Ossining, NY: A School District with the Freedom to Educate

This inspiring story by Jackie Mader in The Hechinger Report about the school district of Ossining, NY contains a lot of interesting information, but what struck me most was an innovative approach the district took to increase integration. They reorganized their four elementary schools so that each school, instead of serving a neighborhood, took one or two grades, and all the children cycled through all the schools together. It is not something that would be right for every community, not something that should be “scaled up”, although it might be something that would work in some other districts. It certainly worked for Ossining.

One of those elementary schools is now the Park Early Childhood Center, which has not only Kindergarten and PreK, but something called the “First Steps Program”, described on their website as “a family outreach program that… may provide assistance with anything that helps family stability, from health screenings and parent workshops to family enrichment, intergenerational activities,” and more.

This is a school district that is responsive to its community, always striving to improve, and addressing needs as they arise. They are able to do that because, as the principal of Ossining High School, Joshua Mandel, is quoted in the article as saying, “We have a supportive community. They give the high school the opportunity to experiment and try different things.” This flexibility is exactly what is necessary to provide for the needs of all students.

This approach is the exact opposite of what is now being promoted by people who call themselves education reformers. I believe most (but not all) of them do have good intentions, but they are fundamentally wrong. Everything they propose reduces the ability of individual teachers, schools and districts to adapt to the different and changing needs of their students. As more and more standardization is required, whether it be in terms of tests, curricula or school structures and practices, less and less room exists for creativity and true innovation. The changes Ossining made would not be right for every community, but they were right for that community, and that is the point.

As Joshua Mandel also said, “There’s not one thing that’s going to fix everything. We’re willing to try different things and to try to instill in our students that we will never give up on them.” These are essential characteristics of a good teacher, school or district, that commitment combined with that experimental attitude, and all good educators know this. It is only possible to exhibit these characteristics, however, in an environment that allows for it.

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