Fear. Uncertainty. Frustration. Isolation.
In recent conversations with districts across the country and in analyses of surveys for clients, these words have come up a lot. Families, educators, and community members are feeling a whole lot of unpleasant things as we grapple with how - or if - we can simultaneously facilitate safety and high-quality learning experiences in our nation's schools.
Instead of shopping sprees at Staples (oh, how I wish!), we are experiencing back-to-school season like never before. Reopening plans change so quickly we can't keep up, and districts are scrambling to ensure that the safety protocols can be met and that all students can actually access and benefit from remote learning. My conversations and analyses lately have shown me how palpable and salient these fears and questions are for so many people.
The good news? While no one really knows what will happen with COVID, we do have some ways to alleviate the feelings I listed above. Think about these: Communication. Relationships. Empathy. Engagement.
Let's be honest: we have always needed these things. However, with most districts going fully or partially remote this fall, the role of families in children's education is even more prominent than before. For those of us who have long promoted the critical nature of family and community engagement, we've been saying to ourselves lately, "Now's our time."
It's time for family engagement to be a priority for all educators, community members, and policymakers, not an afterthought. We must lift up the voices of families, truly hear what they have to say, and use their feedback as a key driver for decisions moving forward.
It's time for us to leverage the wealth of resources in our communities to support families who are struggling right now. In my city, I was pleased to see that the City of Columbus and Columbus City Schools have agreed to spend $7 million of the CARES Act funds on providing Chromebooks for every student and wifi hotspots for families who lack internet access.
It's time to embrace partnerships with organizations who can help make learning fun, interactive, and accessible. Here's an example of how one of my favorite local institutions, the Center of Science and Industry (COSI), is facilitating the exploration of science for children in under-resourced communities.
It's time for us to focus our energy and public dollars on practices that have been proven effective and to put systems in place to begin tracking our progress. AttendanceWorks has done a great job of bringing data tracking to the forefront as we work to ensure that all students have an equitable school experience this fall.
More than anything, it's time for us to dismantle barriers created by historical and institutionalized racism and to embrace all children and families as our own. We need to be unafraid to check our privilege, acknowledge racist policies and practices, and work to rectify harm that has been done. If you're not sure where to get started, here is a free training on implicit bias for K-12 educators from the Kirwan Institute on the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State (I attended an incredibly powerful trainings with them this week.).
As we continue to weather the uncertainty from COVID, we need to remember that we all have the ability to communicate effectively, build meaningful relationships, empathize with others, and engage families in partnership. With these priorities and a plan for how to measure if we're doing them right, we will be able to help all children, families, and communities make the most of this unconventional back-to-school time.
How are institutions and organizations near you embracing engagement during this time?
I admit: I didn't think it was that hard to get a survey translated.
Over the past few weeks, I learned just how wrong I was -- and ate a big piece of humble pie in the process.
With colleagues, I'm working on a landscape analysis of how families and educators in California feel about family engagement and the state's requirements for incorporating stakeholder feedback into district plans for improvement. We're designing a training program around these topics, but to make sure our program will be relevant, we wanted to hear from the people who would be participating in it. We designed a survey and planned for focus groups, and I naively thought we were good to go.
Although Baltimore has a growing -- but fairly localized -- population of English Language Learners, the families at the schools where I worked were predominately Black and English-speaking. When I worked at the district, we had a cadre of interpreters we regularly contracted with for events, and we used large-scale survey software that easily facilitated (mostly adequate) translations.
So when we decided to translate the California survey into nine additional languages, I didn't anticipate just how difficult that would be.
Our survey was fairly basic and brief, so I built it out in Google Forms ... only to learn that despite the widespread availability of their free translation technology, there was no mechanism for translating surveys in their tool. (I'm honestly still scratching my head about this.) The most straightforward (ha!) way I found to create a multilingual survey in Google was to independently translate the survey into each language, build a separate page in the survey for each language, copy and paste each line of the translated surveys, and then use skip logic to direct people to the page with the language they selected.
We gave up on Google. We found out that our client had a Survey Monkey account that included the ability to create multilingual surveys. I was excited. Finally - a logical way to complete this seemingly simple task!
Nope. I was still wrong.
