Ensuring Equity Work is Systemic

State Education Agencies, districts, and schools across the country are talking about equity. Researchers, think tanks, and funders are too. Equity audits, equity policies, equity officers, abound. All of this is great, but how are those systems, processes, policies, and procedures are changing due to all of this equity work? If what the adults do every day isn’t changing, is the equity discussion truly making a difference? I believe equity is the removal of systemic barriers that allows an educational system to serve each child what they need to succeed.

A recent EdWeek article on district/CMO equity officers reminded me of some of the lessons I’ve learned and observed from working with schools, districts, and states.

  1. Senior leaders, and the broader community, must decide what equity means to them and their system (school, district, or state). It’s really difficult to make progress if there isn’t a shared definition or vision of what you’re aspiring to achieve.
  2. While it’s important to name one person in charge of equity for accountability and implementation purposes, it’s crucial that the entire leadership team owns the equity work and understands each senior leaders role in making changes.
  3. Equity work must be supported by resources – resources that may include people, time, money, and programs. These may be new additional resources or may be reallocated or repurposed from existing resources. To say that you’re working on equity without providing the needed resources to make changes and implement practices is like selling fool’s gold as the real thing.
  4. Monitoring equity requires disaggregation of data – which may go beyond what the state requires according to ESSA subgroups – i.e. while a state may require data disaggregated based on poverty or special education or English Language Learner identification, schools and districts should still disaggregate data to ensure that policies and procedures don’t have adverse impacts on specific and traditionally underserved subgroups of students (i.e. African American males, Latinos, etc). This type of analysis is where we’re seeing conflicting information in many districts – the achievement gaps are closing (great!), but discipline data shows racial and gender gaps (not good) that still need to be addressed from a systemic level.

Doing equity work and doing it right is not for the faint of heart. It requires commitment from leadership (chief/superintendent/principal) and elected officials (boards of education). It requires courageous conversations in communities, but those conversations only get us so far. More importantly, it requires courageous actions to truly change how the educational systems and structures serve them every day.

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Providing educational equity to an influx of new immigrants – the moral, the legal, and the financial implications

Like many school districts across the country, my home school district is in the midst of figuring out how to enroll and support an unexpected influx of new immigrants to our community. For context purposes, our district tends to serve English Language Learners (ELLs) effectively (including the presence of one of the few English/Spanish dual language schools in the state), there’s a strong Latino community established in the city, there’s public transportation, and there’s some reasonably priced housing (note, it’s still really expensive here, but this said is in comparison to the extraordinarily affluent towns that surround us). From an advocacy standpoint and for my strong affiliations with the Latino community- this seems like a great fit. But, it’s not so simple. This is multifaceted issue and I’m likely missing parts of the reality, but here’s a summary of the pieces that I’ve been working through in the last few weeks.

The “easy” pieces:

  • Advocacy – New immigrants have undergone a variety of circumstances and pathways to get here, some of which may have included in their home countries, extreme trauma getting to the border, and/or traumatic experiences in detention facilities after getting over the border. Many likely require access to public transportation, access to work, healthcare, schools, and family/friends to help transition into a new community.
  • Moral – Our overall immigration system is broken. We lack efficient pathways to citizenship and permanent visas. (Personal note – my family has gone through the visa and citizenship process. It took hundreds of hours of work, hundreds of dollars, and several years. We were fortunate to figure out how to navigate the system, but it wasn’t easy.) Bottom line – there are young residents in our community who need and deserve to be educated. The faster we can get students into the education system, the faster we can improve their chances of future success. These are kids, they want and deserve to learn. (In my view) it is the moral obligation of a community to educate its residents. Not doing so results in long-term moral and financial implications that will impact us all.
  • Legal – School districts in the U.S. must educate every child who can prove residency in our community. In addition, school districts cannot (or at least are not supposed to ask) about legal status. Nor, should we generalize what legal status any of these new immigrants may have. Some may be awaiting asylum status or green card visas, some may already have them, some may be illegal, etc. We just don’t know (and it shouldn’t really matter). If they can prove residency, we must educate.

Which presents the major issues:

