Every Student Succeeds Act an Opportunity to Step Up Together

Black student thinking in classroom
Black student thinking in classroom

This is a guest post by Mary Kingston Roche, Director of Public Policy for the Coalition for Community Schools at the Institute for Educational Leadership.

Ten years ago as a first-year teacher, I walked into my 6th grade classroom in Oakland full of optimism. I couldn't wait to make learning come alive for my students. I had decorated my classroom around the theme: 180 Days around the World. Students would travel to different countries through our reading, and would receive a stamp on their passports with each unit we completed. They would become learning pioneers.

What I didn't realize then is that you can't create an imaginary world in your classroom without confronting the world in which your students live. In East Oakland violence and crime were common; my students experienced various forms of trauma every day. Still, they were brilliant, intellectually curious, and had parents who worked extremely hard to give them a better life. I did my best to help address trauma, hunger, bullying, and toothaches, but I quickly became overwhelmed, feeling that this responsibility rested all on me.

Compounding this feeling was the "failing" label that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) gave our school - it stung, it was harsh and unfair. To help raise reading scores to exit the "failing" status, I was assigned to teach a Reading Intervention class to the lowest-level readers. The district instructed me to use a scripted curriculum using rote exercises in phonics and sentence structure. Through some advocacy, I was able to modify the curriculum to incorporate poetry and Walter Dean Myers novels, but I was still puzzled why the students who were struggling the most with reading were given the least engaging texts. I wondered why test scores seemed more important than creating an engaging and motivating curriculum and meeting students' basic conditions for learning, like being well-fed and feeling safe. My colleagues and I cared deeply about our students and did our best to meet their needs, but many days it just felt like we were in it alone.

Ten years later, both our federal education law and the Oakland Unified School District are in a completely different place. In 2009, the new Oakland superintendent Tony Smith recognized right away that schools could no longer ignore the many inequities and challenges students faced in their lives. Tony led a year-plus process to engage the community on what they wanted for their schools, which led to a community-wide vision of schools as centers of their community.

Through grounding themselves in values like collaboration, diversity and equity, the district forged results-focused partnerships between school and community to implement community school components like health and wellness; expanded learning; and family and community engagement with the aim to help students become college and career-ready, healthy, and part of a thriving, safe community. This vision is captured in an infographic of a tree illustrating this theory of change. Seven years later, the work is promising. Oakland is now a Full-Service Community Schools district, and is transforming each of its schools into community schools, with its tagline "Community Schools, Thriving Students".

Most notably, suspension rates in district-run schools have decreased by nearly one-third since the 2010-2011 school year, driven in part by the district's efforts to reduce disparities in discipline from a 2012 voluntary Resolution Agreement with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. Graduation rates are improving from below 60% in 2009 to about 70% in 2014; and the district receives $30 million in grant funding through results-focused partnerships that are fundamental to the community schools strategy. A series of recent case studies further illuminate the transformation that is happening in Oakland.

The new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that replaced No Child Left Behind brings an opportunity for districts across the country to replicate the kind of whole-child, results-driven partnership approach that Oakland is leading. The law devolves power back to states and challenges them to re-think how they are supporting students and schools. Three aspects of ESSA are particularly important.
First, while under NCLB schools were judged solely on test scores, ESSA requires states to include at least one non-academic indicator in their accountability systems, such as student engagement or school climate and safety. These non-academic indicators encourage states and local school districts to pay more attention to all the dimensions of young people's learning and development, including social, emotional, physical, and civic, in addition to cognitive.

State and local school district report cards also must address a broader range of indicators including chronic absence, school climate, and safety; rates of suspensions, expulsions, and school-related arrests; and bullying. Chronic absence is a striking example of an indicator that reveals a much larger story about students' lives outside of school - whether unaddressed health issues, toxic stress, or homelessness - that may be preventing them from coming to school. Schools simply do not have all the assets or expertise to respond to the challenges of these non-academic indicators without the intensive support of their community partners. ESSA encourages them to do just that with non-profit partners as Oakland has done.

Second, enrichment is an explicit goal of instruction in ESSA -- a big departure from the rote, narrowed curriculum we saw all too often under NCLB. ESSA Title IV 21st Century Schools signals a new emphasis on a well-rounded education and improving conditions for learning - a much more responsive framework for what our young people need to know and be able to do than solely academics. Volunteerism and community involvement, civic and environmental education, and the integration of multiple disciplines are all noted as elements of a well-rounded education and community partners have the expertise to help. This kind of learning is much more likely to engage students than the curriculum I started with in Oakland.

And, states and districts now have relatively flexible funding to support a well-rounded education and the conditions for learning in the Student Support and Academic Enrichment grant, authorized at $1.6 billion. States and districts could use these resources to leverage deeper relationships with their community partners to more effectively use existing assets and expertise.

Finally, states and districts are compelled in various places to describe how they will conduct comprehensive needs assessments where United Ways and higher education partners can contribute; consult with parents and community partners in planning and use of funds across various Titles of the law; and examine school-level conditions for learning and resource inequities that reflect an equity-driven approach.

Many people, rightfully so, are worried about this new law. They are concerned that handing the power back over to states will mean that their most disadvantaged students lose out, as was unfortunately the case in years past. But districts like Oakland offer another possibility.

With the devolution of power back to states also comes greater responsibility and opportunity. It's up to educators, families and community partners to step up to this challenge and partner with our state and district leaders to realize the community schools vision for our public schools - a vision that unites school, family, and community for young people's success.

In this transition, we should look to Oakland and to many other districts and communities pursuing community schools for examples of how to involve the community not just when required by law, but continuously and deeply so that the school and community together are working to help young people thrive. That way, no teacher would feel alone as a champion for her students -- but instead be among many in a community where everyone feels pride and ownership in the unlimited potential of their young people.