Who is Not Returning to School
As schools around the country are making preparations to bring students back for in-person education on a full time basis, we are noticing several populations of students that are decidedly not returning to school. This is despite schools taking many steps to be “inclusive” and responsive to various groups of students’ needs. It is clear that some students do not feel as though their school is really theirs and are more comfortable with the notion of keeping themselves at arms length from the actual school.
Part of the problem might be in the way many schools are approaching their inclusivity efforts. By creating efforts to address the inclusivity needs of any one group, school leaders commit two errors that complicate their efforts. Most obviously, the creation of an effort to address the needs of one group increases the likelihood that you will exclude the needs of another group that has been marginalized and stigmatized, and that exclusion will make it even worse. However, the second error is trying to make some minor changes in schooling that only serve to reinforce the notion that the school was built for white, cis, middle-class kids, and everyone else must be adjusted for.
Both of these errors can be avoided by accepting that schools were built, fundamentally, on some erroneous assumptions. By accepting this premise, school leaders are admitting that they do not see all the ways in school were built to exclude certain groups. Re-thinking school inclusive efforts can and should be much more inclusive efforts, beginning with an exhaustive conversation about all the ways school has made many, many kids and families feel like guests, rather than owners of the school.
When we consider the decades of work that schools have done to modify curriculum and asking teachers to modify assessments in order to allow students with disabilities to feel more included we can begin to see the problems with this line of thinking more clearly. After all, why design a lesson that only meets the needs of some students and modify it for others, when you can design it, from the beginning, to meet the needs of all learners? In a physical setting context, why have steps and a ramp when a ramp will meet the needs of all people? We are normed to believe that certain things are the way they should be and are unable to realize that those elements are choices that we don’t even see because of our cultural blind spots.
For school leaders to truly embrace the notion that all children can learn and that public school is about leveling the playing field, they must take a step back and ask others to help them see what they do not. Ask for critics to help identify the ways in which school structures and policies have marginalized populations of students. Encourage those that have not felt embraced by school to share those experiences. And when they do, do not get defensive. Do not explain why certain decisions were made. Listen with empathy, apologize, take notes, learn, and ask questions to ensure you understand how to do it better.
In general, schools have worked extraordinarily well at maintaining their status quo. Schools are overwhelmingly staffed with people who felt very comfortable in those institutions. Those that feel comfortable in them as adults, also, go on to become leaders of the institutions. This dynamic does not lend itself to address the needs of the students who feel left out. That will only happen when those voices are actively sought out, made to feel safe, valued, and listened to.
Let’s take inclusivity seriously and rethink how to do this.
I believe it’s our responsibility to show our communities the value of all people, to celebrate different, and to take a stand for acceptance and inclusion.