Through an agreement with the Stanford Social Innovation Review, PND is pleased to be able to offer a series of articles and profiles related to the "business" of improving society.
Weaving through the barren roads of North Memphis, Tennessee, I drive past rows of blighted homes, a tattered gas station with a single grocery store, and a few bus stops hidden in the grass. I pull up to Northaven Elementary, sign in, and wait for Principal Louis Padgett, who is busy facilitating weekend housing arrangements for two homeless students. Padgett greets me, takes me on a tour, and bends my ear as the district's chief financial officer about his school's needs.
Every three steps, students, parents, and teachers stop us to share personal news or explain a student's situation. We hear about an eight-year-old Latino boy who sleeps in a car because his family was evicted and about a nine-year-old Black girl who picks up lunch leftovers reserved for her and her siblings. Padgett smiles as he responds to each student's challenge. I leave the school wondering what more the district can do to help.
Similar school tours can be taken in many districts across the country. A huge burden is too often placed on principals and teachers to educate students and mitigate societal ills. They need greater support from school systems.
COVID-19 has highlighted the gross inequalities that plague our society and how important school districts are in addressing them. As school districts look to move past the pandemic, social responsibility must be integrated into their reopening. They have a moral imperative not only to educate their students but also to help liberate them and their families from social injustice and to support the revitalization and sustainability of their communities and environment.
Defining the Mission
School districts are more than centers of learning. They supply jobs, transportation, meals, wireless Internet, health care, and housing. The sheer scope of their activities dwarfs that of the largest corporations.
There were nearly 13,700 districts with approximately 100,550 public schools serving 50.3 million K-12 students in the 2015-16 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That school year, we spent roughly $678 billion on public K-12 schools employing 4.25 million instructional staff and two million support staff. We also spent $13.6 billion on lunches for 30 million kids, totaling five billion lunches for students annually — 150 meals each second of every day of the year, or twice the number of hamburgers served by McDonald's. About 100,000 school buildings existed, taking up 7.5 billion gross square feet — roughly half of the space taken up by commercial office buildings. Districts collectively possessed two million acres of land — double the size of Rhode Island. Districts also own the largest mass transit program, transporting nearly 26 million students on 480,000 school buses over 16 billion miles annually.
We have come to demand social responsibility from corporations, insisting that they balance their business purpose with social and environmental concerns. All the more reason to demand social responsibility from our school districts, which educate millions of children, support their families, and promote civic responsibility as a social good.
But most districts find it hard to be socially responsible for three reasons. First, social responsibility is not well defined for districts or integrated into their missions and strategies. Second, districts operate as systems rather than as institutions, which tends to dilute the powers at their disposal to promote societal change. Third, districts tend to be overwhelmed with demands and often are unable to acknowledge the depth of their engagement with society.
Social responsibility is the ethos that informs how districts achieve their mission while improving the community, society, and environment in which they are embedded. Unlike corporations, districts pursue social responsibility through their students and educational mission, liberating children to learn and make positive environmental and social change. In the midst of recent inequities and uncertainties, socially responsible districts are the engine that will drive future generations of children who protect our planet, solve social ills, and fight for justice. Education can help free children, communities, and society from an oppressive, senescent world and infuse it with humanity, dignity, and life.
Unlocking the Districts' Superpowers
To educate children while promoting social justice and responsibility, school districts have superpowers associated with their basic institutional roles that they can harness: their economies of scale, physical assets, local autonomy, role as community hubs, power to convene (one of six Americans visits a school daily), and ability to tap into student data. Here are some examples of districts doing this:
Wireless and digital divide | In the United States, millions of kids do not have access to the Internet, which limits learning opportunities at home. Buffalo Public Schools is bringing Wi-Fi connectivity to students' homes in most of the city's poorly connected neighborhoods by installing wireless antennas on eight schools and other nearby buildings. California's Coachella Valley Unified School District, the second-poorest district in the U.S., is bringing wireless connectivity to disadvantaged communities by putting network devices on a hundred school buses. Both examples demonstrate how districts can harness their physical assets and role as community hubs to help close the digital divide.
