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Great schools innovate to teach our kids successfully during and beyond this pandemic

FILE - In this May 16, 2020, file photo Jaime Susano, a graduating senior from Buckeye Union High School, shouts in celebration during the Parade of Graduates, a drive-thru graduation ceremony, on the race track at Phoenix Raceway in Avondale, Ariz. High schools across the country have added pomp to their circumstances to make graduations special amid the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

FILE – In this May 16, 2020, file photo Jaime Susano, a graduating senior from Buckeye Union High School, shouts in celebration during the Parade of Graduates, a drive-thru graduation ceremony, on the race track at Phoenix Raceway in Avondale, Ariz. High schools across the country have added pomp to their circumstances to make graduations special amid the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

Great school leaders and teachers who create opportunity for our most vulnerable students today are keys to achieving the more equitable future our children in Arizona deserve. Institutions and systems take time – sometimes unnecessarily long – to reform. And in the context of a child’s education, time is a luxury we simply don’t have.

Equity for students certainly includes an equitable access to resources, but must also mean equal access to achieving their greatest potential. Narrowing racial gaps in academic achievement and expanding access to high-quality schools and classrooms proximate to every child are inseparable. We know with the right skills and training, one child can go on to do extraordinary things that change our community and the world.

Each child in Arizona deserves the opportunity to reach that potential, and our communities deserve to feel their impact. Indeed, our current health crisis reminds us that instruction in foundations, including science, economics, and ethics, is not esoteric. We need these young minds for the health of our nation – in every sense of the word.

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Emily Anne Gullickson

In the midst of calcifying public discourse, our students face a sharper inflection point on the issues of race, inclusion, and equal treatment than at any point in their lifetimes and in many of ours. As educators, we must embrace our responsibility for training this next generation of leaders in their histories and in the civil discourse and critical thinking skills necessary to solve systemic social issues our own generations have yet to resolve. We must succeed in encouraging our students to ask tough questions and to listen with that same intensity. They must know how to discover answers to generationally complex issues by studying history and engaging in civics. Great teachers model how we seek and hear another’s points of view even or especially when it conflicts with our own experience.

It is a critical time that cannot be lost in handwringing about whether or not it is possible to teach successfully in this moment. It is. And policymakers can help. Today’s students need the benefit of novel education policies designed around this time and these urgent needs.

We know what these policies should look like and the results they can produce. We know that achieving excellence is a decision driven by the belief that every student has potential and the capacity to excel, even during a global pandemic and in a nation of unrest. Our great state is home to dozens of principals and system leaders from Rio Rico to Congress that relentlessly delivered a high-quality “full day school” experience to their students this spring – and yes, even in largely impoverished neighborhoods and communities.

We know from their recent innovation and success that virtual and digital strategies do not have to be inferior. And we know that many families actually discovered these great schools during the state shutdown, and were welcomed there. These students finally gained access to a great teacher and classroom with high expectations where others had failed to expect or deliver more.

Great schools offer so much more than strong academics, and they continued to do so this spring. Some schools embraced new regulatory freedoms to leverage telemedicine and daily video access to school counselors, as well as small support groups to meet their students’ social and emotional needs. Some schools used the new regulatory flexibilities to provide more learning – not less – and gave greater access virtually to kids and families outside of their traditional brick and mortar geographic area. We learned again that empowering visionary school leaders to serve their communities according to the needs they understand leads to powerful results.

It will take considerable ingenuity and a commitment to reimagine the way we serve Arizona students and families, but we at A for Arizona believe we have seen what this future can look like. We must focus on policy that supports innovation, expands excellence, scale what works, and ensure that our highest-quality schools – especially those serving our most vulnerable communities – are open and operational Day 1.

Thanks to our exceptional school leaders, we have seen that there are viable pathways, models, and policies that can accelerate students’ abilities to reach their full potential.

In the end, it all comes back to education, big thinking, and courageous leadership to solve these long-time systemic issues in order to provide every child with the power of knowledge in the way that will succeed for them. Our state is counting on these exceptional educators to continue to lead the way.

Emily Anne Gullickson, J.D., M.Ed. is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of A for Arizona and former middle school teacher in Phoenix.

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