5 powerful actions for promoting equity at your child’s school

Sept. 24, 2020

Imagine three children come to a table to have lunch. One child is seated and ready to eat. Another child is also seated, but their chair is unstable, and they worry it might break. The other child has no seat at all. Now, imagine the table represents the classroom, and lunch represents the educational curriculum. Of those children, only one of them has what they need to take in what they were given without barriers negatively impacting the experience. Equality says to make sure each child has the same amount of time to eat and is served the same lunch. Equity, however, ensures each person has the resources they need to address those barriers first. 

Parents can play an important part in the work that needs to be done to achieve equity in schools, says Cheryl Broadnax, former school superintendent for Cincinnati Public Schools and senior director of district improvement at StriveTogether. “This work must be done with having real parent-student-community conversations that generate real solutions to the barriers, and they must be acted upon and measured for success,” she says. 

Here are five ways you can help build equity in your school district whether you have time, money or connections.

1. Consider the most marginalized students first

“Well-meaning parents can create really inequitable situations for students,” says Kathryn Broullire, high school teacher in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area and mother of two. For example, Broullire says parents might coordinate a field trip that requires students to pay an admission fee. “It could be a nominal fee for most families, but for some families, it's not possible,” she says. “Not only does this put the student in a position of not being able to attend yet another educational opportunity, but it outs them as being the kid who can't afford the field trip.”

As parents, we are naturally accustomed to advocating for our own children, but Broullire says parents, namely those with social connections, should shift their mindsets to the needs of the most marginalized students when they have the opportunity to make decisions for the classroom. Broullire suggests parents involved in decision-making or who are a part of the parent-teacher-student association, for example, check those decisions by asking a few questions: “How would a BIPOC student respond to the decision the PTSA just made? An LGBTQ student? A student in poverty?” If the answer is “not favorably” or creates yet another obstacle for marginalized students, it’s an inequitable decision.

2. Pay it forward

Schools in the U.S. receive little funding from the federal government. For the most part, states are left to decide how school districts are funded. The most popular formula for school funding involves property taxes. In districts where a large proportion of low-income and students of color live, less money is allocated to schools for experienced teachers, books and other resources. In short, when it comes to the quality of an education, money matters.

Parents can contribute to or start fundraisers that put grant money directly to families in need of computers or other equipment, books, internet access and even child care. The least complicated way to donate directly to families in need is by starting a mutual aid fund. Mutual aid funds, usually in the form of an online spreadsheet or platform, allow people to list their hardships and needs, and people looking to give can search and choose a family to donate to. Parents can also start or use mutual aid funds to donate food, clothes, or books and other school supplies.

Wherever there are financial barriers to education, money is a welcome way to break them down. Even on an individual level, Broullire says parents can make a difference by paying it forward. “One of the biggest ways parents who have the resources can create equitable environments is to donate money to those who don't have the same opportunities,” she says. “This can be handled in a sensitive, appropriate way. If you pay for private SAT tutoring, for example, consider paying for another student who isn't able to pay for that course.” Broullire suggests coordinating such donations through school counselors, who are aware of which students are in need and can confidentially match the earmarked donation with the appropriate student.

3. Donate your time

“As a mom of four who is also trying to grow her own business, time is my most precious resource, and I often need to remind myself how important it is to make time to be an active participant in my children's schooling,” says Alexandra Fung, CEO of Upparent, who lives in the Chicago metropolitan area.

It’s not just about giving your time to the school district; it’s about investing your time into making sure a diverse group of voices are heard in the process. Fung says that parent groups should reflect the diversity in the community, noting, “Each of our families is unique, so each parent that actively participates in the PTA or similar parent group adds an important perspective to the decisions being made at our schools.” 

Working families also need child care. To support underserved students and increase educational equity, organize a group or co-op of parents who can volunteer child care services or tutoring after school.

4. Ask to see the numbers

Ameena Payne, a university instructor in Melbourne, Australia, knows from experience that the racial inequities in schools are only fueled by the racial disparities in disciplinary actions. When the school district she graduated from in Urbana, Illinois made a commitment to racial equity, she wanted to hold them to that, so she asked for the numbers.

Research shows officers in schools disproportionately impact Black and Indigenous students, as well as students with disabilities. Payne wanted to see just how committed her former school district was to equity, so she used the Freedom of Information Act to request the cost breakdown of the district's money spent on school resource officers. Based on the information she gathered, she says, “[The district] should reconsider how they are using education dollars.”. She found that her former school district spent $275,000 per year on officers — money that’s not going to school counselors, social workers and other resources that can help underserved students. 

She also asked to see suspension rates and arrest rates of students. The numbers showed Black students are suspended at higher rates than white students. Payne hopes to bring this data to light and hold the district accountable for reversing this disciplinary disparity, also known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

“We need to aim for more equitable spaces by focusing less on punitive practices but on restorative approaches instead,” she says. The numbers, she says, help move the conversation forward and give the community something tangible to track. 

Broadnax says after identifying areas where disparities exist, it’s time to “use this info and any found bright spots to make change.” Examining the policies in place that perpetuate negative outcomes for underserved students and partnering with organizations for students of color to co-design solutions are great places to start, she says. “It requires adding and strengthening strategies with equity at the center. This could mean major shifts and changes.”

In fact, Payne’s request for the hard data resulted in the Urbana City Council voting to reconsider how much of the school district's money goes toward paying for school resource officers — a move she hopes results in more mental health resources for students instead.

5. Normalize celebrating nontraditional successes

Bill Lennan, co-founder of the social-emotional learning curriculum HAERT, which stands for Happiness, (self) Awareness and Emotional Resilience Training, has a high schooler and a college student. What he’s learned through parenting and as an educator is that “context is critical'' for students. Not all students find meaning or even relate to school curriculum.

He remembers one of his college classmates taking remedial reading courses. Remedial reading classes help college students, often English language learners, who struggled with language and comprehension skills in high school catch up. His classmate never liked reading in high school. “Suddenly, he found a context and value for reading,” he says. “He had never seen that in grade or high school. He was highly motivated in college to learn.”

Traditionally, elementary and high schools place a lot of value on standardized test scores, grades and other traditional markers of academic achievement. The idea is that everyone is presented with the same curriculum based on age-determined grade levels and graded against the standards set for those grades. It’s a one-size-fits-all measure of achievement that Lennan says doesn’t allow for truly equitable classrooms.

“My high school student is learning mechanical engineering because of his love for scooters, mountain bikes and cars,” he says. Through personalized learning and by encouraging students to find what they enjoy instead of working to earn a number or achieve a score, Lennan says schools can begin to make sure all students have the opportunity to succeed.

Equity in schools requires community buy-in. The more people willing to give the resources they have to ensure the most marginalized students have the same opportunities as their peers, the better. Solutions by parents and small groups are no match for the systemic changes needed, which should come from state and federal policies that financially invest into all families, but they are powerful nonetheless.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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