Unaffordable housing options | With the rising cost of housing in major cities, teachers often struggle to live near their schools and many students are relegated to unstable living conditions. The Dallas Independent School District addressed the problem by donating a shuttered elementary campus to a local group that converted into a 35-bed shelter for high school students. In California, the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District is building subsidized teacher residences to reduce commuting time, enhance its teacher recruitment efforts, and help relieve the financial burden on teachers.
Economic inequality | Districts supply a number of jobs that typically pay less than the living wage, including teacher assistants, cafeteria workers, and school secretaries. Several districts have fought back against economic inequality by ensuring that all employees make a living wage. One of them, Shelby County Schools in Memphis, Tennessee, has raised the wages for twelve hundred full-time employees to $15 per hour, which resulted in other loca government agencies, corporations, and healthcare institutions following suit. Districts have economies of scale that can ignite catalytic change in communities.
Food insecurity | Before COVID-19, food insecurity affected thirteen million children in the U.S. annually. Seventy-five percent of teachers indicated that their kids came to class hungry regularly. To help address the problem of food insecurity, Elkhart Community Schools in Indiana partnered with the nonprofit Cultivate to collect unused food from its own distrcit schools, package up frozen meals, and send the meals home withr students for their families. Other districts have created community gardens on vacant lands and used mobile pantries to distribute food and provide low-cost food options through mobile applications.
Segregated catchment areas | Most districts have the authority to adjust their catchment boundaries. Often, school attendance boundary decisions are influenced by special interest considerations that exacerbate racial and socioeconomic segregation in a city in what, in effect, is a nuanced form of gerrymandering. But the same tactics can be used to foster greater integration, Vox reporter Alvin Chang writes. For instance, Minneapolis Public Schools approved a comprehensive district design in May that redrew catchment boundaries and improved racial integration in its schools and neighborhoods. Districts have the authority to reduce neighborhood and school segregation but too often fail to use it.
The Benefits of Social Responsibility
U.S. students today lag behind those in many other countries in both math and science. In the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the United States ranked 13th of 99 countries in reading, 38th out of 91 countries in mathematics, and 18th out of 94 countries in science. Given the country’s lackluster academic standing, why should social responsibility be added to a school district's plate?
The answer is that social responsibility increases rather than detracts from educational opportunities by deepening learning for all students. For instance, school energy efficiency is not simply a matter of environmental stewardship. At $8 billion, energy is the second-largest annual school cost, but $2 billion could be saved and reallocated to the classroom annually if every K-12 school improved its energy efficiency. By enhancing indoor air quality, schools can also reduce the incidence of student illness in school buildings — and, by extension, chronic absenteeism — by 40 percent. Academic performance also improves with greater eposure to daylight and environmental education programs.
As I think back to my time at Northaven Elementary, I can imagine how liberation for its children in the age of COVID-19 might look. With students learning virtually, the district takes advantage of the opportunity to convert its diesel bus fleet to green or hybrid buses, and equips its newly green fleet with Wi-Fi transmitters and deploys buses to North Memphis to provide students and families with Internet. The buses are also outfitted as mobile grocery stores or mobile health-and-wellness centers to address food insecurity and limited medical access.
The school uses its land to grow organic vegetables with the use of food compost from daily breakfasts and lunches. The vegetables are used as part of a virtual culinary program where students learn how to prepare nutritious meals with the help of local chefs, and they spend the summer engaged in math, science, and reading assignments related to food and healthy eating. To promote entrepreneurship, students are encouraged to sell the vegetables to families living in food deserts.
These are just passing daydreams. At a school where students are truly liberated, there is no predicting how far they might go.
Lin Johnson III is a doctor of education leadership (EdLD) candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Previously, he served as deputy superintendent of finance and business operations at Shelby County Schools in Memphis and as a special projects director at the Tennessee Department of Education. He aalso worked with the DC Public Charter School Board to provide high-quality educational choices to students.