Momentum For Education Policy That Improves The Odds For Success

Jeff Bryant

[Today’s guest post comes from Elaine Weiss, Executive Director, Broader Bolder Approach to Education]

Signs continue to indicate momentum for a new emerging education policy narrative.

The replacement of No Child Left Behind with the Every Student Succeeds Act is perhaps the most visible. But perhaps even more meaningful are state and local policy shifts that are needed to treat student poverty as a real issue, rather than as an excuse, and to change the policy focus from helping some students beat the odds to improving the odds for all children to succeed.

These policy shifts are evident in this week’s relaunch of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education (BBA). BBA’s updated and expanded mission maintains a focus on poverty-related impediments to learning and provides a comprehensive policy framework to address those impediments.

The framework’s three components – alleviating out-of-school barriers to success, closing in-school opportunity gaps, and strengthening communities’ capacities to improve school and student outcomes – are structured to work cohesively to ensure a well-aligned, high-quality public education system for all children.

Along with its expanded policy framework and diverse new leadership, BBA is releasing the first six of what it promises will be a year-long series of case studies of communities across the country whose education policies are grounded in addressing poverty and the needs of the whole child.

The first of these case studies are in two of the largest urban school districts in the country, the kinds of places in which it has been hardest to make progress in the face of high levels of concentrated poverty and minority racial and language status.

In Boston, City Connects works in 20 Boston public schools to provide preventive, remedial, and enrichment options to children. This approach leverages the city’s range of physical and mental health services, along with its rich art and music offerings, to address each child’s needs for additional academic and social-emotional and health supports. City Connects’ work has produced impressive gains on a range of measures, which led to an expansion to 13 high-needs schools in Springfield, Massachusetts. New City Connect initiatives have also started in schools in New York, Connecticut, Ohio and Minnesota.

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio made a campaign pledge to enact education policies that alleviated the effects of massive inequities in the city. One idea that has gotten the mayor’s attention is the community schools model. For more than 20 years, the Children’s Aid Society has been building its community schools model in the city, growing from its first school in 1992 to 16 in 2014. Health clinics embedded in these schools – including the nation’s first orthodontics clinic – keep students in school and focused. Afterschool and summer programs help students sustain school year gains and build on them through enriching science, arts, and other opportunities. Due to the progress students in these schools have experienced, de Blasio recently committed to opening 100 more community schools.

Case studies from smaller cities focus on the neighborhoods hit hardest by poverty and racial isolation. Both examples are based loosely on a model pioneered by the Harlem Children’s Zone, a New York City-based charter school that brings multiple support services into the school to address the broad ranges of needs of low-income students. But the examples also deviate from the HCZ model by using home-grown services and supports.

In Minneapolis, the Northside Achievement Zone has used several federal grants to put into place a network of support to the hundreds of families it serves. This network features designated Connectors, who link families to services, and Navigators, who help track the families’ progress. Both the city’s business community and the governor have recognized NAZ for its innovative model. A newer initiative in Durham, North Carolina is taking much the same path, but without government funding. Grounding its efforts in an assessment of both the community’s needs and its assets, the East Durham Children’s Initiative has crafted an evolving set of aligned supports that prepare children for kindergarten, boost their readiness to learn and focus in school, and sustain gains over the summer while engaging both parents and community leaders as partners in the work.

Pea Ridge, Arkansas is the smallest and most grassroots of the six case studies. Two years ago, superintendent Rick Neal saw growing student needs colliding with increasing expectations for his students and his teachers. He reached out to Bright Futures, an initiative that works with dozens of school districts across the South to cultivate community ownership of schools and build leadership and systems to respond to every student’s needs and grow engaged citizens. In partnership with Bright Future, Neal launched a variety of innovations, from using social media to address such basic needs as food and clothing to embedding service learning in classrooms across the district’s six schools. As a result of this work, Neal has seen a change in how teachers approach their work and how students view their learning.

The sixth community featured – Vancouver, Washington – has received a number of accolades for its Family Community Resource Centers. Superintendent Steven Webb and chief of staff Tom Hagley have spent the past decade developing a system of 21st century schools-as-community-hubs designed to prepare all of their students to be citizens of today’s diverse, global world. Webb, a 2016 state superintendent of the year and finalist for national superintendent of the year, sees the tech-savvy structures created by his district as the future of U.S. public education.

“We in the education space must work side by side with those on the front lines of reducing poverty,” Webb says. “Because until we can ensure that no child comes to school hungry, sick or homeless, we can’t really be the land of opportunity.”

These case studies, and others yet to come, show how the new framework BBA advocates reflects both policy-level evolution and on-the-ground actions. The new policy direction results in specific ways to address poverty and the needs of the whole child – whether it’s something as basic as making healthy meals and teaching new parents parenting skills, or as complicated as creating new teacher retention systems and establishing new accountability schemes.

Our relaunch – along with other promising new initiatives coming from the field – renew the nation’s promise to commit to a public education system that can be the great equalizer.

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