Investing in our public schools

The recent conversation around investing in Rhode Island’s schools has largely been focused on school infrastructure and how the state will afford these needed facility updates. We are excited about this important conversation, and our students certainly deserve safe and modern spaces.

Alongside this conversation, we should be sure to keep focus on what is happening inside our state’s schools right now. During this year’s Education Awareness Week (beginning April 9), we think it is important to bring a focus to how each of us can make a personal investment with a big impact, even before we head to the polls in the fall.

Teach For America-Rhode Island and Junior Achievement of Rhode Island partner each year with a shared vision to expand opportunities for students. TFA recruits diverse leaders to make a lifelong commitment to ending educational inequity, beginning with teaching in some of Rhode Island’s highest-need classrooms. And, JA recruits volunteers from a variety of professional backgrounds to serve as role models in classrooms, where they help deliver programming in work readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy.

Our shared contributions to the broader effort for educational equity and excellence is the leadership of remarkable people. And we believe many more Rhode Islanders have the potential to be these people who are having a real impact by working and volunteering with Rhode Island’s students.

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The change that is needed in our public schools is complex and no one person can solve it alone. This is the work of communities, not individual heroes. The bold, sustained change that our schools need requires the collective effort of a broad coalition of people working together. Since 2010, TFA has brought to Rhode Island a network of more than 200 people, all of whom began by teaching in some of the state’s highest-need schools, and who have collectively reached more than 20,000 students.

TFA-R.I.’s more than 200 alumni, who are classroom, school and district leaders, policymakers, founders of advocacy organizations, social entrepreneurs, and business, philanthropic and civic leaders, are working together and with other members of their communities to shape the context and conditions in which schools operate. Over the last 97 years, JA has reached more than 400,000 K-12 students, with nearly 7,800 students reached last year.

In 2015, JA conducted a survey of more than 1,600 teachers and found that some of their concerns included not being able to connect curriculum to life outside the classroom, and keeping students engaged.

Our organizations’ leaders are addressing those concerns by bringing real-life experiences, including their own paths to success and the challenges encountered along the way, to classrooms across the state. They are not only delivering curriculum, but making meaningful connections with students whom they believe deeply in. They are demonstrating to students that while opportunity may still discriminate along lines of race and class, potential does not. And they are showing students, through investments of their own time and expertise, that every student matters and should have access to the opportunities and resources that they deserve to reach their own great potential.

Investing in our public schools does not always require legislative action.

There are programs and organizations, like ours, who have made long-term commitments and are seeing real impact in Rhode Island’s public schools. We need more people to join us and make your own investment.

Kristine Frech is executive director of Teach For America-Rhode Island. Lee Lewis is president of Junior Achievement of Rhode Island.