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.
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.
I naively said to my family a few weeks ago that I was lucky that my business wouldn't be affected in the way that so many restaurants and other small businesses are by the pandemic. I couldn't see then, but it has become incredibly clear since that every business and every industry have been and will be impacted on a massive scale by this pause in how we normally function. I am so fortunate that I can continue much of my work from home; yet every day, my heart breaks for other small business owners who are doing everything they can to keep their businesses afloat during this unprecedented time.
I spoke to one of my former clients recently, and I expressed how badly I felt that the cancellation of schools would drastically affect his work. His response to me was this: "This is a time to pivot!"
All week, I've been thinking about what he said and what a resilient attitude he had. I've also been pondering how this affects not only my work but the organizations and communities I serve. Take the issue of chronic absenteeism in schools. Chronic absenteeism is typically defined as missing 10% of more of a given school year, and it has been empirically tied to a host of negative outcomes for students, including reading levels, special education identification, suspensions, dropout rates, and more. Students from vulnerable and underserved populations are at the highest risk. The good news about this issue is that it is both preventable and reversible, and I've found in my work that regular and collaborative data tracking on student absences and related interventions can make a huge difference for kids and schools. A recent article, Chronic Absenteeism in the Time of Coronavirus, discussed the implications of shuttered schools on how schools and systems typically address attendance issues, but also on what closed schools mean for the students themselves.
In thinking of how to pivot from the typical accountability measures associated with attendance, as Jordan's article suggests, how can we in the education field work together during this time to address the root causes -- the underlying reasons why so many students miss school? I am loving all of the positive news articles out there about school districts employing bus drivers to deliver meals, offering wifi hotspots to those without internet access at home, and teachers driving around students' neighborhoods to help them feel connected.
From my lens, I think this break from traditional schooling is an opportune time to go deep with our data and determine all that we can about which students are missing school the most and why. Once we've done that, we can get creative about our interventions for kids while they are in their homes and communities. I've got a few ideas in development for how my work can pivot to best serve our schools, districts, and non-profit organizations who have the most direct lines to children and families (more information on that to come!). In the meantime, if your organization is trying to better support its chronically absent students or more effectively engage with families during this time, let's chat. Shoot me an email here so that we can set up a conversation.
How are you planning to pivot? Share your ideas in the comments below - I'd love to start a conversation and channel our collective creativity!
I love to read. Curling up with a good book and getting lost in the story for hours is pure bliss for me. Of course, adulthood prevents this from being a regular occurrence, but I still treasure the time I spend reading and the lessons I learn from the books on my shelves.
I was struggling to come up with a topic for this week's post and decided to look at my notebook of what I've read over the years. Given that a new decade has officially commenced, I excitedly realized that I could reflect on my favorite and most inspiring reads from the past decade. If Barack Obama and Bill Gates can share their lists of favorite books, why can't I? With much difficulty, I chose one book that I read each year that helped me understand the world - and why it is the way it is - with greater clarity and from other perspectives.
This book by two acclaimed reporters focuses on how empowering women in developing countries can bring about a reduction of poverty and an economic boost for all. Discussions on the impact of micro-finance - providing small loans to women (or men) to help them start a business, get an education, and/or support their families - and the stories of individual women who benefited it are compelling. The authors show how even minor investments can have a tremendous return - economically and emotionally - for women who have been abused, disenfranchised, or simply undervalued.
As an alumna of Johns Hopkins and a longtime Baltimorean, the story of Henrietta Lacks intrigued me on many levels. Rebecca Skloot's book talks about how a black woman in Baltimore in the 1950s inadvertently became the foundation of widespread and landmark medical research. Not only did I learn about the HeLa cells (which were removed from her when she was treated for cancer at Hopkins Hospital and used for research without consent) and the science they inspired, but I also got new insights into what Baltimore and Hopkins were like during segregation, how differently black patients experienced medical care than white patients, and how the Lacks family still struggles today.
