Category Archives: Equity

Puerto Rican students during the COVID-19 pandemic: Data update and Q&A with Carlos Rodríguez Silvestre

In October 2020, “Missing in the Margins: Estimating the Scale of the COVID-19 Attendance Crisis” estimated that approximately 3 million American students had experienced minimal to no formal education since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The analysis focused on the most educationally marginalized students in the country — English learners and students with disabilities, in foster care, experiencing homelessness, and/or eligible for the Migrant Education Program. But the original 50 state and D.C. estimates left out Puerto Rico, the Bureau of Indian Education, and other U.S. territories. These students have been just as affected by the pandemic, if not moreso, and deserve more attention. 

Missing in the Margins data estimates now include data from Puerto Rico and the Bureau of Indian Education. Other U.S. territories did not have sufficient comparable data on the population groups in our original estimates, but we are hopeful that this expanded version paints a more comprehensive picture. 

The estimates emphasize the scale of the challenge before state and local education agencies as they work to begin the recovery process. As before, estimates are based on student population numbers from educationally marginalized groups, not on 2021-22 enrollment numbers. Those enrollment numbers, where available, track with our earlier estimates: enrollments are down around 2-3% on average, with much larger reductions concentrated in kindergarten. But even this far into the 2020-21 school year, we still do not have a clear enough picture of who these unenrolled students are or where they have gone: private school, home school, work, or elsewhere. 

In 2017, public school enrollment in Puerto Rico was approximately 350,000 students, but economic crises, natural disasters, and the COVID-9 pandemic have all contributed to fast enrollment declines. Local estimates suggest enrollment is now closer to 280,000. We estimate up to 25,000 children on the island may have had little or no access to education due to the pandemic.

To learn more, we sat down virtually with Carlos Rodríguez Silvestre, Executive Director of the Flamboyan Foundation in Puerto Rico, where he oversees all aspects of the Foundation’s mission-driven work and programmatic strategy in Puerto Rico, to ensure students most impacted by inequity are prepared to succeed in school and beyond. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

  • Carlos Rodriguez SilvestreHow are students in Puerto Rico faring during the COVID-19 school closures and virtual learning? How have the effects of COVID-19 interacted with other disaster response efforts, including the ongoing recovery from Hurricane Maria?

COVID-19 compounded trauma for students in Puerto Rico. The end of in-person classes last March 16 due to the COVID-19 pandemic is the latest in a series of interruptions to the education system in Puerto Rico, including Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 and earthquakes in early 2020. We estimate that students in Puerto Rico already lost up to 159 days of school between 2017 and 2020. \Adding on lost instructional and socialization time related to the pandemic further deepens challenges for students, families, and educators. 

Taken together, these disasters have had a profound effect on the physical, social, emotional and academic wellbeing of students. Any resolutions will need to take into account the compounded nature of trauma on students and the uniqueness of Puerto Rico’s context. 

  • Are there experiences or considerations that may be unique to Puerto Rican students and schools? 

Yes. The compounded impacts of multiple disasters present unique challenges for Puerto Rican students and schools. 

A crippling economic crisis had left the island bankrupt in 2006 and 15 years later recovery has not been realized. Schools and island infrastructure were already under-resourced as a result.  Continue reading

Three Reasons to Move School Board Elections to November

Last week’s election was a referendum on the Trump Administration, but it wasn’t a referendum on how well schools have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s because three out of every four states hold school board elections “off-cycle,” meaning they do not take place at the same time as other state and federal elections. 

The effect is dismal voter turnout. Recent estimates from the National School Boards Association place voter turnout in school board elections between 5 and 10 percent (compared to around 60 percent for presidential elections). Now, while families are acutely aware of how district governance affects their schools and their children, it’s time to move school board elections to the first Tuesday in November. 

First, moving school board elections to be held alongside other major elections could dramatically increase voter turnout. It’s commonly known that voter turnout for midterm elections is far lower than it is during presidential election years. Turnout for off-cycle elections is even lower. This year’s election provided a natural experiment in Dallas, where school board elections are typically held in the spring but were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They were instead held on Election Day last week. In May 2019, the off-cycle election for three seats on the Dallas school board garnered just 14,000 votes; last week, the election for two seats on the board garnered 86,000 votes, an increase of over 500 percent. 

Second, moving school board elections on cycle would balance out the interest groups most likely to organize and participate when an election is held off-cycle. Sarah Anzia’s research on election timing and turnout substantiates the idea that off-cycle elections are dominated by “politically motivated minorities” such as teachers unions. Consider the case of Los Angeles Unified School District. The district held its first on-cycle elections for two school board seats last week, in which charter school proponents challenged candidates supported by the teachers unions. Regardless of how one feels about charter schools or teachers unions, there’s no doubt the election generated significant attention and debate on an important question. Enormous energy — and money — went into an election with historic turnout. According to the LAist, the 243,000 ballots cast in the race for the District 3 school board seat are almost as many as all of the ballots cast for the same seat between 2003 and 2015. 