While this platform at least offers a dropdown menu of languages on the survey page (thereby making it easier for respondents and avoiding the skip logic silliness on the back end), it turns out that this paid feature was just as cumbersome to use as the Google option. What I ended up having to do was download a coded text file for each language, pay to independently translate each of the languages (Thank you, Stepes Translation, for coming to our rescue!), copy and paste each line of the translations into specific sections of the text file, and then upload the translated file to the system. NINE TIMES.
With my hand cramping from all of that Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V action, I was stunned by how technically difficult and frankly, inaccessible the survey translation process was. Who is actually going to go through all this? More importantly, what does this mean for the voices of those who are not native English speakers? Without access to a large, institutional subscription to a powerhouse survey software, my gut tells me that very little translation is likely to happen. As a result, many important voices are being silenced.
I don't have a solution to offer here, but I'm glad that this is a lesson I learned. This has opened my eyes to the institutional roadblocks that prevent equitable language access in our country... and I know I've just scratched the surface. Translation services, albeit not 100% reliable, are widely accessible and free online, yet they are not integrated into lower-cost survey platforms. This not only causes a huge headache for survey designers, but it inhibits the ability to hear from non-English speakers about important issues. As I seem to say in a lot of my blog posts, we have to do better.
If anyone has a better solution than the relay race I just ran, please share in the comments! I do hope that a more accessible and user-friendly option exists.
I still remember how scared I was during the 2015 riots/uprising in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray.
I understood the pain and outrage in the black community over the death of a young, black man in police custody, but looking back, I didn't really get the depth of the collective trauma that was at the heart of it.
At the time, I was a Community School Coordinator at a predominately black elementary school about two miles down the road from Mondawmin Mall, the epicenter of the protests. As word spread of a student-led protest at Mondawmin that afternoon, staff and families began to fear for the safety of our students as they left school for the day. I had to take a different route on my way home, since I always passed the mall on my drive. On my detour, I passed armored National Guard tanks and heavily armed soldiers. It was clear that this was much more than a student-led protest. I was rattled.
That night, I holed up in my apartment and spent the entire evening glued to the news, unable to do anything but watch my city burn. Living close to downtown, I heard a lot of noise outside that night, but I was shocked to wake up and find buildings across the street boarded up, having been broken into the night before.
I felt that same initial shock this weekend when I saw images of my new city - Columbus, OH - on fire. While still frightening, I had a different understanding of the situation than I did five years ago.
In the five years since that night, I have continued to study, listen, and learn about the deeply institutionalized racism in this country and the violence that still accompanies it in modern-day America. I now have a better understanding of how intensely traumatized our black communities are from centuries of oppression, discrimination, and brutality, and I also know that I can never truly know that pain for myself.
So the recent surge in senseless and hate-fueled killings of black men and women in this country has rested heavy on my heart. I've felt sick over the horrific and unnecessary deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd in recent weeks ... and so many others before them. I've heard the friends and colleagues I love question their own self-worth and the safety of their children just because of the color of their skin. Dyjuan Tatro, featured in the moving series College Behind Bars, about the Bard Prison Initiative, summed this up so eloquently:
And yet, police brutality has only proliferated this week. I've watched videos of officers driving their cars into crowds of protesters, pulling down a young man's mask and pepper spraying him, and shooting protesters and journalists in the face with "non-lethal" bullets.
There is no reason for it, and there is no excuse. The blatant racism and hate crimes in our country must be prosecuted and condemned.
But let's think for a moment about our country's black youth. On top of this historical and racial trauma that so many of them carry before they are old enough to understand it, they also attend under-resourced, hyper-segregated schools ... and yet, we expect them to learn and function like those who are lucky enough to live without these burdens.
It doesn't make sense. We have to do better.
I'm still grappling with my role in all of this and how I can try to make the world a bit better. I will continue to serve and support communities and school districts serving black and brown youth, but somehow that doesn't feel like enough. I hope that as a nation, we can collectively remember that there is a common good, and that it is far easier to stand for that than to stand for hate.
It's funny how things work out sometimes.
Tamara Hamai and I have been sowing the seeds for our new program, Evidence for Engagement, for months. Our partnership happened so organically - a meeting of the minds for two evaluators who have experience with and a passion for organizations that serve youth and families. We'd been toying with the best way to support the organizations that we serve and help them use evaluation to improve their access to funding and the children and families they serve.
Then COVID hit.
The pandemic has caused all of us to pause and re-evaluate how our work fits into a very new, very different reality. Tamara and I know that small organizations, especially those who work in schools, are struggling right now. Their access to the people they serve has been essentially cut off. We realized that organizations may need our help even more than before.
