talk about having a philosophy and being grounded in a vision that is about putting children in the middle and making decisions around them. Opportunities present themselves by which you can act and show that you live your values.

You had a very public battle with your teachers' unions during your tenure. At one point, you were even involved in a lawsuit with them over teacher retention. It sounds like it was hard to build that relationship of trust. Does that speak to some of the very real challenges in the whole child, community-building approach?

I would say it had more to do with my inability to develop strong, trusted relationships with some of my partners. In my early days in Sacramento, I think I had a pretty good relationship with our teachers' union. Again, their job is to represent their members, who happened to be our employees during the school day. Sometimes you have to take the time to really develop those relationships and understand where to find common ground, and where we can do things that are really good for kids and adults.

And I think at that time, with the resources being so difficult, and having to make cut after cut after cut, at some point—because school districts are largely made up of people—close to 90 percent of our budget really was about people's salaries and benefits. That’s going to bump up against some of the things that you have to do or want to do. I think that really places the premium on having strong, trusted relationships.

There are some areas, as I look back, where I could have done some things differently. I think I could have spent more time and effort cultivating those relationships. And that's something that I share with superintendents and aspiring superintendents today: the importance of keeping those relationships and knowing when you need to compromise and knowing when you need to stand firm and agree to disagree.

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