Finally, increasing voter turnout can increase the alignment between voter demographics and the demographics of students being served. Research from The Annenberg Institute at Brown University confirms that the demographics of voters are often very different from the demographics of the district’s students. On-cycle elections could help mitigate this phenomenon. Consider Gwinnett County where voters last week elected two African American women and displaced two white women, in an increasingly racially diverse district of suburban Atlanta. Would this have happened if elections were off-cycle and candidates could not ride the wave of increased voter participation in the African American community? On-cycle elections can help ensure that as a community changes, their school board changes with it. 

The argument for off-cycle elections has been that they insulate school board elections from the partisan politics that define elections for state and federal offices. But politics is inevitable in any democratic process, and the timing of elections is a political decision in itself. As the country struggles to get students back into school, and back to learning, surely school boards would benefit from more debate and scrutiny — not less.

ICYMI: Is There or Isn’t There a Looming Fiscal Cliff for Education?

Throughout the past month, Bellwether has weighed in on the financial health of schools in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, with different reactions, resources, and recommendations from across our team. In case you missed it, here’s a quick recap: 

You can read all the posts in the series here, and we welcome your reactions! Thanks for following along.

Which Outcomes Should Minnesota Hold Its High Schools Responsible For?

Long before the pandemic, schools and communities recognized that a high school diploma is no longer enough. Today, eight in 10 Minnesota students graduate high school, but as more graduates look to a future amid the COVID-19 pandemic, they may question whether their high school has adequately prepared them to succeed in college or career.

Minnesota has taken steps to create programs to prepare students for life beyond high school, as well as collect critical information and data about those efforts. Yet the state has failed to incorporate postsecondary outcomes into the way it evaluates high school performance. It’s time to fix this mismatch.

Minnesota’s Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program, which dates back to 1985, was the first-of-its-kind to help students complete high school and college coursework at the same time. Nearly 250,000 Minnesota students have benefited from this program since its inception, and that number doubles once you include Minnesota’s other dual enrollment programming.

In addition to information on the PSEO program, the state tracks student performance in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, as well as SAT and ACT results. Minnesota also tracks a variety of additional measures on high school graduates, such as postsecondary enrollment and employment outcomes like the number of hours worked, in what industry, and the hourly wages earned. 

Unfortunately, Minnesota’s efforts at data collection result in nice graphs on a website with little effect on student success. What is the point of data collection unless it informs programming, benefits students, and helps ensure all students are given equal opportunities?

High school leaders may think it’s unfair to hold them accountable for what happens outside their walls. But students need to be prepared for the world that awaits them, whether that is a pandemic-ravaged economy or remote college learning, and schools bear significant responsibility to provide that preparation. Continue reading

The 3 Million Who Never Showed Up for Virtual Schooling

For some students, the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic on education goes far beyond coping with the difficulties of distance learning. For these students, a day in March or April marks the last day of their formal education altogether. Out of the approximately 53 million K-12 students in the United States who stopped attending in-person school in the spring, an estimated three million may have never showed up online at all.

That figure comes from a new Bellwether analysis that estimates the number of students who, due to various barriers, did not make the transition, remaining disconnected even as schooling continued online. Just as the pandemic has disproportionately affected our most vulnerable and marginalized communities, this “disconnected” population is more likely to be composed of English learners, students in foster care, migrant students, students experiencing homelessness, and students with disabilities. Three million students is approximately 1 out of every 4 of these student populations combined — and also roughly equivalent to the entire school-age population of Florida.

Against the backdrop of the pandemic, wildfires, hurricanes, social unrest, and a general election, it’s easy to miss what’s happening here. But just like the pandemic itself, the defining feature of this crisis is the scale — this is something that every district, in every state, is struggling to address. Once a young person leaves school, it can be very difficult to re-engage them. The long-term implications of even a short period of learning loss are serious, and the outcomes associated with dropping out of high school are even more dire.

We could be witnessing the beginning of an event that has lifelong implications for this generation of students, in much the same way that the Great Recession has hamstrung millennials’ accumulation of wealth relative to previous generations. And among the young people of this new generation, the harshest impacts fall, time after time, on communities of color, students with disabilities, and those living in poverty. 

That’s a gloomy picture to paint, and it’s easy to feel as though we can’t grapple with this problem the way we would want to, given the enormity of everything else happening in the world. But there are concrete steps we can take right now to mitigate the damage being done, from improving attendance data collection — and data sharing — across public agencies to implementing interventions that meet the most vulnerable students where they are. Many teachers and leaders have identified a need for collaboration with social service providers and telecommunications firms to provide Internet connectivity to those in dire need. And states must provide stronger guidance, funding, and resources for schools and social services that can be spent flexibly, effectively, and in a timely manner.

Above all, the number one thing public officials can do to start to repair the damage done — and to prevent the unimaginable harm of a “lost generation” — is to develop and effectively implement the public policies needed to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic by reducing community transmission to levels negligible enough to permit a return to the normal school environment. There is no sustainable education policy workaround that can surmount a public health crisis of this magnitude. Back on March 13, seven months ago, it was difficult to imagine we would find ourselves in this position; our best course of action now is to take aggressive action on behalf of the roughly three million students whose educational futures are in the balance.