  • Enrollment projections – Many districts make funding and facility decisions based on enrollment projections and budgets are set the prior year. In our district, we predicted 100 new students between June and the beginning of this school year. That number was pretty accurate. But, then students kept arriving, increasing our enrollment numbers by another 200 students (i.e. now 300 new students vs the projected 100, and new students continue to arrive almost every day).
  • State attendance dates – In CT, that date is Oct 1. Our city and district are scrambling and ramping up community health services to get as many kids vaccinated and completed health exams as quickly as possible. If they aren’t cleared by Oct. 1, they can still enroll in school, but the district will not see any additional per pupil funds for those students from the state. Which means, we will have to figure out how to stretch existing dollars further.
  • Affordable housing/services – Often, newly arrived immigrant families may live with family members or friends. This may result in more people living in an apartment or home than it is zoned for. While the city taxes property based on the property value, it does not tax based on the number of occupants. When more people live in a home than are supposed to be there, the city is unable to collect additional tax revenue to pay for the city services utilized by those residents (i.e. infrastructure like sewer lines, water lines, and the schools). As long as our state(s) continue to rely on property taxes as the primary source of revenue for education, our schools will continue to be short-changed (even with increased enforcement of zoning issues of “illegal” apartments). In addition, without a comprehensive plan for increasing affordable and accessible housing and job training services, we would just shift one problem to another (i.e. homelessness).
  • Financial – Even if the students are registered and enrolled on Oct. 1st, it is highly unlikely the district will receive enough state funds to adequately cover the cost of educating recent immigrants who may require ELL supports (estimated to be 1/3 higher than a non-ELL student’s cost) AND may also require additional trauma support services. Without additional sources of funding coming from Washington DC to address these needs, local districts must shuffle funds around to adequately support these students. Since our budget for the year was set last spring, this likely means not filling vacant positions, or cutting other programs or services to do so.

As a result, while school districts and city leaders try to figure out how to help students as quickly as possible, the broader immigration debate ramps up in local communities. Comments such as “they should learn English before they get here, they should go back where they came from, this is going to hurt our native [insert any town name] kids, etc” fill social media platforms.

There are potential solutions –  The federal government could release funds to local school districts to help cover the cost of providing education and appropriate wraparound services to these new students, AND congress could actually pass comprehensive immigration reform. But, unfortunately in the meantime, local education agencies and cities must work together to try and mobilize partners and resources to do whatever we/they can to support our newest community members. Besides the immediate moral implications of educating and supporting kids, there are deep long-term impacts as these students become adults, get jobs, and contribute to the fabric of our communities as well as the broader tax base. These are our future teachers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, tradespeople, and business owners. Serving students with quality educations now will serve us all in the long run. These children have been through enough already. It’s time for adults to figure out solutions.

Disclosures: I’m currently a school board member in Norwalk, CT; the enrollment numbers provided are public information and were shared at a board meeting – none of this is privileged information; my husband is an immigrant from Mexico; I lived in Nicaragua for five months; and my own ancestors were all immigrants at various times and in immigration waves from more recently (Lebanon) to a long time ago (Ireland and Dutch).

Other aligned stories/articles:

 

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Focusing on implementation

Thank you to the state improvement leaders who are focusing on the implementation (the how) a plan is done and for encouraging schools and districts that simply buying a program with a strong evidence base isn’t enough to turn around student achievement.

Check out the recent EdWeek article for more: States Hunt for Evidence to Underpin School Turnaround Efforts

 

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An update to Having a teaching force look like the students they serve

Apparently, I was late to the game seeing the proposed legislation in CT, and luckily other education reform advocates (who focus specifically on CT) were already at work proposing additional legislation that does a better job taking a multifaceted approach to increasing the minority teaching force.

AN ACT CONCERNING MINORITY TEACHER RECRUITMENT AND RETENTION. requires the state to work on developing reciprocity agreements with all states (not just the neighboring states who have some of the same representation issues that we do), and provides options for student loan reimbursements and mortgage assistance. In addition, AN ACT ESTABLISHING A PILOT PROGRAM TO PROVIDE INCENTIVES FOR EDUCATORS TO LIVE IN CERTAIN MUNICIPALITIES, includes the creation of a housing pilot program to develop affordable housing for educators. I particularly appreciate that the latter bill breaks down the silos in state government and requires collaboration between the Departments of Housing and Education. 

The combination of these bills is more likely to result in actually increasing the number of minority teachers in CT, as opposed to a bill that looks good on the surface, but doesn’t actually have much of an impact in individual buildings. The big question remains, does the state have funds to make what’s proposed in these bills a reality? But, if it works and results in increased learning and engagement in students, how can we not make such a commitment?

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Having a teaching force look like the students they serve

While an effective teacher is desired for all classrooms, we know that teachers who look like their students has a positive impact on student learning (see this article from The 74 for links to several studies).

While many districts are taking steps to recruit more minority teachers and leaders (including alternate routes to certifications for paraprofessionals), states are getting in the game as well. Recently in Connecticut, Gov. Lamont advocated for legislation to extend mortgage assistance and student loan forgiveness programs to graduates of historically black colleges and hispanic-serving institutions, and to enhance reciprocity agreements with other states (EdWeek, proposed legislation, CTPost). These steps, in addition to existing efforts to increase the number of quality teachers in CT should help improve the ratios of minority teachers in the state, and especially in districts with high percentages of minority students.

