The recent horrors of school shootings, and the eloquence of the students whose voices speaks volumes to the importance of gun safety, but also their teachers, administrators, and the public good of public education. Our nation’s 3 million public school teachers go to work each day to not just teach students to get them college-and-career-ready, but also to protect them. The latest tragedy in Parkland, Florida has made this so clear. Over the last week I have heard the most inspiring stories about the importance of the relationships that teachers and students forge with each other. Perhaps not one was more rousing than the story of Marissa Schimmoeller, a high school English teacher in Ohio, about the moral courage that undergirds her teaching and the role of public education as public good in America.

The unspeakable dreadfulness in Florida should remind us all of the role of public education — and how our nation’s teachers serve children and families, not just teach subjects and improve test scores.

No doubt our public schools must get better and make sure every student engages in deeper learning — mastering important concepts and facts as well as the ability to think critically, tackle sophisticated problems, and communicate what they know and can do. And we need to dramatically improve teaching in order to close persistent achievement gaps. However, we need schools to be organized differently.

  • We need to redesign schools where teachers can truly know their students and families — as studies show that small public high schools are making a marked difference for increased engagement and learning;
  • We need school funding to serve students’ social-emotional learning (SEL), as 1.6 million young people every day go to school with a security officer but no counselor;
  • We need teaching policies that value teachers who teach with SEL standards as evidence grows that when they do, prosocial behavior increases along with academic achievement; and
  • We need schools to more comprehensively serve the needs of students, provide access to appropriate health care, and reach those who are socially and psychologically isolated.

The good news is that our society knows what to do. Researchers have documented, going back to early 20th century, how schools, non-profits, and government agencies have partnered to integrate academics with health and social services, youth development, and community engagement. And recent studies have shown that schools dramatically improve when they: (1) integrate student supports; (2) expand high-quality learning time; (3) engage families and communities as full partners; and (4) create collaborative structures for administrators and teachers to lead collectively. We know how to organize schools so the vital, moral, and complex work of teaching of Ms. Schimmoeller and others can reach more students. And we know practically how to get started (See Patricia Weiszapfel’s article in the January 2018, Kappan on to build and sustain community schools, like those in Indiana and Washington).

The solutions are within our reach. And while the politics over guns and fire arm safety rage as I write, I am hopeful that stories of teachers like Ms. Schimmoeller can heard — and that the political will can be developed to create lasting change so schools are deeply rooted in their communities and are places where students learn joyously and teachers and administrators have time to know them well and access to the full array of resources to serve them well.