Tag Archives: equity

We are still failing to support our most vulnerable students

In October 2020, Bellwether Education Partners’ estimate that as many as 3 million students were missing in the margins and were receiving no formal education at all became a national shorthand about the severity of the pandemic for America’s young people. More than one year later, and with the direct and indirect consequences of the pandemic wreaking havoc, we still don’t know how many of our most vulnerable students are missing from K-12 schools

Our recent analysis estimates that there are 1.3 million fewer students nationwide enrolled in public pre-K through 12 schools between 2018-19 and 2020-21. This decline doesn’t include kids enrolled but not attending regularly or engaged in learning, which data from school districts suggest is a significant issue.  

As we pass the two-year mark in this pandemic, a lack of accurate, shareable, and even knowable data on where young people are highlights an even more fundamental issue: The design of systems meant to support young people is failing them.

For example, we know that one in 500 U.S. children lost a caregiver due to COVID-19. This kind of deep loss will change a young person’s life trajectory. Our communities aren’t ready to support them or their peers who have experienced other significant losses and disruptions.

In most places, schools, foster care agencies, juvenile justice systems, and other organizations were never designed to look across the totality of a young person’s life to understand and meet their needs — and that problem is more visible now than ever. Snap impressions, red tape, and confusion abound. 

Young people experiencing disruptions (such as homelessness, being placed in foster care, involvement with the juvenile justice system, an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy, or the loss of a caregiver) must navigate a byzantine network of ever-changing adults to get the services they need. They are left to keep track of their own paperwork, follow up with adults, and retell their most painful stories. Missteps navigating these systems can lead to suspension or expulsion from school, incarceration, job loss, or all of the above. 

While adults working in these systems often fail to communicate or collaborate, they are also frustrated by not having enough information or resources. Staff turnover is high and caseloads are unmanageable. Resources are scarce. Patchworked attempts at improvement within one agency or one organization yield marginal results for young people.

Ultimately, poorly designed or implemented systems leave lasting effects on young people, including challenges to finishing high school or college, shortchanging their ability to live a healthy, happy, and gratifying life — all at great cost to communities. 

These are big, but solvable problems. And they start with better practices, policies, and resource allocations.

In practice, communities can start by listening to young people to better understand their unmet needs in order to remove the barriers to delivering programs and services. At best, decision-makers merely go through the motions of asking young people about their experiences and perspectives. Yet the young people who are still struggling to thrive are the only experts in how the pandemic has affected them holistically: their schooling, mental health, economic futures, housing status, and more. 

In-person schooling this year is a big step in the right direction when COVID-19 safety protocols are followed and new variants don’t pose an additional public health risk. But students need more than the standard learning time. 

Prioritizing more time for all kinds of learning for marginalized student populations, such as support outside of the traditional school day and school year, is a start. More evening and weekend instructional time with a teacher or well-trained tutor would allow students to get needed time to build knowledge and skills. In addition to one-on-one time, small, cohort-based acceleration academies could allow students to focus on targeted skill gaps during holidays, summer breaks, and weekends. 

A school, however, is only part of the solution to missed learning time. Schools can build structured partnerships with communities and families, collaboratively setting goals for students, bringing a sense of urgency and ownership for every adult in a child’s life. In these spaces, schools can also become supporting partners for the delivery of other services, helping to knit together the threads of care surrounding their most vulnerable students. 

Policy should follow practice and remove barriers to learning. In addition, a focus on data transparency could better enable schools and stakeholders to understand where students missing in the margins are in real time: across enrollment in school at all, daily attendance, and engagement in learning. Our data systems were not working well before the pandemic and they clearly no longer serve our needs; students were always lost in the system, but now the problem is too big to ignore. 

These kinds of systemic practice and policy changes require better long-term resource allocations. Federal stimulus funding is a huge, but temporary, start. A more sustainable funding model can be designed on a collaborative foundation of partnerships with community-based organizations, expanding the current capacity for support. For example, a homeless-services organization might be well positioned to identify families (or unaccompanied youth) who need education support but don’t know how to get connected with the programs that meet their needs.