I distinctly remember my 9th grade U.S. History teacher discussing this novel and its implication of the meatpacking industry in the early 1900s. I didn't think I could stomach Sinclair's descriptions of "how the sausage gets made" then, but when I read this classic as an adult, I was astonished to learn that this book is about so much more than horrifying practices of Chicago's meatpacking plants. What struck me most were the immense challenges faced by immigrant communities at the time and the conditions they had no choice but to endure in order to support their families and survive.
I would be remiss to not include a book by my hero, Jonathan Kozol. His compassionate and candid discussions of poverty and the unacceptable conditions of educational systems in America have inspired me since I was in college, and I was lucky enough to hear him speak and meet him many years ago. This book commemorates 25 years of his critically important work by following up with the children he befriended and wrote about through his impassioned research and storytelling.
Although this text was written in 1962, it is still incredible relevant to educational debates today. Callahan reflects on how the "efficiency movement" of the early 1900s influenced the structure of schooling in America. His book shares how the management of time and production efforts in American factories spawned everything from traditional school schedules and bell systems to accountability structures and the desire for measuring ... well, everything. Since schools are human-serving organizations and therefore quite different from factories, this book made so much sense to me as a partial explanation for how our educational systems developed in a misguided way.
My college professor (and my friend and mentor to this day), Dr. Floyd Hayes, is a Richard Wright scholar and first introduced me to his work. I've read many of Wright's books over the years and in fact started 2020 with one of his masterpieces. Yet Black Boy stuck with me in a profound way. This is Wright's autobiographical work, and his profoundly moving descriptions of hunger as a child made that phenomenon clear to me in a way that nothing else had. I am fortunate to have always had food on the table, but this book gave me a powerful understanding for those who struggle every day.
Ryan's book about the differences between two large high schools - one in a suburb and the other in the neighboring city - and the political underpinnings of those differences was not a comfortable read. He describes in detail the way that local, state, and national governments and courts have historically and systematically "saved the cities and spared the suburbs" through damaging, discriminatory policies. These policies and legal decisions, made under the guise of being progressive and helpful, in fact helped to keep our schools and neighborhoods segregated and our non-white citizens disadvantaged. This book, among others read at the same time, completely transformed the way I think about our government, public institutions, and society in general.
This novel follows the breakdown of a once tight-knit family after their only daughter experiences a significant trauma. While I have enjoyed many of Oates' novels, this one was a particularly compelling illustration of how trauma not only affects the person who initially experiences it, but how it also impacts the entire family system. Told from the perspective of the youngest brother, this is a story that I could not put down and that kept me thinking.
Anderson argues that our country's horrifying system of mass incarceration is the newest iteration of the Jim Crow laws of the 20th century. She shares compelling parallels between the systems of control, containment, and oppression used during slavery, segregation, and in between, to maintain white superiority and the widespread incarceration of black men that began with the War on Drugs. Her discussion of racism and social control is informative and eye-opening and is a critical read for understanding the dynamics of our current society.
This had been on my reading list for a few years, after hearing author Kathryn Edin speak at a conference. I wish I had gotten to it sooner, as it was one of the most enlightening books I have read in a while. Edin and Shaefer tell the stories of a number of families who, through circumstances often beyond their control, effectively live without any income. In what seem like unfathomable situations, the parents highlighted in this book dispel stereotypes about people living in poverty or who receive/are eligible for public assistance. I was blown away by the sheer resilience and persistence that these families continually demonstrated, and I learned so much about just how little is done to support those who need it most.
Which books inspired you the most over the past decade? Share your recommendations in the comments!
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 second post of the new blog.
Most of us have been raised to believe that school is the great equalizer, the ticket to success in life, or the escape from the circumstances into which you were born. For many people, this adage has undoubtedly been true. This principle is what drew me into education -- that providing high-quality educational opportunities could help those who had fewer advantages given to them in life and could thereby inspire and uplift future generations. I have worked to provide direct educational and wrap-around services to students and families and supported and coached school teams trying to do the same for their communities.
