School system leaders can draw lessons from small pandemic learning communities to better support their students’ well-being and learning.
Leaders should learn from Black and Latinx parents who shaped education during the pandemic
COVID-19 has been deeply traumatic and disruptive for students and families.
But the pandemic also created opportunities for families and community organizations to design their own solutions to educational challenges that existed long before it.
As school systems move into the 2021–22 school year, they should learn from experiments led by Black and Latinx families that revealed new paths to confronting long-standing educational inequities.
Over the 2020–21 school year, I studied two parent advocacy organizations that have created innovative educational solutions for their communities during the pandemic. The first group, The Oakland REACH, created a virtual learning hub to supplement the remote learning that schools provided to Black and Latinx students and their families. The second group, Black Mother’s Forum, created two microschools for Black students in the Phoenix, AZ, area.
Both programs are run and staffed by Black and Latinx parents, largely mothers. And both grew out of these parents’ fights for equity within school systems that were not built for Black and Latinx families. Prior to the pandemic, Black Mother’s Forum advocated for changes to inequitable discipline practices in local schools. As one leader told me in an interview, “We focused on school-to-prison pipeline, which is a system that continues to systematically criminalize, demonize, harass, and intimidate our children at an early age, starting in preschool through this thing called discipline, this thing called suspensions and expulsions.”
Outraged at long-standing inequities in local schools, The Oakland REACH worked to activate local families to demand fair treatment and access to better schools. As one The Oakland REACH leader shared, “Our goal is just basically to change things that have been going on for decades. You know, people keep talking about this like this is something new. They’ve been failing our kids for, you know, 30, 40 years.”
In short, both organizations were operating within a system they felt had failed them. When COVID hit and their children were at home, parents had the opportunity to build their own solutions. Fueled by abundant knowledge of their communities and their deep conviction that all students deserve a high-quality education, these predominantly Black and Latinx women didn’t seek to simply address needs exposed by the pandemic but instead to solve problems long-neglected issues of racial inequity in schools.
For example, The Oakland REACH created a virtual hub that delivered culturally responsive literacy instruction. The Literacy Liberation Center fused SIPPS, a systematic approach to language decoding, with parent engagement. Students received high-quality tutoring on phonics, fluency, and comprehension from Black and Latina tutors. Parents received training on the SIPPS curriculum as well as weekly progress reports. The program saw 60 percent of enrolled students increase two reading levels in five weeks. The success of the Oakland REACH is notable, as Oakland Unified School District has long struggled to implement high-quality, evidence-based reading curricula, a practice that has particularly harmed Black and Latinx youth.
The Black Mother’s Forum formed a microschool that employed culturally responsive restorative discipline practices. All participants described difficulties that Black students in Arizona—boys, in particular—experienced, such as being singled out for their behavior, suspended, and expelled.
At the Black Mother’s Forum, leaders and staff reported that when students displayed behavioral challenges, they worked to understand the roots of the behavior and create a behavioral support plan with the family. Such discipline policies stood in stark contrast to students’ experiences at their previous schools. One parent described the relief she felt knowing that her son was enrolled in a microschool:
"[In schools he attended previously,] they suspend, they call cops on five-year-olds. This is what happens in my city. In schools. So I'm just thinking about, I want him to survive the class. Because if he's having behavioral issues in school, then that means that he's going to have to deal with issues everywhere he goes. But [in the microschools] he's happy, and well adjusted, and feeling seen, and has a positive self-image, [and we] don't have to worry about that so much."
Through the Black Mother’s Forum and The Oakland REACH, Black and Latinx parents articulated a vision for their children's education and were empowered to design around it. In both groups, parents expressed deep levels of satisfaction with the educational experiences provided by the organizations.
To be sure, working outside the system is not without challenges. For instance, the Black Mother’s Forum was forced to raise funds to pay for the staff who provide necessary support to students. However, both groups are working to find community-driven solutions as problems arise.
As pressure to return to “normal” continues to rise, Black and Latinx parents may be unwilling to return to a system that ill-served them prior to the pandemic. As one employee of The Oakland REACH articulated,
"We’ve been in a pandemic way before the pandemic. That’s what a lot of people need to understand...the educational system it’s been messed up. We’ve been needing some change. We’ve been needing some support, you know? So for us, I mean, yeah, y’all can say the pandemic is over, but we’re not going to be done fighting. So there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done."
Education leaders looking to address parents’ fears about safely returning to in-person learning should act now to empower community leaders like the Black Mother’s Forum and The Oakland REACH. These are the leaders who understand the needs and concerns of Black and Latinx communities. Unfortunately, all too often, school decision-making structures ignore or undervalue input from Black and Latinx parents. For example, the standards for parent involvement reflect white middle-class norms, such as participation in fundraising.
While school systems often struggle to treat Black and Latinx families as full partners in educational decision-making, The Oakland REACH’s experience shows that it’s possible. Through a partnership with the Oakland Unified School District, the Oakland Reach is bringing its literacy model to more students and helping the district provide more comprehensive support to students who choose its remote learning option this fall. But such an arrangement takes a power shift. It takes district and school leaders seeing Black and Latinx parents as equals and experts. It might also mean adjusting funding structures or staffing schools and programs so that Black and Latinx families can work with educators who understand their backgrounds and life experiences.
This school year, the long-delayed work of confronting systemic racial and socioeconomic inequities in public education has taken on new urgency. Education leaders will require solutions for enormous challenges: issues of health and safety, learning loss, and the social-emotional toll of the pandemic. If they want to ensure all students recover from the pandemic without perpetuating problems that predated it, educators should honor Black and Latinx parents as the experts on the future of their children’s education and work with them to design solutions.
Eupha Jeanne Daramola is a doctoral candidate in the urban education policy program at the University of Southern California. Her research examines the ways in which racism and racial dynamics shape K–12 policy design and implementation. She uses qualitative methods to explore how these dynamics relate to community engagement, school discipline, school leadership, and school choice. Her research is informed by her time as a ninth-grade literature teacher in Philadelphia.
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