As we come to the close of yet another school year amid the pandemic, even more young people are in crisis and support from adults is even more strained. But communities can use this moment to build a coherent system with processes and policies designed around what young people actually need. The question is, how will we prioritize doing that hard work?

Honoring Women’s History Month: A Q&A with Fugee Family’s Luma Mufleh

We’re asking education leaders to reflect on their many contributions to the sector. From the “why” behind their work and what calls them to serve school communities, to where they draw everyday inspiration from and more, we’re featuring leaders’ perspectives on Ahead of the Heard in the coming weeks in a series honoring Women’s History Month. 

Luma Mufleh is an entrepreneur, coach, refugee activist, author, and founder of Fugees Family, Inc., a nonprofit founded in 2006 that uses soccer, education, and community to empower refugee children to successfully integrate into the U.S. With a network of schools in Georgia and Ohio, Fugees Family’s focus on educational equity for refugee and immigrant children and families is reimagining schools and community building; the organization is a recent recipient of $10 million in philanthropic funding from MacKenzie Scott to grow its model. I caught up with her to talk about Fugees Family’s work, how her team is navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, and more.*

Amy Chen Kulesa:
How has your identity and experience shaped the work of Fugees Family? What draws you to this work?

Luma Mufleh:
I have a “hat trick” of identities as a gay, Arab, Muslim woman born outside of the U.S. Sometimes those identities don’t fuse neatly. I was always an outsider growing up, in so many spaces. If I was in a predominantly Muslim space, I didn’t fit in because I was gay. In the LGBTQ+ community, I didn’t fit in because I was Muslim. And I was raised in the Middle East where women are second-class citizens. Men were expected to do certain things and to have access; women in my orbit weren’t. These experiences made me more determined to find spaces where I could be completely whole

Today, I surround myself with people and spaces that accept all of me, not just parts of me or “asterisks” me. That’s why I founded Fugees Family to empower refugees and immigrants. I have firsthand experience of what it feels like to be an outsider, especially at such a young age. I had to hide my sexual orientation from my friends and family members, and struggled in school because of it. I was bullied and my only safe escape was in sports — I was accepted on the field as a good athlete. 

I want to make sure kids are completely accepted for who they are. It’s so important that kids feel safe, seen, heard, and celebrated for their authentic selves. That’s why we focus on reimagining schools to support refugee, immigrant, and English language learner (ELL) student populations — enabling them to show up every day and feel supported to thrive. 

Fugees Family was called out in the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s case studies highlighting exemplary whole child practices.* Identity and culture are key to the Fugees model. What does that look like in practice?

At Fugees Family, we focus on a lot of areas to amplify and celebrate identity and different student cultures. Two examples:

  • We ensure that on a student’s first day of school, teachers pronounce their name correctly. You’d be surprised how much it means when a child doesn’t have to correct or “Americanize” their name. Our work with schools happens before the child enters the classroom. We instill that a child’s identity is an asset to embrace and we support difference as a good thing.
  • We celebrate everything in a school building — every cultural or religious festivity and culinary traditions, too. The whole school gathers to experience new cultures and to learn about diverse traditions. It’s a great opportunity for the community to teach us in ways large and small. In anticipation of Holi this year, all of the kids were counting down the days even though Hindus aren’t in the majority in our schools. They love it. Our students are curious and eager to learn about each other instead of seeing differences as a distance.

The COVID-19 pandemic, the racial reckoning in the U.S., the Afghan refugee crisis, and the needs in Ukraine have all had significant impacts. How have you and the Fugees team evolved to address the needs of students, faculty, and communities?

COVID-19 lifted the veil and exposed everything that was wrong. It’s undeniable now. ELLs are front and center in this dynamic. We realized we couldn’t go back to how things were — that would be the worst thing to do. So, what was our role and responsibility moving forward? To change, Fugees began thinking about supporting institutions that have large populations of refugee children and working with them at a systems level to build better practices and models so that everyone has a softer landing place. We launched a new approach, called Project Teranga, to grow our impact, and are partnering with districts to implement our model in their schools or newcomer programs. It’s exciting work that needs to happen. 