Our solution: We're running a totally free, three-week email series that will help small youth- and family-serving organizations build their evidence base (which is required under the Every Student Succeeds Act for any organization receiving federal education funds). Through videos, worksheets, frameworks, and success stories, Tamara and I will walk participants through the process of becoming evidence-based organizations and help them see this as an opportunity, not a burden.
The goal: We want to help vital, community-based organizations plan for the future, open themselves up to new opportunities, and become more sustainably funded. We're hoping that this opportunity will help them better serve youth and families, not only during this difficult period of time, but also for a long time afterward.
For us, this is also about equity. We know that for many community-based, minority-owned organizations, budgeting for evaluation is out of the question. We also know that these grass-roots organizations are having a profound impact on their communities -- and that their communities need all the support we can give. We're hoping that we can get more small, local organizations approved as evidence-based programs in their districts and begin to level the playing field.
If you think this program will benefit you and your organization, sign up below! If you know of someone else who could use this support, encourage them to join.
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Last week, I watched a powerful webinar from Ohio State's Wexner Medical Center about health inequity and COVID-19. One of the first speakers, Dr. Nwando Olayiwola, started to talk about vulnerable populations but quickly corrected herself. She called them, "populations that have been made vulnerable."
What a difference such a small change made. Instead of assuming that people in those populations are inherently vulnerable, her corrected phrase shows that inequity is the result of intentional decisions that negatively affect specific groups of people. Her quick self-correction stuck with me.
This morning, I was reading the education news that comes to my inbox each day and saw a headline from the Wall Street Journal last week that read, "Some School Districts Plan to End the Year Early, Call Remote Learning Too Tough." Another entry in the same newsletter suggested that based on a national poll of teachers and administrators, 65% want to start the school year as normal in the fall, without adjustments to the curriculum or schedule. My heart sank, and I instantly thought of Dr. Olayiwola's revised phrase.
Now, I am no longer a K-12 teacher, so it is unfair for me to pass judgment on educators, whose jobs were already difficult, and who had to do a 180-degree shift in their daily practices within days or weeks. That is an incredible challenge, and it will take time to adjust. I empathize with teachers and cannot imagine what I would have done if I had to shift my middle school instruction online in a heartbeat. However, we're also faced with a growing educational crisis.
Evaluators and researchers have been doing some great work to illuminate the educational ramifications of COVID-19 on disadvantaged communities. Researchers have studied the concept of "summer slide" for many years and have shown students regress in math and reading skills without educational opportunities during the summer. There is even a National Center on Time and Learning, whose work revolves around reducing inequities related to the inflexible and insufficient school year schedules that predominate in our country. Recently, the Collaborative for Student Growth found that an even more significant "COVID slide" is likely to occur when students return to school in the fall, having retained only about 70% of the reading growth and 50% of the math growth they would have typically made in a school year. Recommendations to mitigate the COVID slide include summer school and additional learning time for students.
Yet, the Wall Street Journal article discussed how districts across the country are choosing to end the school year up to three weeks early in order to have more time to prepare for the fall. One superintendent even stated, "It made sense to us to get rid of the stress and get ready for the following school year." We certainly need more supports for teachers and greater access to technology for students in order to make online learning more functional and effective. But does that justify giving up entirely?
Decades of research have shown that more time in school leads to better outcomes for students, especially those from low-income communities. In a time of increased risk for widening the achievement gap, is it ethical to throw in the towel? By justifying inaction with the feeling that it is too difficult to educate students from home, we are making our student populations -- in many cases -- more vulnerable than they already were. I hope that evaluators and researchers can come together with educators to study the data, fully understand the problem and its drivers, and develop policy recommendations that will not only support teachers but will also do right by students who need time with teachers to thrive.
For the past few weeks, one image has been recurring in my mind. I keep picturing the living conditions of a student whose home I visited a few times when I was working as a community school coordinator in Baltimore. This student had struggled at other schools but was thriving at ours. He had repeated second grade, so his maturity compared to his peers was notable, but overall, he was just a really sweet kid. We did a number of home visits for him that year because he missed a lot of school, and as a black child from a low-income home with documented learning disabilities, school was even more important for him than most.
