A Lesson in Accountability
We have been blinded
Not only have we been blinded by the world due to a pandemic
But we have been blinded by those we thought have cared about us the most
We have been blinded by the education system
Blinded by our educators
Blinded by administration
- Petrina, 17 — Hartford
Connecticut schools are set to reopen in a few weeks, and at the end of June Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona, released a statement on reopening schools: “This pandemic represents more than a virus, it represents an historic disruption to our school communities and created barriers to how we best deliver academic and non-academic supports in a way that is accessible, equitable, and meaningful.” While COVID19 no doubt represents an “historic disruption,” the educational inequities it has unearthed are far from new — Connecticut’s schools were not equitable to begin with.
In April, PFF launched a project in which we asked young people to respond to one out of a series of questions, and tell us, from their perspective, what life during COVID19 has been like. We received more than 300 submissions from young people across the state of Connecticut. When we looked at the stories and experiences young people shared, clear patterns and themes emerged: Black and Latinx students were more likely to describe their academic life as a place of routine, a tool to measure success, and a means of socioeconomic mobility, all of which had been threatened by the new realities thrust upon them by COVID19. Students of color also often spoke about feelings of betrayal or disappointment at the systems that they felt had failed to offer adequate support or consideration of their humanity in the midst of a global crisis. Some students identified as parents, familial caregivers, or critical income-earners, all identities that they have experienced as being at-odds with their role as students.
For many of the participants who live in cities, their educational experiences prior to the widespread school closures were already difficult: challenging relationships with teachers, lack of adequate academic support, and overcrowded classrooms created environments that were hard enough to learn in. Additionally, while some students hadn’t been particularly fond of school prior to the shutdown, they found that the expectations of remote, independent learning that had been foisted on them brought on an entirely new set of challenges — and ones that are far more complex than a lack of access to digital technology or Wi-Fi.
Describing the stress that comes with balancing responsibilities as siblings, employees, parents, and caregivers, some participants shared the pain of years of striving for the victorious moment of graduation, only to have their culminating experiences dissolve before their very eyes; first generation students, students who had grown up in foster care, and students who overcame health and personal challenges to see their educational careers through shared the painful impact of virtual, or cancelled, graduations. 16-year-old Yarivette from Hartford described her new learning experience: “…I have to stay home and teach myself things I don’t even understand.” Mercedes, also 16 and from Hartford, shared an email she wrote to her teacher explaining the multitude of responsibilities that she’s now had to start balancing alongside her distance learning:
“Do you guys realize how stressed the junior class is? And not because we can’t do the work, because I assure you, we’re all capable, but because of the quantity of things we are expected to do now… Many of us have at least one younger sibling…. A lot of us don’t have the luxury of a private room where we can do work, or class calls…. Why are we forgotten about? It shouldn’t be all test scores and grades, what about our emotions, our aspirations?”
From looking after siblings, taking class calls, and managing her academic workload, Mercedes also advocated for other classmates who she knew were battling with the impact the circumstances were having on their mental health.
And what do you know; turns out young people are right.
In the recently released 2020 Loving Cities Index, The Schott Foundation for Public Education analyzed Hartford, CT using the index as a measure of the cities to, “assess the systems of love and support in place at the local and state levels to provide children with an opportunity to learn.” Rooted in the knowledge that, “to achieve education justice, we must support healing in communities harmed by a long history of racist policies that persist to this day and replace systems of oppression with systems that institutionalize love and support”, Hartford’s cumulative score revealed that it has fewer than 50% of the supports considered essential for compassionate, consistent support.
The experiences young people shared with us must be understood in the context of deeply-rooted systemic inequities. Public education is one of the highest expenses for all Connecticut municipalities, however the funding that towns and cities receive to cover this cost is wildly unequal. Redlining, or the practice of loan providers and city officials undervaluing Black, Brown, and Jewish property in an effort to preserve the racial segregation of neighborhoods and entire cities, ensured that homes in present-day communities of color are worth less than the homes of their white counterparts, and with 58% of the state’s funding coming from local property taxes, the historical boundaries established by decades of housing discrimination mean that white, wealthy towns are able to fund their students’ educations in a way that is both separate and profoundly unequal.
The racial inequities embedded in school financing is reflected in other aspects of Connecticut’s education system as well. While Connecticut’s student population being is more than 40% students of color, only a shocking 8.7% of Connecticut’s teachers similarly identify as people of color . In the Greater New Haven school district, Black and special education students were suspended significantly more often than their peers during the 2017–2018 school year. New London-based youth organization Hearing Youth Voices also found, through research conducted leading up to the release of their campaign “Schools that Work For Us”, that students of color in predominantly white-led/staffed schools often experienced suspensions, expulsions, and punitive treatment from untrained educators who were often challenged to relate to students and communities that were unfamiliar to them.
Many of the young people who participated in this project shared that they were eager and ready for school doors to reopen. The need for in-person, structured learning as well as missing friends were some of the most frequently- mentioned things young people said they looked forward to in a post-Coronavirus world. In recent weeks, however, many students and teachers have also emphasized the profound risk this poses. Considering the blatant underfunding of predominantly Black and Brown community schools, it becomes clear that additional supports will be needed to enable them to meet the administrative, educational, and operational requirements that reopening will present. Asking schools to reopen short of a concrete commitment to provide additional resources to meet these needs is negligent, and harmful; and treating access to laptops as the primary need and “solve” for remote learning is equally so.
It is our hope that adults and people in power who are engaging with the truths young people shared recognize the very real structural barriers in place; that the effects of years of racist housing and educational policies are colliding, and exacerbating, the impact of COVID19 and creating a man-made pandemic in the midst of a viral one. Both the philanthropic and public sector must realize that any solution which falls short of addressing these barriers will fail our young people, and perpetuate harm and systemic neglect.
Let’s challenge the adultist notion of generalized student “disengagement” or “disinterest”: every young person who participated in this project made it abundantly clear that they wanted to learn; however, they were also justly adamant that their limitations and challenges be respected and addressed as such. We must work alongside young people to answer their call. What would it look like to provide statewide supports grounded in equity? What would it look like for each district to receive resources and implement practices that are personalized to their students’, families, and working parents’ unique needs; practices that see students as whole people, not just learners? What would it look like to turn this historic disruption into an historic opportunity to address the needs and changes as demanded by the young people these systems are meant to serve?
Mercedes is a Program Associate at The Perrin Family Foundation, a Connecticut-based, statewide funder of youth-led organizing and social change.