At the same time, our work is unfortunately tied into war and conflict. For example, with the large influx of Afghan refugees entering the U.S. and resettling nationwide — some 70,000 people across the country, half of whom are school-aged children — our team has firsthand experience going to Fort Dix and doing student assessments. What we found was heartbreaking. Many of these kids were in refugee military bases for seven months with mediocre services, no access to education, and were stripped of their dignity and humanity. We heard so often that “it’s better than the alternative,” which infuriates me. The lens should instead be “is this the best we can offer” and if the answer is no, then we must act. Anything less is unacceptable.

What are you most excited about in terms of the work ahead?

Fugees is evolving our model and creating sustaining partnerships with districts via Project Teranga. That is energizing work. We’re focused on building coalitions to advocate for and serve historically underrepresented students in supportive communities with greater access to high-quality education. We’ve been in our bubble for so long and now we’re out there forging new partnerships with people ready to work alongside us to better serve refugee, immigrant, and ELL students. It’s inspiring to see that level of collaboration.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to other school or district leaders? 

This work is messy and working with kids is rewarding, but hard. If you’re looking for a playbook, get out of the space right away. A lot of the work is about relationships and building infrastructure, providing tools, and having high standards. You have to be in it for the long game, and you have to show up every day. If you can’t commit to that level of focus and if you don’t expect the best out of yourself, your team, and your community, don’t do this work.

To close, and in honor of Women’s History Month, is there a particular woman who has inspired you? And what advice would you give to other female leaders in the field?

My grandmother is a huge inspiration. She’s the strongest, kindest woman I know. She fled her home in Syria as the mother of five, pregnant with her sixth child. She moved to a new country and her husband was paralyzed. She had to be and do everything. She’s a person of incredible strength and optimism and believes in the best of people. 

I’m also inspired by the compassionate, focused, and determined mothers I’ve met in my work. Their insights and perspectives on life, kids, what’s possible, and what’s wrong make me a better person. 

In terms of advice for female leaders: don’t settle. Expect the best. Don’t compromise. Take up space, and then take up more space. Because the world is better off with more women leaders. 

Thank you for sharing your reflections, Luma. 

Stay tuned for more in Ahead of the Heard’s Women’s History Month series in the coming week. 

*(Editor’s note: Fugees Family, Inc. is a current Bellwether client; Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is a former client.)

Updating Data Systems is a Critical Piece of State-Improved ESSA Plans

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

For the last two years, state-level Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) accountability plans ​​— which provide critical information about student achievement and school culture — have either been modified or essentially on pause due to COVID-19-related school closures. From canceling statewide assessments to variability in how attendance was taken, the lack of high-quality and reliable data made it difficult for states to follow their original ESSA accountability plans. 

However, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) signaled that states must restart ESSA accountability plans and identify their lowest-performing schools in fall 2022. Recognizing the impact that COVID-19 has had on schools’ and states’ ability to use indicators like test score growth and attendance, the DOE guidance specified that states can make one-year or longer-term changes to their accountability plans. The guidance also noted that in fall 2022 states’ Report Cards must contain all the data as required under ESSA, including for the 2021-22 school year (e.g., access to advanced coursework, suspension rates, math and reading proficiency, graduation rates, chronic absenteeism, and per-pupil school funding).  

These may seem like easy tasks since states already developed and implemented ESSA accountability plans and report cards. However, not all state data systems are created equal. Prior to the pandemic, Washington, D.C. and all 50 states were missing at least one data point required under ESSA. Furthermore, many ESSA accountability plans used inconsistent data and methodology to identify schools for support — particularly as it relates to English language learners, students with disabilities, students of color, and low-income students. A 2017 Bellwether analysis found that only 10 of 51 ESSA plans indicated they would incorporate student subgroup performance into rating and identifying schools for support. And, of those 10 only three — Louisiana, Minnesota, and Tennessee — provided data and information about what that would mean in practice. The other states provided broad assurances. 

