Viramontes: We can’t build a better education system alone
Teach For America Bay Area Executive Director Beatrice Viramontes talks with students at Mt. Pleasant High School in San Jose. Photo courtesy of Teach For America Bay Area.

    This time last year I was weeks away from my daughter’s due date, and a few months into my new role as executive director of Teach For America (TFA) Bay Area. I was preparing for a new phase of my life that I could only conceptually understand would be uniquely challenging, and fulfilling. It wasn’t until I actually became a parent that I saw how it would inform my view as an educator.

    Holding my baby in my arms made clearer the importance of honoring every child’s humanity by surrounding them with communities that help every one of them to thrive.

    My personal milestone as a parent coincides with a milestone for TFA Bay Area—the 30th anniversary. For decades, we’ve partnered with schools all over the greater Bay Area, including many in San Jose, to build a stronger education system for all children. As I reflect on the past 30 years and the future, here are three key lessons to make this goal a reality.

    Make schools a haven for students and families

    Educators engage students by nurturing their minds and hearts and giving them valuable life skills. We need students to feel comfortable with their teachers so their families feel peace of mind knowing their children are cared for beyond academics.

    These past couple of years in particular, school leaders have gone above and beyond the usual scope of their role, supporting children in feeling seen and safe.

    Edgar Rodriguez-Ramirez, a TFA alumnus and principal at Garfield Elementary in Oakland, leads with the belief that families need a strong community for transformational change to occur. His school launched the Focal Five, an initiative that brings families to campus every other month for personalized check-ins on academics and goals. The focus on meaningful family engagement and partnership in service of student achievement and growth is a unifier for families and school staff.

    Outreach measures outside the classroom go a long way, according to research conducted by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research. Families and staff alike reported feeling more invested in their school culture as a result of activities such as family events, literacy nights, routine wellness check-ins and home visits. Family interactions build stronger communities.

    Prioritize supporting teacher wellness

    California passed a law this year requiring all health classes to include mental health in the curriculum. Can we extend this focus on mental health to teachers, as we do with students?

    TFA Bay Area invests in educator well-being by integrating a wellness focus into teacher training and addressing broader challenges in the environment, such as financial barriers. Lowering financial barriers is especially important in San Jose, which often ranks among the most expensive cities in the nation for renters.

    Schools, community groups and elected leaders should work together to improve the education system

    During the pandemic, concerned community members joined forces to address pressing problems in education.

    The Public Policy Institute of California’s research found nearly 40% of low-income students in the state lack reliable internet access. That’s why elected officials and educators are working to bridge the digital divide for the San Jose community through the Digital Equity Coalition. Similarly in Oakland, TFA Bay Area alumnus David Silver, director of education for the Office of the Mayor, leads #OaklandUndivided, which helps close the digital divide in Oakland by providing students with access to a computer, reliable internet and ongoing tech support.

    Other community partnerships have focused on solving how the housing shortage impacts teachers. Teachers Rooted in Oakland is an organization aiming to keep educators based in Oakland through affordable housing options, training with mentor teachers and free financial advising services. The board of the Berkeley School District is launching an affordable housing initiative to create 110 affordable homes for teachers and staff.

    To ensure the education system can help all children thrive, we need action from all stakeholders, from school leaders to community partners to elected officials. I find hope in the many ways I have seen community members come together to create solutions to meet our schools’ needs. Thirty years from now, our education system can be stronger than ever—if we continue marching forward together.

    Beatrice Viramontes is executive director of Teach For America Bay Area, which partners with schools throughout San Jose, the South Bay, Richmond, Oakland and San Francisco. 

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