Child Advocacy: An Essential Part of School Leadership

by Paul D. Houston

Children. They are the air that school leaders breathe and the water we swim in. Yet, like air to the bird and water to the fish, we often ignore that which sustains us or gives us meaning. That which surrounds us gets lost in the clutter and the lack of focus.

We are so busy dealing with the urgent things of life, we ignore the important. Nothing should be more important to school leaders than children, and yet, how much of our time and energy is really devoted to advocating on behalf of children?

School leaders have two jobs. The first is to create and sustain schools that are worthy of our children. The second is to act as a moral compass for our communities by helping them remember that adults have one overarching obligation—to make the world our children inhabit a place of wonder and joy. At the very least, the world should be comfortable, safe, and nurturing.

School leaders must be committed to be child advocates. We cannot afford to be labeled as bureaucrats or managers. We cannot allow ourselves to be viewed as part of the problem. We are a great part of the solution. We should give voice to the voiceless and share our power with the powerless. Children have no lobby and no political action committee. They have no union and no legal provisions protecting their rights. Children have only a few gentle warriors to fight on their behalf. That fight is to get everyone to understand that every child belongs to each of us and deserves all that we would want for our own children.

Tending the Flock

As many of you know, my father was a minister, so I tend to be drawn to the images of my own childhood, which are replete with religious overtones. For that reason, it always has been hard for me to think of children without thinking of the image of sheep and the loving shepherd. Like sheep, children are defenseless and must be protected. They can sometimes get lost and left aside. The shepherd must protect and provide for their care. We must know what has to be done, and we must have the courage to stand and be counted on behalf of the children we serve.

This month’s issue of The School Administrator focuses on the issue of advocating for children. We hope it will help you play the role of moral leader in your community more effectively. We believe we have gathered a powerful lineup of writers to provide you with a broad perspective on the needs of children and what we might begin to do together to speak to those needs.

The lead article is an excerpt from a longer piece by America’s leading child advocate, Marian Wright Edelman. With her clear, strong voice. She reminds us of our obligation to "leave no child behind." She suggests that the way America treats its children is a moral litmus test for the country and that we must create a mass movement on behalf of children.

Psychiatrist Robert Coles adds his voice to the discussion by sharing a conversation he held with a group of children that reminded him, quite powerfully, of the need to be connected to those we are trying to help. Listening to children is a good beginning.

Judge Charles Gill, who serves in the court system of Connecticut, reminds us of America’s failure to protect its greatest treasure, its children. He raises the issue of children’s need for legal protection and their lack of rights under our legal system. The man known as the father of Head Start, Jule Sugarman, calls for advocacy groups to find common cause by rallying behind a concept of an investment trust fund on behalf of children. Such a fund would invest in helping children to a healthy and safe start in life and allow educators to focus on education. It allows America to meet the first goal in Goals 2000, which is, "Every child would come to school ready to learn".

The final two articles remind us that, just as we on earth must make God’s work our own, child advocacy for educators must begin inside the schoolhouse and the school system. Kati Haycock, of The Education Trust, reminds us that our first obligation as educators is to educate. As one student commented to her, "Teach me. Give me the best possible education you can."

Jonathan Kozol ends our series of articles as only he can—by laying directly on our shoulders the obligation that school leaders have in engaging and challenging business leaders to be more responsible for children. As with much of what he writes, this article is powerful and uncomfortable because it calls us to our duties and requires us to be courageous.

Last year, at AASA’s national conference, I called Kozol a modern prophet. He was uncomfortable with that label. He preferred the title of "witness." Prophet or witness, Jonathan Kozol remains America’s most powerful and eloquent voice on behalf of children, and we are honored he chose to be a part of this project.

An External Flame

It is time. No, it well past the time for school leaders to set aside our concerns over budgets, bonds, books, and buildings and to focus our attention and that of our community on the quality of the air we breathe and the water we swim in—our children. It is time to stop polluting our future and take responsibility for our most important resource.

I like to remind folks that children come to us with the light of God within them, and if that light should go out, that is our sin, not theirs. It would be well to remember the Biblical admonition my father often quoted to me, "If you love me, feed my sheep."

Paul Houston is executive director of AASA.