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Coconino County’s Robert Kelty on education, opportunity


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  • Lisa Irish/Arizona Education News Service

Robert Kelty HP

Dr. Robert Kelty recently resigned as Coconino County Superintendent of Schools to become Teach for America’s senior managing director of regional alumni support, but will stay on until a new superintendent is chosen.

In his new role with Teach for America, Kelty said he plans to take what works at schools across the country to build exemplary public schools nationwide.

Coconino County's Robert Kelty on education, opportunity robert-kelty

Dr. Robert Kelty recently resigned as Coconino County Superintendent of Schools to become Teach for America’s senior managing director of regional alumni support.

“My professional paradigm has grown over the last thirteen years since joining Teach for America in 2001,” said Kelty, who began teaching at Crownpoint Elementary School in New Mexico. “Yet, I still believe, without hesitation, that every child deserves the opportunity to obtain the American dream. The American dream is directly linked to education.”

As superintendent since 2010, Kelty started a countywide kindergarten preparation program, increased technology and Internet access at rural schools, and added a transition school for students released from juvenile detention.

Q: As part of Coconino County’s economic development, the county invested nearly $350,000 in early education through the Parenting College developed by your office. Why does early education matter so much?

A: Early education is the best investment we can employ to tackle the achievement and opportunity gap. Essentially, it is an effective strategy to fight poverty, plain and simple.

Although political support for early childhood education is building, we have to remain committed to the variables that make high-quality early education work. If we don’t, it will be another wasted opportunity to bring the American dream to millions of Americans.

First, we have to arm parents with knowledge and the science around early childhood. That is why Parenting College was our first program: to ensure families know how to make their home a loving and active learning environment.

Second, we have to ensure we have committed, knowledgeable professionals in our early childhood centers. High-quality early learning centers are a far cry from daycare. However, few can afford these centers.

That is why the third variable is so important: access, access, access.

Q: In 2008, you were named Arizona Teacher of the Year while working at Puente de Hozho Elementary, a trilingual magnet school in Flagstaff. With minority students becoming the majority of students in Arizona schools in 2004, why is a culturally appropriate education so important?

A: Cultural empowerment combined with high expectations and academic rigor is such a powerful combination in the classroom and has profound impacts on student morale and achievement.

At Puente de Hozho, students were built up with their indigenous language. We were preparing future Navajo Nation leaders. We were preparing global leaders, Spanish and English speaking, that were bilingual. We expected all of our students to be academically prepared to engage in their worlds.

Puente de Hozho will remain one of my best professional memories. We were showing that decades of research were unequivocally correct.

Q: What excites you about working at Teach for America and why?

A: In my opinion, Teach for America is furthering (President) Roosevelt’s New Deal and (President) Johnson’s War on Poverty. Both efforts centered education as a cornerstone to equity and opportunity. I am incredibly excited to focus all of my efforts with Teach for America to bring this about.

And, being located in cities across the United States, I can’t wait to grow professionally in seeing what is working well across the county, why it is working, and what it takes to scale authentic educational reforms that will bring the promise of exemplary public schools to everyone in our nation.

Q: You have served as a teacher and superintendent during times of great opportunities and challenges. What advice do you have for Arizona going forward?

A: Arizona’s potential is limitless, because we are a young state that thrives on innovation and freedom.

To my friends on the right-side of the political aisle, privatization is not the answer. The research is becoming clear on this.

To my friends of the left-side of the political aisle, we have to keep the social contract of public education delivering the promises of meritocracy and opportunity to every child and family. If we break this social contract, we can expect the nation to look elsewhere for results. For the most part, this social contract has been kept, as there is incredible support for public education in Arizona.

To my friends in the education community, we have to make the public school a new, intellectual project – one that delivers on the social contract of levying taxes, of engaging all students in a robust and demanding democracy, and at the end of day, where parents feel engaged and proud of their neighborhood public school. We are already close to achieving this, but we need to rethink and rebrand how the public school can be an incubator of curricular innovation and student engagement while serving all students.

There is incredible opportunity for Arizona to be a leader in public education because I believe our state is way ahead of other states in this endeavor. We have incredible teachers and school leaders in Arizona that believe in all students. At the political level, we have to put politics and attempts at ideological persuasion aside, look at peer-reviewed research, recruit and retain the most talented teachers, and commit to being the best we can be.