Schools as Change Agents

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I am attending the California Association of African American Superintendents and Administrators Statewide Professional Development Summit. This year, I am slated to be the keynote for a session on what we can do to increase college access for students of color, but something struck me during a plenary centered around parent engagement.

A teacher posed a question to the room made up of educators, teachers, administrators, superintendents, board members, and parents. She asked, "Are schools doing enough to make sure students come to class ready to learn?" One panelist agreed schools are doing as much as they could, but suggested we engage more parents. Another panelist suggested that teachers need to ensure their instructional practice is culturally relevant. One audience member suggested students just don't care as much about education as they do other things, which draws their attention away.

As I sat and pondered the question, my answer was no. Schools aren't doing enough to ensure students enter classrooms ready to learn. I think schools have missed opportunities to lead the charge for social change in communities. Schools are the center of most communities and have more influence than they employ.

Schools should be advocating for livable wages for teachers and parents, helping families gain access to food, advocating for affordable rent, and housing, access to healthcare, transportation, and speaking out against violence in all forms. Each of these issues affect schools. Specifically, they affect students and their abilities to learn. If teachers were to ask their "difficult" students what home was  like last night, they might uncover the issues that are creating barriers to education for the students they have the most trouble.

Students often indicate distress, anxiety, and trauma in the most counterproductive ways and absent parents are often indicators of socioeconomic barriers. Instead of telling you the last meal they had yesterday was lunch at school verbally, they show it through their behavior with a lack of  focus or interest. That student that might exhibit hesitation to participate in class may have witnessed domestic violence at home. The students who are talkative and disruptive might not be able to read the whiteboard. Parents who never show up to parent conferences might be working their second of three part-time jobs they need to support their family.

So, can schools do more to push social change? Yes, and it’s imperative they do. When schools act as change agents, students fare better. On the issue of gun violence in schools, arming teachers, metal detectors and gun-free zones speak to the symptoms of broader societal issues. Specifically, lack of mental health services and guns being too readily accessible. But schools speaking out against gun violence can move the needle, especially when teachers tell lawmakers they don't want to be armed and students walk out in support of sensible gun safety laws. The same is true of many of the issues that plague communities and schools. Our work outside of schools certainly has an impact inside classrooms. Schools themselves are just a dichotomy of their communities, so it is crucial for schools to be a part of the machine bringing about societal change for the better.