However, the more time I spend in urban education, and the more I read about and study the history of it, the less I am convinced of this idealism. Certainly, I still believe that schools have the potential to be incredible hubs of learning, caring, and growing -- for students, staff, and families alike. However, for communities and populations whose opportunity to take advantage of "the great equalizer" has been quietly and systematically squandered by discriminatory and self-serving policies (For a primer, read James Ryan's Five Miles Away, A World Apart), schools simply cannot overcome the influence of these social and political forces and their resultant effects alone. Of course, I still wholeheartedly believe in the power of family and community engagement, in the promise of community schools, and in the hope that dedicated and compassionate professionals bring to the students and families they serve. Yet, we must address the root causes of the challenges faced in order to see systemic change in our educational systems across the country.
Yesterday, basketball star LeBron James made a landmark announcement that works to address these root causes for students at his I Promise School here in Ohio. In partnership with a boutique hotel chain, the Lebron James Family Foundation will be renovating a historic building near the school's campus in order to provide transitional housing for families of students at I Promise who are experiencing homelessness. For those families, this is a game-changer.
In the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the definition of homelessness has a much wider reach than some could imagine. According to the law, those designated as "homeless" refers to "... individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence." This could include:
Due to the wide variety of conditions that could qualify a person or family as homeless, it is often difficult to get an accurate estimate of the scope of the problem. A report from HUD estimated that on a single night in early 2018, over 552,000 people experienced homelessness, an increase from the previous year. One-third of this identified homeless population consisted of families with children. However, it is likely that this estimate was unable to capture the full range of individuals and families without safe, permanent housing, especially those who are staying with friends or family.
The effects of being homeless on children and youth are numerous and significant. Julianelle and Foscarinis (2003) write that the McKinney-Vento Act works to protect these students from unnecessary disruption and mobility, which can lead to inconsistent social connections and educational supports. We know that students who are homeless are also likely to live in poverty, and this combination of traumatic situations can only amplify their effects; Murphy and Tobin (2011) discuss the wide range of effects that homeless students experience. These include: health issues from less-than-ideal sleeping conditions and environments, reduced access to proper medical care, or an inadequate food supply; mental health issues stemming from an increase risk of being a victim of violence, a lack of stable social supports, and the stress of not having a stable or permanent home; and academic issues as a result of potential developmental delays; frequently changing schools; and high rates of chronic absenteeism.
To mitigate some of these many risk factors, McKinney-Vento enables homeless students to stay in the school they attended before becoming homeless, even if they are temporarily living in a different area; receive transportation to and from their temporary residence to that school; enroll into school right away, even if they do not have all of the necessary documents; and access supports at the school level, such as a designated liaison. Certainly, schools and districts have some control over the extent to which the McKinney-Vento regulations are implemented, and we can only hope that they err on the side of increased supports to this vulnerable population.
The Community Schools movement is another effort to help stabilize families and students in order to facilitate greater access to and success with educational opportunities. Partnerships with community organizations and agencies, as well as rich and mutual home-school relationships are ways in which community schools work to mitigate challenges and support students and families. For example, school-based coordinators can partner with and connect families to local organizations that focus on issues of housing and family stability, or they could spearhead efforts within the school to provide extra supports to students experiencing housing instability or homelessness.
All of these efforts are admirable and helpful. Yet, I still ask, "What more could schools possibly do?" Although schools can support their students and families and connect them to community resources, it is very difficult for schools to address root causes of complex issues like poverty or homelessness. I have seen some criticism that LeBron is being hailed as a hero while school districts that may want to support their students more comprehensively often do not have the funds to do so. I argue instead that no matter how much funding schools get, it is unlikely that they could ever provide a stabilizing intervention like the one that LeBron James just promised to the most vulnerable families at the I Promise School.
We should use this initiative of an example of what could happen if agencies worked together more effectively, if true efforts were made to alleviate the damages done by years of discriminatory policy, and if compassion -- not politics -- was what ruled collective decision-making in education and society. From an evaluator standpoint, LeBron has created a beautiful natural experiment. I do hope that there is research done to study the trajectories of these students and families, as they get settled in their new homes and later on in their lives. From a human standpoint, I am simply thankful that LeBron has chosen to use his personal money to make what I know is an immeasurable impact on the lives of these young people and their families.
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.