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Karin Chenoweth

Karin Chenoweth is writer-in-residence at The Education Trust, a national education advocacy organization, and author of It’s Being Done and HOW It’s Being Done and co-author of Getting It Done, all published by Harvard Education Press.  Her columns originally appear on The Huffington Post.

For a Boost of Optimism, Read (and Watch) This

March 4, 2016

"I don't think there's a child out there who doesn't want to learn and be the best they can be."

Those are the words of Barbara Preuss, a veteran educator with more than 30 years of experience.

That is to say, she is no bright-eyed novice about to be confronted by reality. She is confronted by plenty of reality, every day. And yet she retains her belief that even the kids who act out and misbehave still want to learn and still need to learn.

She retains this belief because she has seen it again and again, in all the schools where she has worked.

Preuss is principal of the elementary grades of the Charles Drew Charter School in Atlanta, Georgia, a school I've written about before, and the former assistant principal of Centennial Place Elementary, which I've also written about. Both schools enroll mostly African American students from low-income homes, and during her time, both were toward the top of the state in terms of achievement — Drew still is.

Last year, Preuss attended a small gathering in New Orleans of leaders from Dispelling the Myth schools. That is, they were all leaders of high-performing schools with large populations of children of color or children from low-income homes that had been recognized by The Education Trust with its Dispelling the Myth Award. If you ask me, the Dispelling the Myth leaders are some of the most accomplished educators in the country.

There, Ed Trust took advantage of the fact that they were all in the same place to ask them whether they thought it fair to expect schools to help all students to meet or exceed state standards.

The result is a new video that begins with Preuss' statement above and includes those of several other Dispelling the Myth leaders, including Jennie Black. Black was the long-time assistant principal of Ware Elementary School in Kansas and became principal of another school in the same district where most of the children come from low-income families.

"If you can overcome a crisis in your life, if you can overcome poverty, if you can overcome crime, if you can overcome any obstacle in your life, you become a stronger person," Black said. "Teaching and learning can change a society."

Again. There's no naiveté there. Those are the words of someone who has seen the power of education in the lives of children living difficult lives.

In the background of the video are scenes from Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School in New Orleans, and seated in her office is Mary Haynes-Smith, who has led the school since the early days after Hurricane Katrina to become one of the top-performing schools in Louisiana.

"I think it's fair to say — more than fair — for all schools to help all kids — especially those kids who come from poverty. Those kids need it more than anybody," Smith says in the video.

The educators in the video represent, in many ways, some of the best of America. These are educators who have worked under some very difficult conditions and have found ways to be successful. None of them, by the way, would claim success. They are never satisfied with the way their schools are performing and always see something more that can be done.

But if all schools were performing at the level of their schools, we as a nation would be feeling much better about the prospects of the next generation.

If anyone is interested in seeing what successful educators look like and how they talk — and if they want to get a boost of optimism — they should watch Preuss say: "Children have a right — every single child has a right — to learn and be successful. And it's up to us to make sure they are successful."

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"Oh, magic hour, when a child first knows she can read printed words!" — A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1943