Opinion: Mr. Rogers Got it Right: Let’s Leverage His Legacy to Reform American Education

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Originally published in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – June 9, 2018

As Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood celebrates its 50th birthday this year, a provocative documentary about the iconic television show and its host hits theaters nationwide this weekend. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” pushes the envelope for feature-film fare for the values it espouses. The film’s Oscar-winning director, Morgan Neville, distilled Mr. Rogers’ teachings into one simple concept he dubbed “radical kindness.” Collectively, as a nation of adults and educators, we should leverage the film’s message as a wake-up call to get back to basics about what kids crave in today’s world.

At the top of that list is a safe and nurturing learning environment. Sadly, according to new figures from the Pew Research Center, more than half of American teens say they worry about a shooting happening at their school. The findings were released after February’s massacre in Florida, where a 19-year-old gunned down 17 people at his former high school, and before a Texas teen’s shooting rampage in May killed 10 at his school.

The Pew study results are alarming. As an education advocate, I’ve traveled the globe studying what works and what doesn’t in all types of classrooms. Though we disagree about a wide range of issues, virtually all experts in our field agree that if students feel anxious or worried in any way at school, learning is impeded.

What would Mr. Rogers say about an epidemic of school shootings, now totaling one per week for the first five months of this year? Though we will never know due to his passing in 2003, we do have clues …

A year after the final episode of “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” aired, Fred Rogers taped a moving public service announcement as a gift to his former pint-sized viewers, by then grown-ups, yearning for words of wisdom following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. In the segment, Mr. Rogers delivered a message to parents, educators and caregivers about how to treat America’s littlest generation.

“I’m so grateful to you for helping the children in your life to know that you’ll do everything you can to keep them safe and to help them express their feelings in ways that will bring healing in many different neighborhoods.”

The concept of treating children as people with deep feelings and emotions had been championed on “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” since its inception in 1968, when American TV sets were beaming adult images of war and social unrest into living rooms for youngsters to witness on the nightly news.

How to reconcile parents’ and children’s competing needs for age-appropriate information? Enter Pittsburgh’s own Fred Rogers, a TV show creator with a degree in child development, who opted not to fear this powerful new medium, but instead to embrace its power and ubiquity.

“I thought there’s some way of using this fabulous instrument to nurture those who would watch and listen,” Mr. Rogers famously told CNN.

Just as Fred Rogers used television as a positive disruptor, education technology today is revolutionizing the way kids learn. From coast to coast, students with medical needs, elite athletes, academic high achievers and kids who for one reason or another did not thrive in a traditional classroom setting now are benefitting from personalized learning in the safety of their own homes. The virtual classroom may not be for everyone, but the numbers don’t lie. Our partner schools alone have successfully delivered a quality education to nearly 1 million students over the past 18 years. There’s no turning back now — and we shouldn’t.

One of the most rapidly growing student segments in virtual classrooms is kids who report being bullied in a traditional classroom setting. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, seven of 10 children report witnessing bullying at school; nearly half of kids in grades 4 to 12 report being bullied by other students at school at least once during the past month; and more than 30 percent admit to bullying others in the past month.

While the societal forces behind such behavior are multi-dimensional, what is clear is that the needs of today’s children are more diverse and urgent than ever. In the spirit of radical kindness, we adults must heal our divisions, give parents choices in where to send their kids to school and work cooperatively to create safe environments for all children to live, grow, learn and thrive.

“One of the greatest dignities of humankind is that each successive generation is invested in the welfare of each new generation,” said Mr. Rogers.

A half-century after America was first welcomed into “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood,” as a nod to the show’s namesake, let’s revisit his legacy and lessons and pay them forward for the next 50 years.

Kevin P. Chavous, is an attorney, author, education reform activist and President of Academics, Policy and Schools for K12 Inc. He served as a member of the Council of the District of Columbia from January 1993 to January 2005.

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