Hillary Clinton wrote a book in 1996 titled, It Takes a Village, where she shared her vision to make our society into the kind of village that enables children to become smart, able, resilient adults.

Mrs. Clinton believes that how children develop and what they need to succeed are inextricable from the society in which they live and how well it sustains and supports its families and individuals.

We have never needed community more than now.

I have worked in public education for over 20 years; first, when charter schools opened in Kansas City, Missouri, then, working for almost 10 years at the local urban school district in Kansas City.

I was initially excited working with charter schools, who gave families, mostly low-income, options for a high quality, free education and promised to do things differently than the local district.

Now, more than 20 years later, the promise of utilizing charter schools as incubators for innovation in public education has not been realized and our districts are maintaining the status quo.

The public education system is in crisis. And, as with most crisis situations, those in low-income communities and people of color usually suffer the most.

In Kansas City, across all grades, in English language arts and reading, only 26% of students have a proficient or better grasp of grade-level content. Statewide, this number is only 45%.

In math, only 13% of students have a proficient or better grasp of grade-level content.  Statewide, this number is only 35%, according to the Kansas City Action Fund, drawing on data from Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The data is even more bleak for students of color, as grade three data reveals major equity gaps.

A total of only 395 students (20%) are proficient or advanced in all of Kansas City (district and charter schools) in ELA/reading. Specifically, only a total of 156 students (15%) who are Black scored proficient or advanced in all grade three ELA/reading in Kansas City.

Additionally, only 88 LatinX students (16%) did the same. By comparison, 45% of their white peers did.

Grade three math data reveals equity issues as well. A total of only 286 students (14%) were proficient or advanced. However, only 109 Black students (10%) scored proficient or advanced, and only 82 LatinX (15%), compared to 33% for their white peers.

Grade three data is important, as it is the first grade level that is tested in Missouri. Also, research by the Annie E. Casey Foundation tells us that if students are not proficient in reading by grade three, then they are more likely to drop out of school or fail to graduate from high school on time and become our nation’s lowest-income, least-skilled, least-productive, and most costly citizens tomorrow.

While scores were horribly low before COVID-19 (26% proficient in math in 2019), they really went down in 2021 (13%).

In 2009, then President Barack Obama warned us of the state of our public education system saying, “The relative decline of American education is untenable for our economy, unsustainable for our democracy, and unacceptable for our children, and we cannot afford to let it continue.”

Yet, in the subsequent years, the decline has worsened, not improved.

What I haven’t yet been able to fathom is the lack of outrage. Why aren’t people shouting from rooftops that our public education system is in crisis? Why has this, along with so many other issues, become acceptable?

This past spring, after more than 30 years of being unaccredited and provisionally accredited, Kansas City’s local urban district finally received full accreditation. The city was ecstatic.

Local news stations, newspapers and social media were full of praise and congratulations for a district whose students are testing at the same levels of the data mentioned above and much lower than even the state average.

Should we really be celebrating? While everyone gushed over how great this was for our city, my stomach was churning with the false sense of achievement and my heart was aching for thousands of students whose community and support systems failed to recognize that they are in crisis.

But how do we make change happen? People ask me all the time, “With a problem so great, how do we fix it?”

I won’t lie, making changes in the public education system is a daunting task. It’s like the old joke, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

The education system will not get better unless each of us commits to making it better. And it will take all of us to do our part. It will take the community.

Educators will continue to make changes internally, but externally there are things we can do.

For example, houses of faith can open their doors and provide after-school and/or summer programming to help tutor students.

There is a nonprofit in Kansas City, Upper Room KC, that partners with churches across the city to provide eight-weeks of academic and enrichment programming to hundreds of students every summer.

Students are taught math and ELA/reading by certified teachers with the hope that they will be more prepared when schools open in the fall.

These same houses of faith can keep their doors open during the school year as a safe place students can go after school to receive tutoring or assistance with reading. Congregations are full of current and retired teachers.

We can use our talents to read to students, volunteer in our houses of faith and nonprofits to tutor students or help with counseling or social services.

Houses of faith should explore partnerships with education-focused non-profit organizations in their community, such as Lead to Read KC, which has a reading mentor program designed to help children become strong readers, successful students and the skilled future workforce.

And we can speak up and demand change. Ask questions. Know the data in your community.

Sustainable change happens when we make small increments over time. Small adjustments can have a major impact over time.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week focused on public education. The previous articles in the series are:

Why You Should Send Your Children to Public School | Cameron Vickrey 

Religious Liberty in Public Schools Requires Looking out for Students and Teachers | Jennifer Hawks

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