We can’t deny that right now the world does need help in a major way. It seems to be awash in issues and causes that demand our concern and engagement. Climate change! Minority rights! Refugee crisis! Income inequality! And more…What do you choose?
I propose that we all spare some of our attention to education equity. Why?
- Education equity affects all of our futures, not just of the young people being educated (this previous article has more details).
- A well-educated population will have significant, positive impact on just about every other issue facing our world.
- It is critical that communities get involved in supporting local schools because ultimately the community will benefit from, or bear the burden of, the quality of education of the children in its neighborhood.
Even if there’s some other issue that is closer to your heart, education still deserves a place on your list of causes to support.
So, how can you get involved in education equity? Can you still make a difference if you have resource constraints? Yes, you can! The beauty of education is that that you can engage in different ways, whether you’re interested in writing a check, framing policy or want to get personal and “hands-on”. Here’s how you can get involved, and learning what you’re getting into is naturally the first step.
- Know your local schools. Your immediate neighborhood may be well-served, in which case you may want to take a look at the schools in surrounding areas. In most metropolitan regions wealthier zip codes with very good schools are not far from low performing schools serving families with fewer resources. For example, in the Bay Area, there is Palo Alto and East Palo Alto with starkly different school environments. That’s what education equity is all about — giving access to a quality education to all students regardless of where they live.
- Gather data. When you’re learning about the school, start with the data: graduation rates, performance ranking, funding per student, teacher-student ratios etc. Find out about the school district, board and elected officials — in schools, the decision-making authority is primarily local. Much of this is readily available online, and it will give you an idea of the educational landscape, especially if you’re not actively parenting and don’t know much about your local schools. Of course, it is not necessary to take on a full-scale research project before you get involved, but the more you know about the school the better equipped you’d be to help them.
- Make a visit. Most public schools would welcome anyone with a serious interest in helping them meet their goals. Once you‘re ready to have an informed discussion about the school, make an appointment to talk to someone who can fill you in on the school’s needs. You’ll get to know their real priorities, not just what you think they need (for example they may want playground repairs over tablets for kindergarten).
- Create a plan. Now that you know what your chosen school needs, you can plan out how you can help. There are many ways to help (see below) and it all depends on your capacity and interests. You can also enlist the help of family, friends, or the organization you work in to vastly increase the impact.
If you have the time and skills, get involved personally. You can volunteer directly at a school or with a nonprofit that works with school age children, and pick what appeals to you based on your interest and capacity — your chosen school will provide guidance. For example, mentoring has been proven to be very effective in helping students stay in school and be successful, and there are many opportunities for one-to-one mentoring through nonprofits like Big Brothers Big Sisters of America or College Track.
Schools can use help in a variety of other ways too. Teachers often need extra hands with the many projects they want to do to enrich their students’ learning experience, from creating a garden for science learning to assisting in technology adoption and support. Helping out in person gets you more involved in your community and can be personally rewarding too. (Here are some ideas from a community panel on this topic.)
Keep in mind that most onsite volunteering is during school hours or just after, except for a few specific projects, and you might need background checks and clearance.
If you have more money than time, or any amount of money to donate, you can always find a vital need for students that needs funding. Schools in the better-resourced neighborhoods can host lucrative fundraising drives in addition to getting funds from local voter-approved bonds/taxes, but that’s difficult for schools that serve a higher number of low-income families. These schools often rely on individual and corporate donors to augment federal and state funds, and that’s where you can make a big difference.
- Public schools are often desperate for donations to fund projects like purchasing classroom materials, stocking the libraries, outfitting science labs, or just providing much-needed snacks for after school programs.
- As suggested earlier, go to the school and find out what they need, and you can lead a fund drive or just participate in one. It is gratifying to give to a school you can visit because you can see the tangible benefits of your donation and savor the impact.
Seriously, this is probably THE most important thing you can do to make an impact — vote! Even if you do nothing else, make an effort to thoughtfully cast your ballot for education-related offices, instead of skipping the choice altogether.
- For every office, take the time to figure out how the candidates view education and what their priorities are likely to be. This is even more important at the state level and is critical at the local level — your county supervisors, local mayor and city council members all have an impact on education.
- Get to know the school board. Learn the effectiveness of the board of trustees for the school district. If the board and administration are dysfunctional and not aligned in their goals, unfortunately it is the students who suffer — but the community can push for change (as in this example).
- Check their performance. Did the elected officials do what they said they would? The voting residents of a district can make a difference by ensuring they elect leaders who are committed to improving educational outcomes for their children and, just as important, holding them accountable if they don’t deliver.
All of us, not just education experts and leaders, policy makers and major philanthropists, but ordinary people, need to and can get involved to improve education equity — it’s proven to have impact. Many impactful education-related nonprofits got started by just one or two people helping out local schools, individual donations continually help schools bridge funding gaps and engaged citizens casting thoughtful votes in local elections keep them on track. All you have to do is start with the first step — get to know your local schools.
Coming up in the next post — how companies, big and small, can help advance education equity. Stay tuned!