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CGCS Gathering: Unity in an Uncertain Age

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos says America needs “great public schools.”

But her speech during the annual legislative meeting of the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS) in Washington, D.C. on Monday left more questions than it delivered answers.

While DeVos promised to roll back federal regulations to help school leaders be more “creative,” the secretary offered little in the way of details about how such a system might eventually look.

Despite a palpable uncertainty, the nation’s urban school leaders remain resolute and steadfast in their mission to provide a top-flight educational experience for the nation’s schoolchildren.

That was obvious during the three-day meeting, where school leaders managed to have productive conversations about everything from immigration policy to transgender bathrooms to male students of color.

As a former CGCS school district member and someone who returned to the CGCS after a  five-year absence, I was energized to be a part of so many meaningful work sessions. I was also reminded of the great service that CGCS provides its members.

Here are just a few of my key takeaways from the event. I hope you find them useful.

  1. There is no substitute for safe and trusted spaces. I’ve been a school district superintendent so I know how hard it can be to find a safe place to speak frankly and to share ideas. When you lead a district, you have to be careful what you say and where you say it. To have a place like CGCS, where peers can gather to freely exchange ideas without fear of who’s listening or how it will read in the headlines the next day is critical to both school and school leader development.
  2. A dual focus on academics and operations is a must. The bedrock of any good school system is quality academics. But great learning can’t happen without strong operational support. To run a successful school district, school leaders have to do both of these things well. I was encouraged to see school leaders talking about the need for operational efficiency, and to hear that CGCS has dedicated teams to help with that.
  3. The value of experience is incredible and undeniable. Whether you’re a new superintendent or a veteran school leader moving to a new district, you cannot overvalue the benefit of having “been there.” Everybody faces different challenges at different times. For instance, I talked to one school leader who was considering closing schools in his district. I faced a similar challenge during my tenure in Michigan. So we had a conversation about it. He couldn’t have been more grateful for the advice. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.

After three days at CGCS, what it came down to, for me, was listening. I listened to the challenges that urban school leaders across the country were facing. I listened to potential solutions as they spontaneously emerged for these incredibly engaging work sessions. And I listened to my colleagues and friends talk about how the national dialogue around public education is changing, literally, in front of our very eyes.

I can’t tell you what the future holds for our schools. Given the uncertainty we are experiencing, no one can. But there is one thing I can say with confidence: The nation’s urban school leaders will continue to come together to do what’s right for students and families. Every day. Whatever it takes.

If you’re dealing with challenges in your schools and want to talk through them, I’m happy to have a conversation with you. Email me at gerald.dawkins@k12insight.com.