Sunday, April 11, 2010

Progress Comes from Focus on the Future

Today, we have another column (I refer here to the Your-Turn article by CAIR in today's Times) which tries to prove who is at fault for the District's alleged failures to resolve harassment and bullying that undeniably exists in schools. What is singular about this column is that it uses precious print space seeking to justify a complaint to the Department of Education, as if this is the central issue of importance to our community and to our schools. The complaint has been filed; trying to justify the filing of the complaint may make the people who filed it feel better, but it will accomplish little else.

To my brother and sister lawyers at CAIR, let me say this. Our school district has adopted a "continuous progress" model of reform fostered by the National School Boards Association. The idea behind continuous progress is that progress comes from acknowledging problems and focusing on the change that is needed, rather than focusing on who is to blame for the problem. This is hard for lawyers to do, because we lawyers are so used to winning cases by proving who is at fault. A lawsuit is about proving who ran a red light, not about how to make sure people don't run red lights in the future.

One of the problems with focusing on fault, is that it causes people to be defensive and resistant to change. Listen. We have fantastic dedicated teachers. They want students to be welcomed. They are doing everything they can think of to do to create an environment that assures every student an orderly safe positive school environment. I believe in our teachers and I believe in our schools. Trying to convince them that they are the problem is going down the wrong road. Frankly, the vast majority of our teachers are saying, if there is something more I can do to contribute to creating a welcoming environment for all children, let me know. This idea of trying to prove that our teachers and administrators are at fault is a losing strategy, because its not going to bring about change, and its going to send us down the road of recrimination and division.

So when we focus on proving who is wrong--on who caused the problem--instead of what we want to improve, we create a defensive atmosphere that paralyzes the organization and forces it to justify the past. The District adopted a continuous progress model because, at the leadership level, we know that public education needs to make change. This focus on who is at fault is going to lead to nothing positive. I am constantly hearing from a small segment of the parents of white students that they believe that Somali students have special privileges. They complain about the attitude of some Somali boys towards women. Some believe that there is a dual system of justice that treats minority students better than majority students. I hear as well from some parents of minority students that they believe exactly the opposite. That there is a dual system of justice that treats majority students better. Focusing on blame encourages this debate and causes people to resist change, because they see change as involving a confession of error.

The continuous progress model says, look, our district is run by humans. Humans are not perfect. We make mistakes. We learn from our mistakes. We can always do better. You don't have to prove that we are incompetent to convince us to make change. Let's talk about what needs to be done in the future, not who is to blame for the past. Let's spend our time trying to make the future better than focusing on who is at fault for the past. The Irish Catholics and Protestants spent centuries in a cycle of recrimination about who was more at fault for the atrocities committed by Protestant and Catholic extremists. They overcame these divisions when they cancelled the debate about the past and began to work together to make a better future.

Anybody who lives here in St. Cloud, knows that we have a lot of work to do in building understanding between our new Somali neighbors and those of us who immigrated here a few decades earlier. We know that there is a vast gap in understanding about our respective beliefs and practices. We have not integrated as a community in the sense of having the broad universal mutual respect and understanding that we need. To get there, it is going to take lots of work on the part of Somali leadership and non-Somali leadership. If there are things we can do better in schools, we need to do them.

This community does need to acknowledge that it is all too frequent for people who seem different from the majority to be taunted, humiliated, or shunned. Many who live in the so-called majority community have no idea, and indeed would be appalled to learn, that such humiliations are a frequent occurrence for minority families. These acts are not committed by the vast majority of citizens, but by too many. Too many folks in St. Cloud begin a dialog about immigrants in ways that don't lead to understanding and respect. More of us need to recognize that the vast majority of Somalis came to this community to realize the American dream--to get a good job, to work hard to earn a living, to see their kids succeed through education. We need to see Somalis as an asset to this community, families who believe in hard work and education as the road to success. We're not going to get there, however, by trying to prove who is at fault for the failure to understand each other. Change comes from focusing on the future, not the past.

There are things that we can do in the schools to create a more positive environment. But the idea that we have just begun, is well, frankly, blarney. These issues are not new to St. Cloud, and the efforts to address them are not new either. The work to promote understanding and tolerance, and a welcoming environment, long predates the letters sent by CAIR.

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