Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise

UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School
Share Print

Re-inventing Public Education

Shifting demographics, economic upheaval and globalization are creating a dramatically different world and set of competitive challenges for the next generation. How should the nation’s K-12 education system respond?

Kenan Institute scholar James H. Johnson Jr. has spent the past two decades examining and testing strategies for successfully educating children who live in areas of concentrated poverty.

The Kenan Institute speaks one-on-one with Johnson about what he has learned. Here are excerpts of that conversation.

Johnson: We’re in the midst of an unprecedented demographic transformation in this country and, indeed, in the world. We are in a knowledge economy and are also an aging population, with 80 million people turning 65 to the tune of 8,000 per day. It is very important to focus on the next generation. If we’re going to compete globally, it is very important that we create a world-class educational opportunity for every child.

The population of K-12 students is changing dramatically, becoming far more racially and ethnically diverse. At the same time, the next generation of children is caught between a rock and a hard place, through no fault of their own, where they are not getting a quality education today.

It is too important for us as a nation, as a state and as a set of communities not to get this right. You cannot leave a whole generation of kids behind. If you do, it will catch up with you rather quickly.    

Kenan Institute: What is the Global Scholars Academy?

Johnson: Global Scholars Academy is a K-8 laboratory charter school in Durham, N.C. that we built in collaboration with Union Baptist Church. It is the next generation of a William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust-funded initiative called Durham Scholars, which is an after-school, weekend and summer program we’ve been running since 1995 to guarantee college access to kids from [disadvantaged] neighborhoods.

What we learned is that those programs are necessary but not sufficient to transform education.

We decided we needed our own school to ensure kids get a consistent message for as long during the day as possible. We start at 7:30 in the morning, we go to 6 p.m. daily, and we’re a year-round school. Even in intercessions, we don’t close. It’s a culture that you have to create and a set of expectations.

Kenan Institute: What does the research reveal about today’s educational models?

Johnson: If you look at the racial achievement gap in K-12 education, it hasn’t changed in 30 years. We’ve thrown a lot of money at various and sundry things. But we still don’t have a coherent way to address that problem.

We have an education system that operates on a deficit model. We say, “Everything is wrong with you and I’m going to fix it.” Everything isn’t wrong with these kids. There is a whole alternative perspective out there that talks about successful pathways through child development.

If you look at the average concentrated-poverty neighborhood, not all kids end up a failure out of those communities. Some kids succeed against the odds. The research shows that kids who succeed out of those environments against the odds are typically embedded in what is called a “mediating institution” in that neighborhood, an institution that encourages them to pursue mainstream avenues of social and economic mobility and discourages them from engaging in dysfunctional behaviors – an institution that they can identify with, even take ownership in.

If you ask Denzel Washington what’s the key to his success, he always says, “The Boys and Girls Club.” What we’ve done in Durham is build our own mediating institution. I think we can reengineer schools to be better mediating institutions.

The second major finding from the successful pathways literature shows that the kids who succeed out of these environments typically have some adult – parent, caregiver, other being – who has the savvy to connect them with institutions and role models outside of their neighborhood environments, what Harvard political scientist Bob Putnam calls “bridging social capital.”

The more diverse your networks, the more geographically expansive, the denser your ties with people who are different from you, the better off you’re going to be in society. It’s not your strong ties that matter, it’s actually your weak ties that make a difference.

The other piece is how we build bridges to diverse institutions and people from diverse backgrounds for kids who grow up in these kinds of environments. At the Global Scholars Academy in Durham, every year we have about 120 MBA [students] who adopt our kids from kindergarten through grade 4. Every kid gets two mentors. By the time they graduate from the eighth grade, they’ve got 16-18 people from the world of work and networks from all over the world.

We know how to create global citizens. Can we develop a franchisable model of K-12 education – a model that we build from soup to nuts and then say, “This is the way you do it. This is the pathway to the future.”

This is not just a social and moral issue, it’s a competitiveness issue for us. If we don’t make sure that they have a high-quality education, there is no way we can compete on a global scale in the years ahead.

For more information, contact:

James H. Johnson Jr., Ph.D.
Director, Urban Investment Strategies Center
Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise
Campus Box 3440, Kenan Center
Chapel Hill, NC 25799-3440