Category Archives: Equity

“Ambicultural” Latinx Students and Educational Equity: A Q&A With Tina Fernandez

When I think of someone who exemplifies the Bellwether mission, Tina Fernandez is an obvious choice. She’s been part of the Bellwether family, in many different capacities, since our founding.

A long-time friend (we were college roommates) and one of the only lawyers I knew, I reached out to Tina for advice when Bellwether filed for its nonprofit status back in 2007. She helped with our filing and served as a founding member, and later as chair, of Bellwether’s board of directors. In 2014 she left the board to join Bellwether full-time as a partner, where she co-led the launch of Bellwether’s talent management and organizational effectiveness services. (These services have since spun off into a new organization, Promise54.)

It was a bittersweet moment when Tina left Bellwether’s staff in 2015 to lead Achieve Atlanta, where she’s been serving as Executive Director ever since. In her role, she works to dramatically increase the number of Atlanta students completing post-secondary education. Luckily, she’s back on our board, and brings an invaluable perspective on the advisory work we do, the leaders we serve, and the problems in urban education we are trying to help solve. (She’s held a number of other impressive roles in the past, including law professor and classroom teacher — you can read more here.)

September is Hispanic Heritage Month, so the interview below touches on education efforts specific to Latinx communities, as well as broader lessons from her current role. I’m so glad I haven’t let Tina lose touch after all these years.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

When we were college roommates, I had not yet landed on education as my likely career. When did you know that you’d pursue a career in education? Can you remember a concrete moment or experience that showed you your future path?

I grew up in the wonderful Rio Grande Valley of Texas and attended a public school where over 90% of the student body was Latino/a. When I went away to college, I realized how inequitable our high school education had been; I was one of only a few Latino/a students on my campus.

So I knew from early on that I wanted to work with low-income youth. At college, I quickly sought out opportunities to work with kids who had similar backgrounds to mine. I joined CityStep my freshman year, an organization whose mission is to promote creative self-expression and mutual understanding through dance. I served as the executive director my last two years in college. For four years at CityStep, I also spent a substantial amount of time teaching dance and self-expression in 4th and 5th grade public school classrooms. Through this, I really developed a passion for youth development.

During my sophomore and junior year summers, I worked with an organization called Keylatch, a summer urban camp serving youth in Boston’s South End and Lower Roxbury. These experiences allowed me to develop relationships with the most wonderful, intelligent, and promise-filled kids and solidified my commitment to fighting for educational justice.

By my senior year, I decided to apply to Teach For America, an organization which was only two years old at the time. And the rest, as they say, is history. I’ve taken a couple of detours in my career, but I’ve always stayed connected to education and children’s rights.

Tell us a little bit about your work at Achieve Atlanta, and the biggest hurdles and most exciting opportunities your organization faces in achieving its mission. Continue reading

How Do We Incentivize Charter Authorizers to Approve More High-Quality Alternative Schools? A Q&A With Colorado’s Antonio Parés.

Antonio Parés headshot via Twitter

Antonio Parés via Twitter

“Alternative education” is a catch-all term used to describe education programs for students who have not been well-served by traditional classroom environments. It can refer to computer-based rapid credit accrual opportunities, supportive programs for students who are pregnant or parenting, intensive English-language programs for students who have come to the United States with substantial education histories in another language, “second chance” placements for students expelled from traditional public schools, and everything in between. Precise definitions vary by state and school district.

While traditional public school districts have historically offered these alternative programs for their students, more and more state or local charter schools are beginning to offer similar programs. Charter statutes often allow the flexibility that makes room for innovation, which is needed to operate programs that meet the specific needs of some of our most vulnerable students. Yet ensuring appropriate accountability for alternative charter schools — crucial to fulfilling the other side of the autonomy-for-accountability bargain — has proven challenging.

Forward-thinking charter authorizers are contemplating the policies and institutional practices that create strong authorizing and accountability incentives for alternative programs. The right mix of flexibility, autonomy, rigor, and relevance can both ensure that authorizers do not just enable the existence of more alternative schools but that the schools they authorize provide the highest quality programs that best meet the needs of the students they serve. Good authorizing practices can also prevent schools that provide alternative programs from simply relaxing their standards and becoming a catch basin for low performing students.

A primary challenge for authorizers is that accountability metrics typically used to measure the performance of charter schools — such as student achievement or growth on state standardized assessments, student attendance, and four-year graduation rates — may not accurately apply. Alternative charter schools often serve students who enter with unique educational and life challenges or who are already far below grade level because of gaps in their prior schooling. Applying these measures rigidly can create disincentives for operators to open, or authorizers to approve, alternative school models. Conversely, some states create loopholes that allow alternative schools and their authorizers to evade accountability altogether. Some intrepid authorizers have invested significant time and resources in developing fair and accurate ways to measure the performance of diverse alternative schools, however, state laws and regulations do not always align with such approaches.

Colorado has begun a process of convening a cross-agency task force of leaders, experts, and policymakers to modify its authorizing system by improving the rigor and relevance of performance metrics for the state’s alternative education campuses (AECs). 

