To create fairness of opportunity and to advance ideas that allow all students, families, and communities to thrive, it is our civic and moral responsibility to own up to the problems in our society and invest in equity-driven strategies. We must address poverty, social justice, and education together. We need a comprehensive approach to our most complex problems. Honest conversations about the relevance of poverty and race in our nation’s educational challenges are vital.
“You can’t focus on one [problem] without the other,” says Dr. Monica Medina, Interim Director of the Center for Urban and Multicultural Education at the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) School of Education. “In order for us to be effective, we must look at the complexity of these issues from multiple perspectives.”
This was the core message of the Coalition’s recent webinar, “Community Schools and Equity: Changing Systems,” and speakers touched on the intersection of race, poverty, income, class, family circumstance, and culture in educational inequities. “I think that’s what makes the community school strategy so powerful,” says Ena Li, Education Director of the United Way of the Bay Area. “It acknowledges and merges all of these critical factors.”
The Coalition’s Equity Framework also frames this important message by underscoring the principles and approaches that enable community schools to address the most egregious disparities. Community schools require a collaborative, intentional, and honest effort of leaders across sectors to become partners in identifying the local needs of schools and communities.
Although racial inequity is most pronounced, children of all demographic backgrounds face a lack of opportunity, and these inequities are symptomatic of greater structural barriers. It affects children in urban, suburban, and rural areas who are cut off from ladders of opportunity and unable to access college and career pathways. It affects youth with disabilities who lack accessible spaces and tools to assist in their learning.
The webinar speakers represented just a few of the many community schools leaders who are addressing this issue directly -- tackling systems and beliefs that constrain the mobility of many young people.
Diana Hall, Program Supervisor of the SUN Service System and Community Schools in Multnomah County, Oregon, emphasized this point by articulating SUN’s Theory of Change, which voiced their intent to make a clear statement about their commitment to equity with a focus on racial justice:
We wanted to make visible the issue of racism in our systems. We have very significant racial disparities and institutionalized issues to address in our community. We had to convene all of our leaders and partners in the community and decided that we were going to have honest conversations with each other about equity.
SUN Service Team then convened a Leadership Council and Equity Lens team in the spring of 2013 that included representatives of the city’s Equity Office, school districts, nonprofit organizations, and coalitions of communities of color. They soon created an Equity Index to identify high-need schools that they would transform into high-quality, full-service community schools. Accounting for demographic factors such as race and income level, the Equity Index is enabling SUN to re-allocate school funding in a culturally responsive way.
Equity strategies require leaders to build effective collaborative leadership structures, intentionally look at the conditions of the community, and create a shared vision that will translate into action and results. Community schools initiatives, like SUN’s effort in Oregon, create policies to ensure community schools have the support of leadership in school districts, community-based organizations, businesses, health and human services, colleges and universities, and residents and families to create the political and public will to address inequities in their communities.
But race is not the only relevant factor, and poverty and family circumstances are relevant issues that must not be ignored. Ena Li, Education Director of the United Way of the Bay Area, touched on how community schools meet the basic needs of families and offer programs and services that support family economic success by utilizing their two-generation strategy, SparkPoint Community Schools as an example. In 2010, the United Way of the Bay Area Board declared a bold goal to cut Bay Area poverty in half by the year 2020. To help families create pathways out of poverty, they decided to align their anti-poverty efforts in SparkPoint -- financial education centers focused on helping struggling families achieve financial prosperity -- with their community schools efforts. There are now ten, and soon to be eleven, SparkPoint centers located in the Bay Area’s community schools, offering services for families to build assets, grow income, manage debt, and maintain financial stability. SparkPoint Community Schools presents a unique yet illustrative example of community schools addressing the barriers families face, so the child can focus on learning.
But the quality of teacher-student relationships also affects how a child learns, and it is important to recognize how community schools may assist in meeting the needs of teachers and supporting their roles as educators. Dr. Monica Medina leads courses at the IUPUI School of Education to address this very issue; through her courses, pre-service teachers are placed in community schools in Indianapolis, Indiana and participate in classes such as Community Schools 101 and Poverty and Teacher Expectations to learn about community schools through a critical social justice lens.
The idea is to help these teachers become culturally responsive to the needs of students, parents, and community members involved in the school. The overall goal is to help teachers develop a counter-narrative that promotes social equality, democracy, social responsibility, and civic engagement. Academic achievement is important, but teachers need to also recognize that they must support the community school model through an Equity Pedagogy that creates the conditions for students to be effective learners. – Monica Medina, Interim Director of the Center for Urban and Multicultural Education
When teachers learn about multicultural competence in the classroom, they can use this knowledge as tools and assets for reaching students and families of differing cultural backgrounds. Dr. Medina’s work supports the community schools principle to embrace diversity and to build equitable and trusting relationships among youth, teachers, schools, families, and communities.
The intersection of social, economic, and cultural factors in our nation’s educational disparities calls for comprehensive solutions that intentionally address these issues with a focus on equity. Community schools present one hopeful strategy, for we need a system of opportunity and support that ensures children and families do not fall through the cracks. The problems our young people face are not individual problems. They are systemic problems. And while they may seem too complex or overwhelming to acknowledge, they must be addressed, and they must be discussed with a spirit of togetherness, hope, change, and opportunity.
To view and listen to the entire “Community Schools and Equity: Changing Systems” webinar, click here.
This blog is written in coordination with the Coalition’s four-part Equity Webinar series by Perpetual Baffour, National Policy Emerson Fellow.