While it looks good on the surface, the legislation could be strengthened as there are a limited number hispanic-serving institutions (especially in the Northeast) and Latino students are the fastest growing demographic in many communities. The most updated list of Hispanic-Serving Institutions that I could find was from 2007 [and are mostly based in Puerto Rico, California, and Texas (1 in CT)], but there was an eligible list from 2016 (eligible but not necessarily approved), and the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) also posts a list of HSI’s (2 in CT), but they may not be approved by the U.S. Department of Education as an official HSI. Bottom line, the legislation is helpful, but if it’s not very feasible for students to attend Historically Black Colleges or Universities or Hispanic-Serving Institutions, how helpful is it?

Even beyond these efforts, ensuring that teachers and staff are culturally responsive to students, regardless of their own cultural lenses, is also important. Teachers who share a racial/ethnic background with their students, still need to be culturally responsive. We all have multiple cultural lenses which overlap, and sometimes even conflict, with each other. These lenses might include our upbringing (family composition, urban/suburban/rural), gender identity/expression, ancestry, skin color (as perceived by others), languages, etc. These lenses form our own identities and how we interact with others, but they also influence how others interact with us as well. All teachers (and all of us) should work to acknowledge our own lenses and the lenses of others. (For more on culturally responsive teaching, check out this publication from the Center on School Turnaround.)

Increasing the diversity of our teaching force is one important step. Ensuring that the teaching force is highly effective AND culturally responsive are the crucial subsequent steps.

 

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Starting with school culture

There are days when my professional life and my board of education life seem pretty far apart, and often at the expense of my personal life. Then, there are days where my professional life, my personal life, and my board of education life all come together. This morning, I had the opportunity to visit one of my district’s elementary schools. This school was a formerly low-achieving neighborhood school that many families avoided. Under the dynamic leadership of a new principal, the school has a new culture that is intensely focused on student learning and building community, and the academic achievement continues to rise.

CT’s Governor Lamont joined a line of up Yale academics, funders, and community partners to highlight the work of Tracey Elementary (news story), while also pitching the release of a new report “From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope” from the Aspen Institute’s Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, generously supported by the Dalio Foundation.

In my professional world right now, I’m developing a training program on shifting school culture (based on this CST publication). Today, I saw example after example of practices that I preach about in professional trainings in action at Tracey Elementary school. I saw kids engaged in learning in small groups, positive interactions with staff, student tour guides speaking about the value of having lunch with their teachers, family-style round lunch tables, cross grade level reading buddies, student kudos for the school’s crossing guard, bright colorful student work lining the halls, chill out corners in every classroom, and most importantly, the school’s character work embedded in the philosophy of the building and classroom academics.

So, why is school culture so important? The culture represents the environment of the school. It reflects the customs, traditions, and the values of the community. A positive school culture makes teachers and students want to come to school each day to work and to learn. In contrast, a negative school culture results in disengagement, disciplinary issues, and high absentee rates, all of which impact student achievement.

While I’ve always wanted to see these things in a school site visit, I recognize the mind shift that I have since becoming a parent. Tracey Elementary school is my neighborhood school. This may be the school that my 2.5 year old will attend in the not so distant future. When I walked through the building today, I thought “How would my child do in this environment? Would this be the right fit for him? Do I have any hesitations about sending my child here?” When the time comes, we will have a hard decision to make (there’s also a dual language immersion elementary school that I would love to have my bilingual child in), but without a doubt, as long as Tracey remains on the current path it’s on, I would confidently send my child to our neighborhood school. If a school isn’t good enough for my child, it’s not good enough for any child.

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Thanks to my great 5th grader tour guides! Photo credit: Norwalk Public Schools 

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Federal policy is the floor not the ceiling

We often talk about states complying with federal requirements, yet it is important to remember that federal policies and procedures represent the floor and not the ceiling. ESSA requires states to do a number of things related to how schools are identified for support, what their accountability metrics must include, how states communicate progress on those accountability measures, and how funds are used (amongst other things). But, states can go above and beyond those requirements. I highlighted this concept last week at CCSSO’s Implementing Systems for Continuous Improvement meeting in Tampa, Florida. Schools and districts identified for CSI supports must complete needs assessments, but schools and districts identified for TSI supports don’t have to complete needs assessments. Some State Education Agencies have realized the importance of needs assessments are are also requiring schools identified for TSI supports to also complete a needs assessment to ensure that their plan for improvement aligns with their actual needs.

A recent rollback of federal lunch standards is another example of this concept. Just because the federal government is allowing more flexibility to districts to slow down their decreased sodium content or relax the whole grain requirements, it does not mean districts must do so. Districts were already working under the previous guidelines, so why should we backtrack to less healthy food again? Schools and districts have the ability to go above and beyond the federal guidelines to ensure school meals are as healthy as possible for their students. (And yes, healthy food can taste good, and kids can learn to like veggies, whole grains, and salads!)

States, districts, and schools have the responsibility to make decisions that are in the best interest of the students they serve. Sometimes the federal government’s standards ensure that happens, but other times the adults at the local level must step in and set their own floors, which may be higher than the feds.

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