Every time I get frustrated with having to stay home - in my very comfortable apartment, with my husband and dog, and with fairly steady work - I've been trying to check myself. I keep thinking of my former student and imagining how difficult it must be to be confined to a space that may not be healthy, safe, or developmentally appropriate. I keep thinking about all the students I've known who love coming to school because there are people there who love them, two to three meals a day, and a sense of community. I keep thinking that I wish I knew how to help them all right now.
There is no question that low-income students struggle to get to school. (I wrote about this in my last blog post as well.) According to Attendance Works:
"Children living in poverty are two to three times more likely to be chronically absent—and face the most harm because their community lacks the resources to make up for the lost learning in school. Students from communities of color as well as those with disabilities are disproportionately affected."
Unfortunately, they're struggling to access school online as well. The New York Times reported this week that large percentages of low-income students in districts across the country are absent from the virtual education being provided as a result of COVID-19. So not only are students from disadvantaged backgrounds missing out on the resources that many of them so desperately need and want to access, but they are also disconnected from their school communities. Since it is unclear when we will be able to return to work and school, there is the possibility that our highest-need children could be without school for many months, only exacerbating already-existing gaps in achievement and opportunity.
Making matters worse, black communities are disproportionately becoming victim to COVID-19. As one of the many social determinants of health, education joins other critical factors such as adequate housing, socioeconomic status, access to and coverage of healthcare, and more to comprise health outcomes for people and communities. As you can see in the chart below from the Kaiser Family Foundation, these factors have a profound impact on a person's ability to live a healthy life.
For low-income black communities in particular, the collective impact of these factors has not only disastrous outcomes but also clear roots. Dr. Camara Jones, a physician and epidemiologist, is cited in the article linked above about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on black communities:
“COVID is just unmasking the deep disinvestment in our communities, the historical injustices and the impact of residential segregation... This is the time to name racism as the cause of all of those things. The overrepresentation of people of color in poverty and white people in wealth is not just a happenstance."
Our unequal and unfair society is how it is by design and not by chance. COVID-19 is showing us how this is even more urgently a matter of life or death. Other than overhauling our government systems and laws entirely, I struggle with not knowing how these issues can be fixed or what I as an individual can do to make things better for others. I just hope that opening up the dialogue about these issues will start to lead to changes for students like mine and the families and communities in which they live.
It's funny where the most interesting and engaging conversations can happen. At the gym last week, I had a few random, but passionate conversations with other members of the educational (and martial arts!) community about youth experiencing trauma and how it impacts their ability to participate in school, learn effectively, and handle their emotions.
Trauma is something I wish I had learned about when I became a teacher over ten years ago. Like many new teachers, I struggled with classroom management. It is probably not surprising to learn that as a 5'2", 22 year-old woman, I did not have a natural authoritative presence. However, there were many other reasons for the challenges I faced -- ineffective and harmful administrators, a lack of shared expectations among our middle school team, and my own battle with anxiety. These all contributed to what often felt like turmoil in my classroom. While I always empathized with the challenges my students faced in their own lives, I never fully understood the ramifications of the trauma and hardship they experienced -- nor did I know where to connect them or their families for additional support.
I was lucky because the school had a wonderful social worker and part-time psychologist to whom I could refer students. They also served as great supports and sources of advice and knowledge for me as a new educator. Yet, there was little capacity and no infrastructure at the school for understanding and responding to trauma. I remember being told that students were experiencing homelessness, hearing stories about families who were involved in gangs, and seeing that students were extremely impoverished, but I had no tools to process these situations or fully support my students. I felt anguish about the situations they were experiencing, but I know I did not always respond effectively.
Years later, after working in a community school and supporting many others, I know what more effective and comprehensive supports can look like. I have seen the benefits of wraparound services for students and families, including a full mental health team; meaningful enrichment and engagement opportunities for students and adults; connections to resources for basic needs such as housing, food, clothing, and adult education; efforts to track and review data on engagement, attendance, and supports provided; and most importantly, a loving and affirming approach to working with students and families with the greatest needs. Community schools -- schools that become a hub of the surrounding community and provide these wraparound services for students, families, and community members -- are well-supported by research. This model has been shown to be beneficial in reducing chronic absenteeism, improving school climate, increasing student achievement, and more. One of the findings from a 2017 Learning Policy Institute report states that:
"The evidence base provides a strong warrant for using community schools to meet the needs of low-achieving students in high-poverty schools and to help close opportunity and achievement gaps for students from low-income families, students of color, English learners, and students with disabilities."
