Going “Back” is Not Good For Schools. Let’s Go Forward with CBOs.

Why aim to go back to something that we know doesn’t work? Instead, let’s let local community centers be the solution to our schools’ most pressing safety and equity issues.

Before March 2020, classrooms were overcrowded. Technology was inaccessible. And most staff didn’t represent the students that they taught. The “old normal” is not a place that we want our schools to return to, especially for underserved communities.

Our current pandemic has flipped our society on its head, and education is not excluded. Now, classrooms are empty. Schools must have technology to teach. And family members have been thrust into teaching roles without the training nor the resources to support their kids. This “temporary normal” isn’t ideal either. There has to be a middle ground. And there is.

The answer lies in partnerships with community-based organizations (CBOs).

Class Size: One reality that we must address is the fact that social distancing will be with us for the foreseeable future. This means classes bursting from the seams can no longer be. (This is where you can give a little praise hands).

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“Class-size reduction has been shown to improve a variety of measures, ranging from contemporaneous test scores to later-life outcomes such as college completion,” noted the National Education Policy Center.Yet a University of Michigan study found that in their state, “a quarter of [B]lack 9th graders are in classrooms with 40 or more students, [which is]...twice the rate of [Latinx] students and more than three times the rate of [W]hite students.” And the numbers in Michigan are pretty representative of what we see across the country.

Those unbearable class sizes have proven to not work as they have often been cited as a factor for low test scores and lagging graduation rates for Black students compared to their peers. When this pandemic passes, is that what we want to go back to? I ask again, Why aim to go back to something that we know doesn’t work?

Technology: With students being miles away from their teachers and classmates, “Chromebooks” and “Zoom” have become household products and services for kids and adults alike. Unfortunately, this is the first time that many students have interacted with- or even heard of- either one of those. In the Digital Age, that is simply unacceptable.

According to the Pew Research Center, 25% of Black households with school-aged children don’t have internet access. That number nearly doubles to 41% when you look specifically at families earning less than $30,000 per year. Nearly one-fifth of teenagers indicate that internet access alone is the cause of incomplete homework assignments. Not to mention that they will grow up without the skills to fill the one million open computing jobs that are in the United States, according to a 2019 article by the Society for Human Resource Management.

With distance learning among us, some companies are trying to expand broadband to lower-income communities and some districts are distributing technology devices to all students. But it doesn’t stop there. How are we teaching them how to use them? How will we make sure this access continues when school buildings reopen? When the pandemic passes, will we take away their access? Make them return their computers? If so, we’ll go back to under-preparing kids for the 21st century, which is not okay. Again, why aim to go back to something that we know doesn’t work?

Teacher Identity: About 80% of teachers identify as White and yet only 50% of students identify as White. White teachers aren’t inherently “bad.” In fact, most teachers that I’ve met and worked with have had the best of intentions for our children. Despite their good hearts, our kids are consistently poorly taught, as evidenced by their behavior, academic, and attendance outcomes over time.

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In 2019, Education Next reported that “teacher-student race/ethnicity matching has a detectable impact on test scores, academic perceptions and attitudes, attendance and suspensions, gifted and talented referrals, and educational attainment…” Furthermore, “students assigned to a demographically similar teacher report feeling more cared for, more motivated to do their best work in class, and experience higher quality student-teacher communication.”

Unlike our current environment, we can’t continue to rely on family members to fill this gap. Not only do they have their own jobs to tend to, many don’t have the experience to be as effective as a well-trained educator. (Yes, teaching is a profession that requires professional skills).

Staffing more effective and diverse teachers in the classroom is the ultimate goal, but why wait for the years of transformation, when we have the opportunity to make the change right now? When the pandemic passes, do we want to go back to how things were just a few short months ago. If not, I just don’t understand why we would aim to go back to something that we know doesn’t work.

District-CBO Partnerships: Suppose only half of the student body can be in the building at a time, due to safety concerns and to maximize learning. We need somewhere to send the other half of the students, and staying home is not an option. This is where CBOs come in.

CBOs are where students "look for role models and guidance. This is where they want to be."

Take this journey with me. Imagine students are in either Group A or Group B. Group A reports to the school building on Mondays and Wednesdays, while Group B shows up on Tuesdays and Thursdays. For the sake of argument, they can engage in school much the same way that we see now. Self-contained classes for the younger students and rotating through different classes for the older students-- the structure of the school day is another conversation for another day.

When a group of students is not in school, they report to a CBO that has a partnership with the school. I don’t mean a babysitting location or a “camp-style” program. I mean a true partnership where the community organization is an extension of the school. Maybe they’re facilitating the application of learned topics in school. Maybe they take on the arts and extra curriculars. That can depend on the nature of the partnership, but what needs to be true is that the CBO and the school are on the same page with supporting student personal and academic needs.

These partnerships go beyond solving the issue of overcrowding in schools, it also gives students the space to engage deeper with technology. They can access school work from their teachers with the support of trained adults. They can spend time learning how to utilize online learning platforms and other technologies. Perhaps CBOs take on the responsibility of executing a new set of technology standards that are long overdue in this country.

The best benefit from these partnerships is the opportunity to leverage community resources, including people. We often say that Black men aren’t interested in education. This is a refrain that I repeat myself, but I also question it.

Go to your nearest community center in a Black or Brown neighborhood. You’re bound to see Black men running programs, interacting with kids, engaging with families, and playing the exact same role as a school teacher, just in a different setting. It doesn’t stop with Black men. People from the community tend to work in these places and they bring a familial vibe to the kids’ lives while they’re away from their families.

Unfortunately, community center roles are often undervalued though they are integral in the growth and development of our kids. Not to mention, many family members have more trust and comfort with the staff at their local CBO.

This is where kids flock to after school and on the weekends. This is where they look for role models and guidance. This is where they want to be.

Let’s take advantage of the opportunity in front of us. I challenge state governments, districts, and individual schools to build true partnerships with community-based organizations like the YWCA or the Boys and Girls Club. Let’s not squander our chance to shrink class sizes, increase access to technology, and to provide Black and Brown kids the opportunity to learn from adults who share their identity.

When this pandemic passes, let’s land on the right side of history. Let’s aim to go forward towards something that we know does work for our kids.


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