Whether because of antiquated data systems, underfunding, or a lack of political will to use certain metrics, these gaps in state-level ESSA accountability data are problematic. They leave huge voids in understanding how students are doing, what’s working, and which students need support, and also hinder a state’s ability to engage in effective short- and long-term planning. 

And the problem persists over time. A 2021 analysis found that many states still don’t report on mandated metrics like participation in advanced coursework, teacher credentials, per-pupil school spending, and chronic absenteeism. Nearly 25% of states don’t include spring 2021 assessment data on their Report Cards. 

Given the negative impact that COVID-19 has had on the U.S. K-12 education system, it’s critical that states step up. We need intentional, collaborative, and thoughtful planning in order to address everything from unfinished learning to student disengagement. But this can only be done if states have access to comprehensive data that is accurate, transparent, and current. 

States are in an optimal position to invest in data system upgrades and state report cards as they rethink accountability plans. Although this kind of infrastructure investment might seem like a lesser priority, schools’ access to accurate and updated data is critical and a cost-effective investment that pays dividends in the long run. Through three major COVID-19 federal stimulus packages, state departments of education received billions of dollars to help with pandemic recovery which can include updating data systems. A May 2021 DOE FAQ gave permission and encouraged states to use COVID-19 American Rescue Plan (ARP) Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) dollars to improve their data systems. 

Many states are taking advantage of the federal funding. A June 2021 analysis found that 29 states designated some money to improve data systems and analysis capacity to better support students. For example:

  • Arkansas is using ARP dollars to launch SmartData Dashboards, an automated early warning and intervention dashboard that will help districts identify students who are off-track from graduation and implement the appropriate interventions. 
  • Connecticut is using ESSER funds to establish the COVID-19 Education Research Collaborative — a partnership with researchers from the University of Connecticut and other state universities, local representatives, and educators. The Collaborative is a long-term investment that utilizes statewide data to track the efficacy of programs and provide accurate information to the public. 
  • Minnesota is investing $6 million in ARP dollars to update Ed-Fi, a new statewide data system that will consolidate multiple data systems into one. This will allow the state to track student data in a more timely manner and identify trends in student experiences and outcomes. 
  • Missouri is using $4.3 million in Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act dollars to update its 15-year-old longitudinal data system, which will increase its capacity to collect and analyze data on individual students. 

These state-level data improvements are a step in the right direction. However, it’s critical that data system upgrades and accountability plans center all students’ needs — particularly for historically marginalized student populations. The federal funding and policy window is there to pave the way. Will states seize the opportunity?

Honoring Women’s History Month: A Q&A with SchoolTalk’s Leila Peterson

We’re asking education leaders to reflect on their many contributions to the sector. From the “why” behind their work and what calls them to serve school communities, to where they draw everyday inspiration from and more, we’re featuring leaders’ perspectives on Ahead of the Heard in the coming weeks in a series honoring Women’s History Month. 

Leila Peterson is the executive director of SchoolTalk, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that builds school communities where every youth is honored and self-determined. Founded in 2008, SchoolTalk tackles complex problems that impact marginalized youth and the schools and systems that support them. Peterson’s career is rooted in conflict analysis and resolution, and in serving youth with disabilities within inclusive spaces that foster self determination and community. I reconnected with her over Zoom to discuss how SchoolTalk is navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, what draws her to the work, and more.*

Christine Wade:
Tell our readers a little about SchoolTalk and the organization’s evolution since its founding. 

Leila Peterson:
We came together in 2008 in response to the fact that Washington, D.C. had more special education due process hearings for young people than all 50 states combined at that time. It was unacceptable. We formed to figure out why this was happening, and quickly learned that the systems and structure of organizations, local government, and the community at large weren’t set up with adequate resources and processes to help schools, family, and youth before issues went to court. SchoolTalk was established to address this issue head-on and to help everyone come together in more proactive and productive ways. 

