Category Archives: Equity

Story-driven Education Reform — That Doesn’t Burden the Storyteller, Part Two

As I recently wrote, I’ve spent the last two years leading a body of work here at Bellwether that focuses on the experiences of young people most affected by education fragmentation. These students are served by multiple public systems, change schools frequently, and may not have a single consistent adult to help them navigate a complex web of services and programs. 

Our team has interviewed dozens of people directly impacted by these systems. While existing story collection efforts often require struggling people to be vulnerable in front of powerful strangers — which can sometimes cause unintended harm — we were committed to doing things differently. 

Check out this behind-the-scenes footage to hear more from me on our approach: 

Here are six key strategies we used to collect digital story materials while minimizing the burden on the storytellers:

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Media: “Why, and How, Kids Should Walk or Bike to School” in Next City

For the past 20 years, only about 10% of students walked or biked to school. Back in 1969, that number was over 40%.

I have an op-ed today in Next City making the case for dedicated infrastructure and investment to help more students walk or bike to school and reap environmental, safety, and health benefits. But it will take real work for communities:

In order for more students and families to choose active forms of school transportation safely and confidently, they need support and dedicated infrastructure investments in and around schools. There are a few relatively low-cost solutions communities can implement to get started.

[…] More comprehensive solutions involve wider infrastructure changes like protected bike lanes, traffic-calming measures, and curb extensions to make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists of all ages. Success can start at the school level, but local and state governments need to partner in this effort to really shift the walking and biking environment for students.

Read the full piece at Next City and learn more about how school transportation impacts the environment and student safety in our new policy briefs out today.

How Bellwether Transformed Agencies Supporting Youth in Utah, California, and Louisiana, Part 2: The Utah State Board of Education

As I mentioned in my last post, Bellwether has worked with three partner agencies over the past year to streamline educational supports for high-need students by breaking down the silos that exist between care agencies at the state and local levels. The first example we’ll dive deeper into is Utah, where we helped a team at the State Board of Education develop a shared vision of quality for all of their schools serving students in juvenile courts or the foster care system. 

The Utah State Board of Education’s Youth in Care (YIC) program provides educational services and programs to about 50,000 young people under the age of 21 who are in the custody of the Division of Child and Family Services (the state’s foster care agency) or the Division of Juvenile Justice. YIC does this by contracting with local school districts to operate programs in secure facilities (like juvenile justice or residential treatment facilities), in communities serving kids who live at home or in community-based placements, or in local public schools.

Fragmentation is especially prevalent in Utah, where we found little formal collaboration or communication between the systems that serve youth. This means there is no systematic way to coordinate or hold accountable the service providers working with and for these young people. We found that the type, intensity, and quality of interventions offered varied widely in ways that weren’t responsive to the needs of young people themselves. Ultimately, what we saw was that access to and delivery of services was inequitable across the state, with no clear shared vision for what high-quality services should look like or include.

And the results aren’t good: 43% of students in the care of the Division of Juvenile Justice Services and 24% of students in the care of Child and Family Services are chronically absent, compared to only 12% of students in Utah overall. 

If you don’t go to school, you can’t learn. On average, 44% of all of Utah’s students are proficient in English Language Arts and 47% are proficient in math. But only 7% of youth in juvenile justice system are proficient in English, and a scant 3% are proficient in math. For those in foster care, 17% are proficient in English and 17% are proficient in math.

Stories of some of the youth caught in these systems are captured in this short video, which we filmed inside one of Utah’s secure juvenile facilities:

Utah’s work with Bellwether focused on creating a plan to ensure that all YIC students have access to a high-quality education that prepares them to graduate from high school and access the resources and opportunities similar to students outside of custody. YIC has created a common definition of quality and a corresponding rubric that partners will use to assess all programs. Continue reading

Media: “Culture-based education — a path to healing for Native youth?” in The Hechinger Report

Today, I have an op-ed at The Hechinger Report about the benefits of culture-based education, for Native youth and all students. The piece was inspired by work our evaluation team did with The National Indian Education Association at Riverside Indian School, the nation’s oldest federally operated American Indian Boarding School.

An excerpt from my op-ed:

Culture-based education provides a path to healing and responsible citizenship for all of us. It helps students become aware of and comfortable with other belief and value systems. It furthers the goals of democracy and leads students of all ethnicities and races to think more deeply about their own cultural identities while also broadening their understanding of the experiences and perspectives of others.

Finally, the fruits of culture-based education can help us understand this country’s moral debts and how to pay them. Native Americans have for too long lived in a country controlled by men who, for nearly 300 years, have consistently “elevated armed robbery to a governing principle.” Through forced removal, boarding schools and relocation, our government stole and erased Native Americans’ languages and cultural knowledge. An investment in recovering, restoring and revitalizing lost and stolen indigenous cultural knowledge could guide us in understanding this country’s bloody history and place us on a path toward reconciliation and equity.

Read the rest of my piece at The Hechinger Report, and read more of my writing about Native education here.

The Power of Asset-Based Thinking for Native Students

During a phone call with our partners at the National Indian Education Association (NIEA), I used the word “impoverished” to describe some Native communities. I was politely corrected by Jacob Tsotigh, a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe and tribal education specialist at NIEA. Jacob explained that the word “impoverished” suggests Native communities are devoid of resources, and that using this word paints an untrue and incomplete picture of the complexity and value of Native culture.

He explained that while there is some level of poverty that exists for Native students broadly, characterizing Native students as simply impoverished misses the mark and diminishes Native cultural strengths. In a later conversation, Jacob told me:

Our Native people are not consumers, we’re not middle class, we don’t aspire to the American dream necessarily. We have a different set of values that permeate within our community. The essential value is that we are a collective. We believe that what we do as Tribal Nations reflects on the wellbeing of our families and communities — so if we don’t have the things that you do, we don’t feel ourselves as less than or deprived of. It’s not who we are.

2018 NIEA convention attendees via NIEA’s Flickr account

Jacob’s comment made me think more about why deeply understanding and respecting communities matters. In this situation, characterizing Native people only by their economic situation ignored the value that Native students bring to the classroom. This focus on deficits rather than strengths, a practice sometimes referred to as deficits-based thinking, is a common pitfall in many schools. This mindset leads educators see Native identity as a marker for failure, which puts students at an extreme disadvantage by making them less likely to garner high expectations from teachers. Additionally, given the fact that Native students encompass only 1% of the total population of public school-aged children, a focus on deficits can further isolate a group of students already dealing with invisibility.

Valuing Native students and their contributions requires a shift towards assets-based thinking, which encourages educators to understand and enrich the strengths of Native students to support their educational journeys. This requires getting to know Native students, and then working to share and amplify individual and cultural values, experiences, and perspectives — work that can improve cognitive processing in students.

Simultaneously, this approach creates an environment of mutual respect and reciprocal learning, where educators learn from the Native communities they serve and use this information to improve their classrooms for all students. For example, research has long supported the idea that Native students benefit from holistic and collaborative learning — a practice present in many Native cultures. This whole-child approach to education — one that holds health and wellbeing at the same level it does academics — is now taking off in schools around the country, proving we all have much to learn from our Native peers.

To be clear, educators shouldn’t ignore the challenges Native people face. NIEA education specialist Kurrinn Abrams, member of the Seneca Nation of Indians, explains that it is necessary to find a balance between addressing challenges and celebrating strengths: “Acknowledge the shared history and pain of Native people, but don’t use it to identify them.”

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