By Jeremy Divinity, Marketing Specialist
Last month, I attended a virtual conference, RAPSA Forum, hosted by the Reaching At-Promise Students Association. The event focused on leading educational accountability and providing equitable education solutions for ‘at-promise’ students. These students are typically minority, black and brown, and come from a background of poverty. These same students are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and risk further learning loss. The recent racial injustices are also at the center of the discrepancies faced by ‘at-promise’ students across the nation. The objective of the conference was to provide a forum for educators and educational advocates, along with students, to learn from each other and collaborate on how to combat these inequities.
While the conference included representation from charters, districts, and private schools, charter schools are uniquely positioned to implement changes and initiatives to better serve ‘at-promise’ students. Here are five takeaways from the conference on ways charter school leaders and educators can work to improve outcomes and promote the success of ‘at-promise’ students:
#1 Equity is the Destination but Healing is the Driver
The goal of equity is to provide more for the most vulnerable students. While equity was a central theme of the conference, there was also a heavy focus on mental health and wellness topics. We are all experiencing a prolonged state of uncertainty and anxiety, which has brought to light the importance of professional wellness, self-care, and critically reflective practice.
To sustain the positive work they do in the long run, educators need to do the internal work and take care of themselves first as no one can pour from an empty cup. Self-care for educators can take many forms, including exercise, yoga, meditation, sleep, and therapy. During this time of crisis, there is also a strong need for healing connection in our schools, which educators can facilitate through restorative practices, a framework for building community in the classroom while deepening human relationships between teachers and students. Restorative practices in your school can take the form of mindfulness, restorative circles, and collaborative class agreements.
#2 Address the Mental Health of Students of Color
As your school shifts more towards a social justice mindset, it is critical to support the mental health of students of color. Although it may seem like a taboo topic, educators must prepare for the pandemic’s mental health effects on their most vulnerable students. In addition to the trauma triggered by the pandemic, many students of color also face the consequences of generational trauma from poverty, racism, and adverse childhood experiences.
As a school leader, it is critical to understand the impact that these realities have on students of color and how they may influence their experience in schools. For example, trauma has a long-lasting effect on cognitive development and learning which may present itself in many different ways in the learning environment, including flight, fight, or freeze. Instead of disciplinary actions, educators can take an asset-based approach to education. An asset-based approach is key to achieving equity in the classroom and sees all students’ potential by focusing on their talents. By implementing an asset-based approach, educators will build relationships with an understanding of students rather than punishment.
#3 Equity is Access, Opportunity, and Belonging
Many students of color feel isolated, misunderstood, and seen as ‘defective products.’ This feeling of not belonging has led to students of color dropping out mentally and physically, resulting in lower graduation rates that we see in the widening achievement gaps. Although the term ‘at-promise’ was coined to do away with some of the stigmas attached to these students, as one student pointed out in a conference session, it is still a label that categorizes them as ‘other’ or ‘unwanted’ or ‘unachieved’, which is furthest from the truth. The fact that these students are showing up in the face of poverty, trauma and racism speaks to their resilience and potential.
It is the job of educators and education leaders to nurture an environment of community, belonging, respect, identity, and worth, so that all students feel empowered to reach their potential. An equitable learning environment facilitates a feeling of belonging – of being connected to the community. Schools can foster this belonging by hiring more teachers that look like students as representation matters. Educators can also create a support system and a ‘safe space’ or ‘brave space’ to encourage dialogue and foster a sense of belonging. Most importantly, it’s essential that educators talk, listen, and connect with students. Be in their corner.
#4 Education Equity Requires A Strong Foundation for All Learners
Quality education must be accessible to all members of society. Across the country, there is a history of segregation in our school system that continues to impact BIPOC students today. Students from marginalized communities are prone to second guess their belonging and worth, leading to many students having ‘impostor syndrome’ – where they ask, am I good enough, and do I belong?
Impostor syndrome is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents, or accomplishments. Education leaders can empower these students to step into their greatness by providing access to quality education and educating them on the history, contributions, and impact of communities of color. One way to do so is by including ethnic studies in the curriculum. Representing students of color in the school’s curriculum through ethnic studies can positively impact how students of color view themselves.
#5 Zoom Fatigue and Anxiety is Real
Students, just like educators, also have Zoom fatigue and anxiety. This Zoom fatigue hinders learning. Engaging virtually looks different for every student and comes with many challenges. Some students may not be comfortable showing their home environment and some students may not feel comfortable being on camera. For teachers, it is important to remember that cameras on doesn’t guarantee that learning is or isn’t taking place.
Equity within teaching and learning during the pandemic means meeting the needs of students where they are at, attending to their socio-emotional needs, and providing multiple pathways of engagement. This may mean that your school will have to and rely on multiple sources of information to document and verify student engagement.
The pandemic has revealed that we are at a reckoning point on how we are going to transform society, and education, to be equitable for all children. As advocates for high-quality, flexible education options, charter school leaders are uniquely positioned to play a prominent role in creating an equitable learning environment for future generations!