Our original focus was on supporting the district in developing a continuum of effective processes for preventing and resolving special education disputes. This included services such as Individualized Education Program (IEP) facilitation as well as creating spaces for collaborative problem-solving at the systems level. Over time, we also realized that part of the problem was that youth themselves weren’t given a seat at the table. Giving voice and fostering self advocacy directly with the young people we serve steered SchoolTalk in new and interesting directions. Now nearly 15 years later, our mission is evolving to tackle complex problems that impact marginalized youth through restorative justice and inclusive education. 

Students, particularly those with disabilities, have been through a lot since the start of the pandemic. How has SchoolTalk shown up for students over the past few years? What went well, what was hard, and how did you approach the work? 

Our team’s focus is on getting students back to a new “normal” in a way that recognizes the intense needs and all that they’ve lost since March 2020. In a school system like Washington, D.C.’s, many complex needs of the young people we serve have only worsened due to the pandemic.

Our dual programmatic focus on restorative justice and inclusive education are the core pillars of this work. A lot of people think restorative justice is just about dealing with student behavior as an alternative to suspensions, but we think the standard approach should be upended. In SchoolTalk’s work, 80% of the focus is on preventative and proactive supports, because young people need to have connection and community, otherwise what are you “restoring” them back into? 

Our team continues to defy expectations amid the challenges of the pandemic. In the 2020-21 school year, we operated in nearly 80 schools and collaborated with more than 55 organizations to support over 315 transition-aged students (ages 14-21) with disabilities through inclusive and restorative programming during virtual schooling. This year, we’re focusing on how to rebuild a sense of community and reignite relationships with a return to in-person schooling through our virtual and in-person programs. 

And we infuse arts programming into our restorative and inclusive education approaches. Last year, our Voices of Change conference went virtual, too, and we leaned in and created a dynamic arts-based competition among students and local hip hop artists and video producers showcasing students’ diverse perspectives. Students were simultaneously building video production, editing, and storytelling skills while honing their self advocacy and elevating their voices. We’ve adapted and I commend our team for its nimble focus on new ways to meet young people where they’re at to support their agency and growth.

How does your mission and programmatic focus show up in practice? How do you know when you’ve been successful?

We take a nested approach to this work and center youth and their needs in the district through our direct programming with young people. We focus on youth leadership, self advocacy, and the arts in an inclusive environment. But if you just focus on helping youth that are put back in school and community systems that don’t include spaces for them to use their voices and where power dynamics impact their decision-making, it’s not as effective. 

That’s why SchoolTalk also focuses on school environments and training adults that connect with youth — from K-12 school settings to those in local agencies including the Department of Human Services and the Department on Disability Services. Our team addresses processes and an array of underlying problems (e.g., systemic ableism and systemic racism) because how you bring people together is just as important as the problems we’re all trying to address.

What must schools and communities start doing now to better support students?

Everyone feels pressure to make up for lost academics since the start of the pandemic. However, we find that a lot of students are still disconnected from schools and enrollment is down across Washington, D.C. It’s easy to focus on how to bring test scores up through tactical approaches like tutoring. But that misses a bigger picture. At SchoolTalk, our restorative justice and inclusive education programmatic focus areas factor in how much students in the district lost by not being able to connect with friends, plug into a school community in formal and informal ways, and so much more. 

We’re encouraging schools to invest in proactive relationship-building with young people and also with each other as adults in the education system. If you look at absent teachers and school staff leaving the profession, and factor in what they’ve been dealing with for the past two years, it’s imperative that in the school years ahead we take stock and support young people and adults within supportive and inclusive school systems.

I bet that the school teams that take the time to focus on these elements — and not just on test scores — will be head and shoulders above the rest on future academic growth. If you don’t first focus on getting students in classrooms, feeling like they can learn in a supportive school environment, academic outcomes will continue to lag. We can’t skip over this stuff.

As you think about Women’s History Month, is there a particular woman who has inspired you? And what advice would you give to other female leaders in the field?

I want to give a shout out to my network of women leaders. They’re the ones who both inspire me and who I turn to with questions, issues, and challenges on a daily and weekly basis. I cannot imagine my personal or professional life without them; so many have grown into lifelong friends!

