I never studied “whole child” education in a classroom, nor did I learn about it in my broad foundation training to be an urban superintendent. Instead, I learned about whole child from children: my own kids, and the 47,000 public school students in Sacramento (a.k.a. “America’s Most Diverse City”), where I arrived as a newly-minted superintendent in August 2009, taking charge of a school system battered by budget cuts and middle class suburban flight.
Spending my first 100 days visiting schools and meeting with parents, students, teachers, district staff, and community members reaffirmed for me the importance of listening. In fact, I was reminded of listening just last week when I visited with a group of teachers attending a seminar hosted by a Stuart Foundation partner. In response to a question about why he got into teaching, one teacher responded with sage advice for all of us in philanthropy: “I’ve loved getting to know the communities I’ve taught in. Every community is different — they redefine the need for their students. Listening is critical.”
As the first Sacramento Public Schools Superintendent in 25 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 success. And the more time I spent 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. Many people are surprised to learn that America’s once-proud public school system was founded on whole child values.
Like today’s whole child proponents, John Dewey and his fellow 19th century education reformers saw the development of social and artistic skills as core to society and the advancement of democracy, and were early promoters of collaborative, 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 children.
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 experts in education and child development — started from this whole child premise, and the more we instilled it into our Sacramento schools, the clearer its wisdom became.
During my tenure, high school graduation rates went from 68 percent to 85 percent district-wide and improved for impoverished students, special-ed students, and English learners. Seeing children thrive as we resisted the one-size-fits-all, “teaching to the test” model and built up arts programs, community partnerships, and innovative teaching methods, I saw objective proof of what I’d intuitively known: healthy food, violin lessons, and anti-bullying workshops are all connected, and more essential to learning than an Excel sheet full of scores. 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, and civic engagement.
And in our deeply interconnected world, children who empathize and understand the interdependence between people, ideas, and nature will grow into adults who succeed in their careers and serve the greater good.
Today, as a funder, I see whole child education from the other end of the telescope — and the view is just as compelling. Whole child is a lever for systemic change, positively impacting not just academic outcomes, but job satisfaction for teachers, family involvement in education, and community-wide conditions. Its well-documented successes challenge funders to crack the code on scaling. The most intolerable aspect of our public education crisis is that solutions are out there in plain view. Our resources can’t just go to building tidy models in single classrooms — while 20 children succeed in a whole child classroom in one end of a state, 2,000 fail beneath a battery of standardized tests at the other.
Even as 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 busses 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.
In such environments, philanthropy can play a key role. For starters, funders can advocate for the importance of proven approaches like the arts, provide stable long-term support for partners and grantees (particularly general support resources), and address issues of scale and spread by pursuing policy and practice solutions that feed into larger systemic change.
After years of battling over budget cuts so extreme that “cruel” is the only word to describe them, I found myself disillusioned with top-down bureaucracies that exclude 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 reimagine public education and finally deliver a model of learning that is collaborative and successful — not steeped in conflict, resentment, fads, and failure.
That was when I began my role leading the Stuart Foundation, a long time philanthropic leader for public education and child welfare in California and Washington State. One of the things that attracted me to the foundation was a mission steeped in systems change. Stuart blends direct grantmaking with thought leadership to create leverage through an intentional practice and policy loop. By funding partners on the ground doing the work, we are able to develop knowledge, relationships, and stories that can help change the public and policy narrative on public education.
Stepping outside also gave me the space to reflect on my time as a superintendent. This was when I knew I had to write a book challenging every American — parents, 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: A School Superintendent’s Challenge to America as an antidote to all the jargon-laden studies gathering dust on bookshelves. It’s a memoir, a manifesto, and a roadmap for how to reimagine public education.
Why wildflowers? Because, in the words of education visionary Sir Ken Robinson, “The gardener does not make a plant grow. The job of a gardener is to create optimal conditions.” America’s children, like wildflowers, are sturdy and resilient, often defying suboptimal conditions to grow and thrive. But so many more could rise. So many could be serving their communities, contributing to society, and building our future if we, the gardeners, set aside the barren earth of competing ideologies and commit to the child — the whole child — as the sole cherished focus of our endeavors.
Jonathan Raymond is president of the Stuart Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @jraym0.