Category Archives: Equity

Media: “Culture-Based Education Looks Like This Wellness Program for Native Youth” in EdPost

In June, I had the privilege of attending a Native American wellness camp focused on encouraging middle-school youth towards academic success and healthy choices. The camp inspired me to reflect on the role of guest speakers in my own life — and challenged me to understand why culture-based education is particularly important for the resilience of Native youth.

Read my op-ed in Education Post, tied to November’s Native American Heritage Month. Here’s an excerpt:

Native communities are flush with role models, elders and spiritual leaders, so schools just need to make sure these individuals are integrated into learning and extracurricular opportunities. As college-aged camp aide Avery Underwood, member of the Comanche tribe who grew up in non-Native urban communities, told me: “How different my school experience could have been with an Indian community backing me.”

Other Bellwether writing on Native education issues can be found here.

Denver Voters Just “Flipped” the School Board

The votes in Denver have been counted. Tuesday’s election of Tay Anderson, Scott Baldermann, and Brad Laurvick to Denver Public School’s board signals a seismic shift away from the education reforms made over the last fourteen years. Long known as one of the country’s most reform-friendly elected school boards, all three of the new members were supported by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA), the local teachers’ union.

headshot of newly elected Denver school board member Tay Anderson wearing a bright red tshirt with DCTA, Denver Classroom Teachers Association

photo of Tay Anderson courtesy his Facebook page

For the first time in over a decade, the balance of power on the board has shifted towards people supporting more traditional, union-friendly policies. This may signal that changes to Denver Public Schools (DPS) lacked durable support from the community. DCTA mobilized voters in response to a feeling that “for too long, change in Denver’s school system was done to — instead of in partnership with — local communities,” as my colleague Alex wrote on Monday.

Beginning in 2005, DPS began to grant more autonomy to schools, establish charter-friendly policies, and create a standardized performance management tool for all schools, resulting in student achievement gains and an increased graduation rate. As profiled on our Eight Cities website, DPS offers a mixture of school choices to students, including charter, district, and innovation options — and a unified enrollment system that allows families, at least in theory, to select the best school for their students. 

These policy changes were enabled by the composition of the district’s school board, with at least four of seven members aligned with education reform from 2009 to 2018. Four of those years (2013 – 2017) even saw unanimous support.

Yet reforms included closures of popular neighborhood schools. Newly elected board member Tay Anderson, a 21-year-old DPS graduate, experienced a school closure firsthand, inspiring him to become an advocate for Denver’s students. His platform includes building a teaching force more representative of local student demographics.

Some parents struggled to navigate the school performance management and unified enrollment systems, often defaulting to the neighborhood school based on proximity. Some objected to the expansion of charter schools, which DPS welcomed to meet rising enrollment in the 2000s. Teachers pushed back against the merit-pay system, culminating in a strike earlier this year. Other critics of reform efforts point out that despite the gains, the district has struggled to close achievement gaps between students of color and white students.

With the results of this election, the seven-person board now has five union-aligned members. If Tuesday’s results indicate dramatic changes to come in Denver’s school policies, it’s a district to watch.

This post was inspired by Eight Cities, Bellwether’s 2018 multimedia exploration of large, urban districts achieving significant academic improvement.

School Choice Isn’t That Simple for Youth in Foster Care

In theory, students in foster care, who may relocate frequently, would be prime candidates to benefit from school choice, with its specialized school options and flexibility.

But navigating choice processes, and even just identifying the right adult to weigh in on a school decision, can be a fraught process for youth in foster care. When a student is placed in foster care, the decision-making rights to their education may rest with one of many possible adults: a parent, another family member, a court-appointed volunteer, or a social worker. Each of these adults have different skills and capacity to dedicate to a student in their care. Some foster parents may have significant time to research school options and help a student understand which school may be the best fit, whereas a social worker has to care for dozens of students simultaneously.

These students deserve access to the full range of school choice options that their peers have, even if they frequently relocate — they shouldn’t have to lurch from assigned school to assigned school. (Federal law requires students in foster care to be eligible to remain in their original school even if placed under care in another district. Sadly, a recent U.S. Government and Accountability Office report found that state agencies are often unable to pay the cost of transporting students to their school of origin.)

As many communities consider expanding school choice options, it is vital for education agencies and systems of care to be mindful of the specific challenges students in foster care experience. My colleague Hailly Korman and I are currently working on a new project focused on the experiences of foster youth in communities with relatively high levels of school choice, exploring the following questions: Continue reading

A School Performance Framework Could Be Huge for Los Angeles. Why Is the District Backtracking?

This week, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) could miss a big opportunity for students, families, and district leaders.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states must create a report card for every single one of their schools. Unfortunately, California’s approach to reporting school data under ESSA is both overly complex and lacking in key information. That’s why the LAUSD board took the first steps last year to create its own school performance framework (SPF), which could provide families, educators, and taxpayers more and better information about how well schools are serving students. Unfortunately the board now appears to be backtracking on that commitment.

An SPF is an action-oriented tool that gathers multiple metrics related to school quality and can be used by system leaders, principals, and/or parents to inform important decisions like how to intervene in a low-performing school, where to invest in improvements, and which school to choose for a child.

As my colleagues wrote in their 2017 review of ESSA plans, California’s complicated system relies on “a color-coded, 25-square performance grid for each indicator” and “lacks a method of measuring individual student growth over time.” In 2018, LAUSD board members tried to improve upon the state’s approach by passing a resolution to create their own SPF. In a statement from the board at that time, members intended that LAUSD’s SPF would serve as “an internal tool to help ensure all schools are continuously improving,” and “share key information with families as to how their schools are performing.”

A local SPF could provide a common framework for district leaders and families to understand performance trends across the district’s 1,100 plus schools in a rigorous, holistic way. Without usable information on school quality, families are left to make sense of complex state websites, third party school ratings, and word of mouth. And unlike the state’s current report card, a local report card could include student growth data, one of the most powerful ways to understand a school’s impact on its students. Student-level growth data tells us how individual students are progressing over time, and can control for demographic changes or differences among students. Continue reading

Lessons in Managing the Gut-Wrenching Process of School Closures

“I’ve never felt that way before, walking into a room and just being in total knots and also knowing the right thing to do.” That’s how former Denver Public Schools board member Mary Seawell recalls the night she and the majority of the board voted to close Montbello, an academically failing but popular neighborhood high school. As we interviewed district and community leaders for our Eight Cities project, the subject of school closures elicited a nearly universal response: emotionally draining and gut-wrenching angst.

photo of Mary Seawell, former Denver Public Schools board member, by Alexander Drecun — from EightCities.org

Photo of Mary Seawell by Alexander Drecun, via EightCities.org

While the superintendents and community leaders we spoke to acknowledged school closure as a painful but necessary tool, our interviews also reflected a culture shift: Some districts are no longer forcing closures of low-performing schools in the absence of quality alternatives. Instead many districts have started more carefully planning closures to minimize disruption and prioritize student success. Two recently released reports reinforce the need for districts to mitigate the pain of school closures by ensuring better alternatives already exist. Continue reading