In terms of advice, I think it’s important to build a network of trusted friends and colleagues, and to lean on it. It’s important to have people you can turn to and trust for honest feedback. I also recommend soliciting different perspectives. It feels like society is redefining what leadership is and how it should be, and it’s a powerful discussion given how polarized things are right now. Different generations of women leaders’ perspectives might vary. Facilitating dialogue with multigenerational leaders is important to expand your understanding of how leadership functions, how it’s evolved, and how best to support teams through change.

What personally calls you to this work? What gets you out of bed every morning?

My upbringing as a Quaker is at the core of who I am and how I approach my work. I was raised to believe that every person is a complete person. The concept of wholeness and of wanting to build a world and education system where everyone is recognized as a whole, beautiful person drives everything I do. I feel so privileged to work in the disability space and to broaden SchoolTalk’s vision and reach in Washington, D.C. Humans are complex and different, so doing this meaningful work and helping adults and young people be themselves and feel validated gets me up every morning.

In closing, as you look across SchoolTalk’s journey from 2008 to now, what are you most proud of?

Our team is full of creative, wicked smart people who care and who are willing to take risks and do things differently to have an impact for the students we serve. I can’t think of a better group of people to work alongside every day (or through a pandemic!).

Stay tuned for more in Ahead of the Heard’s Women’s History Month series in the coming weeks. 

*(Editor’s note: SchoolTalk, Inc. is a former Bellwether client.)

Three Ways to Improve Education Finance Equity in the Southeast for English Learners

English learners (ELs) are an incredibly diverse group of students, representing about 400 languages spoken, and a wide range of ages and fluency in English. As EL enrollment in U.S. K-12 public schools grows, education systems must keep up with these students’ unique learning needs. EL language proficiency, length of time spent in U.S. public schools, age, and grade level are all factors that affect learning needs and the amount of funding required to meet those needs. But, a commitment to equitable funding for EL students is too often missing or minimal in state education funding formulas.  

This commitment is especially needed in the Southeast where ELs make up approximately 15% of the U.S. EL population, growing from 657,612 students in 2015 to 713,245 students in 2019. The number of ELs enrolled in the public school system in the South is rapidly increasing. Between 2000 and 2018, South Carolina experienced a more than a nine-fold increase in EL student enrollment — a rate of growth that is 24 times higher than the national average. Despite this increase in enrollment, the resources available to EL students in the Southeast have not kept up with students’ needs. 

In Improving Education Finance Equity for English Learners in the Southeast, Bonnie O’Keefe and I examine state funding systems for EL students across nine Southeastern states ​​— Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee — and offer a set of three key policy recommendations for how states can better support EL students.

  1. State funding formulas should move toward weighted, student-based systems with multiple EL weights. EL students with greater needs must receive more funding support through state funding formulas. For states that already have a weighted, student-based funding formula, policymakers should consider how to differentiate among a diverse array of EL needs. 
  2. The federal government should increase Title III funding of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). While increasing EL allocations at the state level holds the most promise for meeting the needs of EL students, federal funding has plateaued in recent years. Federal commitments must also keep up with the growing enrollment of EL students in the Southeast region and across the country. 
  3. State education agencies and the federal government should improve transparency of EL data. Although ESSA mandated annual reports of school-level spending, policymakers should increase the level of publicly available state and district data about funding for EL students. 

The region has an opportunity to be a national leader in providing more funding for EL students that is aligned to their unique learning needs. Tennessee and South Carolina are already considering funding reform proposals this spring, and there is room for other states in the region to follow suit and consider proposals to increase the resources available to EL students. Our analysis finds that just two states in the Southeast region — Florida and South Carolina — incorporate EL student weights in their funding formula. 

States have a federal obligation to ensure that EL students receive a high-quality education that allows them to meet their full potential. Although there are bright spots in many of the nine states we examined, more work must be done by policymakers to elevate the needs of EL students in the Southeast. 

Improving Education Finance Equity for English Learners in the Southeast is part of an ongoing Bellwether examination of how finance and inequity in education shortchange millions of students and families.