I never studied Whole Child education in a classroom and never learned about it in my Broad Academy urban superintendent training. Instead, I learned Whole Child from children — my own kids, and the 47,000 students of the Sacramento City Unified School District, where I arrived as a newly-minted superintendent in August 2009.
In fact, let me go back one step further. I first learned about Whole Child education from myself, as a child. It was my own struggle fitting into a mainstream classroom that drove my lifelong journey toward the field of education. The first teacher who “turned on the light bulb” for me — who engaged my heart as well as my head — allowed me to finally experience learning as it ought to be: joyous, creative and personal. I didn’t know it at the time, but that lesson inspired me to one day serve children. It is why, after a varied career in law and public service, I found myself in Sacramento, “America’s Most Diverse City,” taking charge of a school system battered by budget cuts and middle class suburban flight.
As the first superintendent in twenty-five years to enroll my own children in the district I was leading, I got instant, eye-opening feedback. “Dad, did you know they serve corn dogs for breakfast?” Right then, I knew that curricula and staffing were only part of the puzzle. The children in my district had needs that went beyond the classroom — physical and emotional challenges that risked becoming barriers to their learning and success. And the more time I spent in the community with the children and families of Sacramento, the deeper my commitment to Whole Child education grew.
What we today term “Whole Child education” reflects what great teachers have always known — academic achievement is deeply tied to creativity and curiosity, physical and emotional well-being, confidence, self-esteem and connection to the world. And while it’s an innovative approach relative to today’s mainstream classroom, it’s actually a time-honored philosophy. In fact, though many people are surprised to learn this, America’s once-proud public school system was founded on Whole Child values from the start.
John Dewey and his fellow 19th century education reformers saw the development of social skills as core to society and the advancement of democracy, and were early promoters of collaborative and hands-on approaches to learning. Those of us who remember drama, music and art class as meaningful parts of our own education can thank these founders of public schooling. They believed such activities aren’t optional or ancillary, but central to educating and developing children.
In the words of Linda Darling-Hammond: “If we taught babies to talk as most skills are taught in school, they would memorize lists of sounds in a predetermined order and practice them alone in a closet.” To tap into every child’s inherent ability to learn, schools must meet students where they are, in specific stages of emotional and intellectual development that correlate with certain capabilities and interests. John Dewey, Rudolph Steiner, Maria Montessori — all the giants of childhood education started from this premise, and the more we instilled it into our Sacramento schools, the clearer its wisdom became.
Seeing Sacramento’s children thrive — and their graduation rates improve — as we succeeded in building up arts programs, community partnerships, career pathways and innovative teaching methods, I saw objective proof of what I had always intuitively known. Healthy food, violin lessons and anti-bullying workshops are all connected and as essential to learning as any textbook. Children who are malnourished cannot focus in class. Children who can’t count on a caring adult in school are not engaged. Years of research tell us the arts are closely linked to everything we want for our children: academic achievement, character-building, civic engagement and joy in learning.
In our deeply interconnected world, children who empathize and who understand the interdependence between people, ideas and nature will grow into adults who succeed in their careers, are involved in their community and serve the greater good. Whole Child education, engaging the head and hands and driven by the heart, is the unrecognized key to unlocking the jobs of the future. In the high-tech workplace, memorization and rote behavior are irrelevant, and social friction harms productivity. As the experts in people analytics at Google have shown, creativity, collaboration and critical thinking are essential to the 21st century workplace.
Yet even as the children in my own home and in my newly-adopted city taught me the value of Whole Child education, the school board, state legislature and federal government taught me something else. When resources are scarce, a terrible irony takes hold. Namely, the programs that best prepare our children for their future lives and careers are the first to get cut. The music classes that get them excited to come to school and bolster their math skills; the social workers who enable them to focus on learning by addressing urgent medical and emotional needs; the very buses that ferry them to campuses teaching their favorite subjects — all of those resources go on the chopping block, along with their teachers, whose jobs are never secure. We see this playing out in cities and communities all over the country in response to the public health crisis.
After several years of battling over budget cuts so extreme that “cruel” is the only word to describe them, I found myself increasingly disillusioned with top-down bureaucracies that exclude parents and communities from decision-making, punish success by withdrawing funds when schools improve and demand approaches to teaching that ignore the science of learning. I realized I had to step outside the system to advocate for structural change that will once and for all reimagine public education, finally delivering to families, teachers and communities a model of learning that is collaborative and successful, not steeped in conflict, resentment, fads and failure.
That was when I knew I had to write a book challenging every American — parents, teachers, administrators, policy experts, legislators, and philanthropists — to reject the false assumptions and toxic habits which pervade public education, harm our children and threaten our future. I wrote “Wildflowers” as an antidote to all the jargon-laden studies, “how-to” guides and “tool boxes” gathering dust on bookshelves and night stands. It’s a memoir and a manifesto, and a tribute to the children and families who taught me what I now aspire to teach and inspire in education leaders, particularly superintendents.
Reshaping public education — needed now more than ever — is the opposite of impossible. It’s consistent with our history and character as Americans, and a realistic and achievable goal. Above all, it’s a goal we can and must reach together in the spirit of community. If we join together, we can catalyze a breakthrough moment in public education, one in which we move beyond the one-size-fits-all, industrial model of instruction to a fully enlightened, progressive climate of learning for all.