Want to make a difference in the quality of Des Moines Public Schools, or anywhere else? Give your time, not just your money.


That’s the message shared by longtime Los Angeles grade school teacher Rafe Esquith, who spoke in Des Moines this morning as part of Aviva USA’s The Big Breakfast. The event was billed as a chance to put the spotlight on the need to pay attention to less fortunate children.


“I think a lot of (business leaders) want to make a difference, but they are frustrated because they can give millions of dollars, and the money disappears,” Esquith told the Business Record leading up to the event. “They need to be vigilant. And all the people who support me, they don’t just write a check. They are in my classroom all the time.”


Esquith’s has taught at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School since 1984, a school characterized by children living in poverty and violence. He has been widely recognized for getting his students to voluntarily come in early, stay late, and score exceptionally well on standardized tests.


Just as important, he says, is that he’s set up a program in which he works with students all the way through high school who need a “safe haven” to work hard without being characterized as “elite” or “strange.”


What drives Esquith, he says, is making sure that every student truly has an equal opportunity to succeed, which they don’t when they start off in poverty.


It might sound more like a Los Angeles issue than a Des Moines issue, but not necessarily. A 2011 study leading up to the Capital Crossroads regional plan identified that 55.7 percent of students in Des Moines Public Schools are on free or reduced lunch.


Besides, Esquith says, as far as school systems worldwide go, “they are all facing the same problems.”


“They are all under huge demands to reinvest and to hold teachers accountable,” he says. “But at the same time ... there are also outstanding teachers out there who are very frustrated because they are being asked to do things beyond their control.”


The best solution he has found: As a teacher, give your best effort, even to those students who seem like the most hopeless. Don’t complain about the shortfalls of the educational system; find ways to work around it.


And as business leaders?


“Read information, read articles, find people who are truly making a difference,” Esquith said, and get in the classroom to help out. “Or at least observe ... I think they should visit a lot, and see what’s going on.”


And remember, like the title of Esquith’s book says, “There Are No Shortcuts.”


“This is a very long journey,” he said.