Antonio Parés, a partner at the Donnell-Kay Foundation, is a board member of the Colorado Charter School Institute (CSI), which convened the AEC task force. CSI is Colorado’s only statewide charter school authorizer, and it currently authorizes 39 schools serving over 17,500 PK-12 students across the state. We recently caught up with Antonio to talk about the unique needs of AECs and what that means for authorizers and state education policy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve been working with a task force in Colorado to improve the ways that the state holds charter authorizers accountable for the success of their alternative education campuses. Can you tell us about that process and the challenges you’re facing?

Every year or two, CSI works with our alternative education campuses to identify “alternative measurements” for each or all of the schools. Alternative measurements include student perception surveys, in-house assessments such as NWEA or MAPS, or alternative post-secondary paths. CSI convened a statewide taskforce to review and collaborate on best practices when it comes to accountability measurements and outcomes for our alternative education campuses, schools typically serving under-credited and at-risk students. We were trying — and continue to try — to balance both the unique nature of each campus and their student population with the need for consistent, longitudinal, and comparable data points. Our goal was — and continues to be — to develop the best performance metrics and frameworks for every school. Continue reading

Why Can’t We Find Even the Most Basic Info About Schools in Secure Facilities?

Amid recent fuss about the accuracy of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights Data Collection, it’s important to look at how those data errors can meaningfully impact education experiences for young people for whom no other substantive national research exists: students attending school in secure juvenile justice facilities.

Approximately 50,000 young people are incarcerated in juvenile justice facilities across the country on any given day, and they are supposed to attend school while they are in custody. For many of these students, attending school in a secure facility is the first time they have engaged with school consistently in three to five years. Their school experience while in custody is their last best chance to change the trajectory of their lives.

The problem is we know very little about the quality of these educational opportunities.

The biannual data collection conducted by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is intended to be a comprehensive survey of education access in all schools in the country, and it now includes these juvenile justice schools. But our analysis from earlier this year found that states, and OCR at large, have not taken the responsibility for accurate reporting seriously. In fact, inconsistencies and incompleteness render the OCR data nearly meaningless. Alarmingly, the data still do not allow us to answer even the simplest question: How many students were enrolled in a juvenile justice school in 2013-14? Continue reading

ICYMI: #BWTalksTalent Week

Ten bloggers. Nine posts. One week.

At Bellwether, we spent last week talking about teachers and school leaders for our #BWTalksTalent series.  We shared insights from staff who’ve led classrooms, schools, and organizations. And we shared opinions, research, and personal experiences on how to create a robust ecosystem of adults to better serve students.

Topics ranged from trauma-informed teaching, to principal satisfaction, to retaining teachers of color.

If you missed it, here’s a recap of our conversation:

You can read the whole series here!

Reinforcing Diversity Through Teacher Residency Programs

This post is part of a week-long series about educator and leader pipelines. Read the rest of the series here.

Minority students make up a little more than half of the K-12 student population, but less than 20 percent of teachers are people of color. So students of color are rarely taught by people who look like them, and reasons range from poor recruitment and retention strategies to pipelines clogged by discrimination (as my colleague Katrina wrote). 

Research has demonstrated over and over again that teacher diversity is vital to enhancing school experiences and academic outcomes for students of color, especially in high-need school districts. Increasing teacher diversity has positive effects beyond improving student test scores. For instance, teachers of color are more effective role models for students of color and are less likely to implement exclusionary discipline measures.

Teacher preparation programs at institutions of higher education lose potential candidates of color at multiple points. First off, undergraduate students are already less diverse than high school students. Secondly, a significant majority of education majors and teacher candidates enrolled in teacher preparation programs are white. During the 2012-13 school year, 25 percent of teacher candidates in preparation programs housed in institutions of higher education identified as individuals of color. In comparison, individuals of color made up 37 percent of all students in those institutions regardless of major.

One solution, which my colleague Ashley LiBetti and I discussed in our recent publication, is teacher residency programs. These alternatives to traditional programs have shown to improve teacher diversity. In the National Center for Teacher Residencies network, more than 45 percent of teacher candidates identify as people of color. And nearly 50 percent of Boston Teacher Residency candidates are teachers of color, compared to 38 percent of all teachers in Boston Public Schools.

Residencies also target post-secondary graduates of color to ensure that they stay in the profession. Since almost half of students of color are first-generation college students, many do not have the same set of life skills and social capital as their peers who come from middle-to-high income backgrounds. Residency programs provide needed support for these teacher candidates of color as they navigate the teaching profession. For instance, the Southeast Asian Teacher Licensure (SEAT) program in St. Paul, MN primarily recruits immigrant paraprofessionals into their program, many of whom identify as English language learners. SEAT provides academic and personal advising, English language tutoring, technical assistance, and financial support to help teacher residents prepare for teacher licensure exams and successfully complete the program.

Residencies also increase diversity by intentionally recruiting teacher candidates of color who come from the local communities. For example, Nashville Teacher Residency works with community-based organizations to diversify its teacher candidate pipeline. These organizations work with specific ethnic groups that make up a significant proportion of the student population. Several programs also recruit individuals of color from high school alumni and paraprofessional networks to build a pipeline of candidates who bring local perspectives.

Without targeted and direct intervention, the number of teachers of color will continue to lag. While a large-scale approach is necessary, residency programs show promise in addressing this lack of diversity.