So when my friend at the gym, a high school guidance counselor, told me that his school effectively did not have any mental health clinicians available to students, I was taken aback. I talk to him frequently about his school and the amazing ways in which he supports his students, so I was shocked to learn that this large high school was so under-resourced in this area. The school seems to be on its way toward providing wraparound services, with a brand new food pantry and the dedication of counselors like my friend. Yet this conversation made me realize that the services I took for granted in Baltimore City schools -- which were still often insufficient to meet the high level of need -- did not exist everywhere.
This was a critical and humbling realization. Of course, if we could make students' barriers disappear -- or at least provide them with the resources that they need to overcome these barriers and thrive -- we would. But in the absence of a magic wand, what can we do? From my lens, this is where needs assessments and data tracking can play a huge role. Imagine if we collected stories from students, families, and staff about the challenges faced by the school community, each stakeholder group's perceived needs, and their recommendations for meeting those needs. Now think about if we used factual data about the community and student population to support those stories. What we would get is an intensely compelling, collective narrative about what this community needs and how its members feel those needs could be met.
Could a needs assessment or set of data instantly bring on a full slate of mental health workers at this school? Of course not. But when we tell our story effectively, people (read: funders, decision-makers, influencers) listen. And when people start listening, we can inspire them to make change.
The Structured Solutions Announcements page has been reimagined into an issue-centered blog to illuminate critical ideas and events that affect the schools, communities, and families that we serve. This is the first post of the new blog.
My husband and I recently finished watching the new Netflix documentary, Inside Bill's Brain. We both found Bill Gates' story to be fascinating and inspiring, impressed by how he and his wife have channeled their intellect, curiosity, and empathy into an idea generation machine -- The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- to solve the world's toughest problems. While I, of course, felt like I immediately needed to get off the couch and do something good for the world, I also found myself reflecting on how Bill Gates reached this point in his life.
In the documentary, Gates talks about the many opportunities that allowed him to become the computing prodigy that he is and was. I was immediately reminded of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, which I had read many years before. Gladwell highlighted the incredible opportunities that Gates encountered in his early years that facilitated his exponential growth. Both Outliers and Inside Bill's Brain discuss the prestigious private school in which Gates was enrolled for his adolescent and teenage years, which allowed him to learn to code and develop programs in the school's computer lab ... in the 1960s. My Baltimore City Public Schools classroom in 2011 did not have any technology! Gladwell writes:
"We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that's the wrong lesson. Our world allowed one thirteen-year-old unlimited access to a time-sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today?"
Both the documentary and Gladwell's case study also highlight the resources into which Gates was born. Gates himself admits that his family was wealthy, and during his childhood in the 1950s and 1960s, he had two professional, working parents. The documentary speaks in great detail to the power his mother had in the community, serving on boards and building an impressive network. Her connections were so impressive, in fact, that Gates shares how she forced him to meet with Warren Buffett and facilitated that connection for her son. My first thought was, "That is SOME social capital!"
The esteemed sociologist James Coleman discusses his theory of social capital in his 1988 "Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital." He explains that the resources and connections that people have access to through their close relationships and communities can have profound impacts on personal and professional outcomes. Examples of social capital might include community members sharing job opportunities with each other, elder family or community members connecting youth to an internship or mentor, or professional individuals serving as positive role models for others in their circles. In each of these scenarios, people have access to opportunities, exposure to new ideas and people, and the ability to see what they themselves could become. Now imagine what happens when none of these resources are present in the life of a child or young adult. Coleman suggests that without social capital, an individual's outcomes might look quite different: "Like other forms of capital, social capital is productive, making possible the achievement of certain ends that in its absence would not be possible."
Gates benefited a great deal from his sheer luck of being born into a family of means, but this certainly does not diminish his genius or impact on the world. However, the social capital he had access to in his youth had, without a doubt, an enormous impact on his success in life. As Gladwell muses, what about every other teenager? Don't they deserve the same opportunities and resources? If our most disadvantaged communities were rich with opportunity and home-grown role models and free from the oppression caused by centuries of systematic, legalized discrimination, we would only be able to imagine how many more Bill Gates the world would have.
The goal of this blog is to highlight relevant issues that impact students, families, and communities and spark engaging discussions about how to address those issues through evaluation.