The mission of our schools

September 3, 2019 7:10 am
HOUSTON - SEPTEMBER 7: Ckaris Williams, a teacher and Hurricane Katrina evacuee, prepares her classroom at Douglass Elementary School in Houston September 7, 2005 in Houston, Texas. Douglass was closed for budgetary reasons but the Houston Independent School District reopened the facility for children of evacuees from Hurricane Katrina. Williams taught at Frederick Douglass Elementary on the West Bank in New Orleans prior to the storm.

Photo by Dave Einsel/Getty Images

My wife and I are watching two of our grandchildren go off to school this fall, a first grader and a fourth grader. They attend Milwaukee’s Fernwood Montessori and have different teachers this year. Even though their parents are very supportive as they ferry them off to school every day, I still worry about them. What will their teachers try to instill in them? What will they learn?

Every school district has a mission statement. You should find it on the district’s web page; it may have even been mailed to you.

I know a thing or two about these mission statements. I served over thirty years as a public school teacher and twelve years as a Milwaukee school board director before finally retiring this past April. I helped write some of these statements myself.

When you have a chance, get a hold of your district’s mission statement and actually read it. Tack it on to your refrigerator door and look at it when you grab another mozzarella cheese stick. If you do, chances are you will be among the select few, for once a district’s mission statement is written, very few people look at it again.

One reason may be that so few people were involved in the development of these mission statements in the first place. The whole community, not just the administration and the board, should be involved in their development: students, teachers, parents, business leaders, people down the street from the school. I know I will hear from some districts that they try to involve everyone. Maybe it is true in your district. Congratulations. Too often the district only makes a half-hearted attempt at community involvement. And when the community is asked, too often few get involved. So what is your involvement in the development of your district’s mission statement? 

The whole act of writing a mission statement is to focus the direction of the school district, not just merrily move the school from one year to the next without ever asking what it is trying to do.=

Regardless of how it was developed, we all need to look at that statement. What is most important is not whether we all can recite its words like the pledge of allegiance to our children. What matters is whether they live up to those aspirations.  

I downloaded twenty or so mission statements from school districts from around Wisconsin just to see what they are saying.

I was struck by the number of districts that put the word “safe” into their statements. We would have rarely seen that word twenty years ago, but there it is, and we all know why. We are not just talking about a deadly shooter or a sexual predator. Safe also means safe from bullying, meeting a child’s emotional needs. So how safe are your children?

Our schools want to prepare our children for the “world of work” and “post-secondary education.” But many add that they want these kids to become “life-long learners.” Gone are the days when all they needed was taught by the twelfth grade or soon after. The Bloomer district adds to life-long learner “in an ever-changing society.” Is your school embracing change or fighting it? Are your children getting the skills to learn on their own or is your school just pumping their heads full of facts? 

The Arcadia school district wants “to ensure ALL children learn” and has a photo of students of various ethnic groups above the mission statement. The Hamilton district (Sussex) adds “our diverse community.” We are also referring to students with special needs. There was a time when a blind student or one with hyperactivity was farmed out to a special school or classroom with little interaction with “normal” students. How hard is your school trying to really educate all children?

Districts want to produce “responsible, productive citizens.” However, not everyone has the same idea of what makes a good citizen. Some districts refer to “mutual respect” in their concept of citizenship. Wisconsin Dells is “Cultivating academic excellence today for a stronger community tomorrow.” Some of that is part of good citizenship.

Is your school “cultivating a desire for learning” as the Monona Grove district puts it? I didn’t see any mission statement that directly addressed arts, music, theater and dance. Yet we continually hear parents demand that schools develop the whole child including one’s soul.

I didn’t find any school system that encompasses all these concepts even though some mission statements run sixty, seventy or more words long. But they may be trying to do all these things just the same. My personal opinion is that a mission statement should have as few words as possible and focus in on a few goals for that school year.  If the statement is too long, no one will ever remember what is in it. Menomonee Falls has its mission statement down to just three words: “Engage. Learn. Improve.” However, everyone in the Falls needs to be instructed in what those three words mean.

So do we all agree on what the mission of our schools ought to be? If we could take all the mission statements and somehow fuse them together as one, we would have a pretty good mission statement for all our schools in Wisconsin.

Unfortunately mission statements are not the means by which we officially judge our schools in Wisconsin. Our state report card system zeros in on academic achievement based upon standardized tests and graduation rates. The report card measures attendance and suspension rates as a means to meet those standards. Schools and districts may become so fixated on the state report card scores that I fear they forget or at least push aside some of the goals of their mission statements in an attempt to raise the report card scores.

The mission of our schools is so much more. Those statements should raise educational expectations to a much higher level.

If we truly believe in the mission of our schools, we need to fund our schools, hire teachers and develop curriculum and practices that support that mission. Our underfunding of our schools and the lack of support for our teachers raises the question whether we truly believe the mission statements we create. Do we really believe what our mission statements say if they are just words on paper, and we don’t do the things necessary to accomplish the mission?

So, as your kids or grandkids go off to school this fall, ask the questions: What is your school trying to teach? How is it doing? What are you doing to help accomplish this mission? When you reach into the fridge for another mozzarella stick, take another look at your district’s stated mission. As you bite down, how does that mission statement taste?


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Terrence Falk
Terrence Falk

Terrence Falk worked for more than 31 years as a Milwaukee Public School teacher and served for 12 years on the Milwaukee school board and as Milwaukee's representative to the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. He has written for Milwaukee Magazine, Shepherd Express, Science Magazine, Urban Milwaukee and School News.