Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Building a Community of Learners and Educators

I am still recuperating from an enjoyable, hopefully fruitful WABSE (Washington Alliance of Black School Educators) conference. There were approximately 200 adults and 75 students in attendance over the course of three days of workshops. Attendees heard presentations about the African American Achievement Gap Final Report, they had opportunities to begin to develop an action plan for their schools and districts, and they heard from specialists in African American culture as it applies to education. Attendees came from across our state – there were teachers from Pasco and Everett, Olympia and Seattle. Attendees were African American, Caucasian, Asian and Hispanic. Although WABSE draws a predominantly African American crowd, the goal of the organization is to support any educator, parent or community member who works with African American children.

Even as one of the organizers of the event, there were many things I learned, the most important being that many people in our communities have pieces of the answer to the achievement gap. Our greatest issue is that the answers lie in outlying communities. Our answers are held in the minds and hands and hearts of many across our state. The pieces of the puzzle do exist, but there has been up until now no way to bring those pieces of the puzzle together in one place. There has been no clearinghouse for that information. Joe has not been talking to Susan who has not been talking to James who has not been talking to Ronnie. We are each fighting this problem we call “the achievement gap”, each with his or her own piece, each missing necessary pieces held in the hands of another maybe only minutes down the I-5 corridor or across the Snoqualmie Pass.

In this time of increased technology, we are still not communicating effectively. We continue to try to re-invent the wheel. We continue to make attempts to eliminate the achievement gap with merely SOME and not ALL of the tools necessary. I am not sure yet how to tackle this problem, but I am going to do my best to try to use our website to gather all these expert voices from our community in one place. If you are one of those people who has an answer, who has figured out how to gather our parents of color, who has figured out how to draw our men of color into the hallways and classrooms of our schools, who has found a way to interest students of color in mathematics and science, I am pleading with you to send me your answers, send me your research, send me stories of your experiences. I am not promising that all of it will end up on our website or that it will remain in the form in which it was sent, but I do want to ask you to share with us. I am asking you to join me in this journey to build a bridge, to build a community of learners and educators.

This request is not limited to those who attended the WABSE conference. If you are someone who didn’t know about the event or who couldn’t find the resources to attend, but you believe you have a piece of the puzzle, please contact me via e-mail (erin.jones@k12.wa.us). You, too, are invited to share in this process. I am not just looking for the answers to the achievement gap for African American students. I am looking for answers to the gap for our Native American students and our Cambodian students, our African immigrants and our Samoan students, our Latino students and our Eastern European immigrants. We would like to create a section on our website that is dedicated to best practices for all of our communities who are “in the gap.” We cannot do this alone. You cannot do this alone. We need one another. Please join us in this endeavor.

Teachers having a voice. Who is representing our students?

As always, life is a little crazy between running the office, doing presentations and advocating for parent involvement and our students of color on Capitol Hill. I think I have been invited to be on every board known to mankind. Well, not every board, but it feels like it…

Being in the classroom, it’s easy to become insulated, to feel like you are on an island, doing so much on your own. Am I the only one doing this? Is there someone with whom I can partner to some extent? Although I don’t enjoy board meetings, there is something about getting a number of different kinds of folks around the table from different industries with different backgrounds talking about the same issues. Suddenly it is apparent that you are not alone. There are other people out there with the same goals. We just didn’t know about one another.

Somehow we need to figure out a way to gather like-minded educators in a regular organized way to allow them to share ideas, to commiserate, to dream. This process should not be afforded merely to those who have left the classroom and now have “time” to chat. The conversations I was involved in today should have been happening with actual teachers around the table, people who are experiencing the challenges of trying to deliver curriculum while developing relationships with students struggling to find themselves in a complex world.

I know I realized this months ago, but something about today’s meeting struck me distinctly – so many of the decisions being made in our state (and likely around the nation) are happening in rooms full of middle-aged white men and women. I am not saying that these people do not know what they are talking about or that they should not be part of the conversation, but I am becoming more and more convinced that if our system is going to bring the changes we really need, the tables at board meetings MUST represent not only the diversity of the students being served by our system, but also with a diversity of perspective, which can only come by having young, middle-aged and experienced educators of all ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds at the table at once.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Students teach others about American Indian culture

Middle-schoolers in program create lesson plans on children's books

LACEY – Students in Nisqually Middle School's Native Culture class were surprised at how attentive first- and second-graders can be when listening to a book being read.

Read the story

Thursday, February 19, 2009

We can make real, lasting change!

Hello, again! I spent President’s Day with many of you at African American Legislative Day! I have only attended one other such event, and this was long before I worked in Olympia and knew any of the “players,” so-to-speak. I am just realizing now that I met Rosalund Jenkins almost 3 years ago at that event, just before making the decision with my husband to move to Spokane, far removed from anything political. Such memories…

The last time I attended the event, all of the festivities took place in the Rotunda. There were hundreds of students and parents and community members. Every African American person involved in any branch of the government had some opportunity to speak or to be seen. I was impressed, actually, by the numbers of brown people who worked for our state government, especially in a predominantly Caucasian state. I was impressed by the sheer numbers of people who showed up for the event.

Living and working in this area gives me a very different perspective on “all things governmental.” As a staff person for the African American Achievement Gap Study, I have developed new relationships with African American people up and down the west side of the state, as well as African Americans from Spokane. However, the more powerful aspect of the day was the number of non-African Americans who chose to take time out of their busy schedules on a national holiday to participate in the events. I believe this expression of compassion for others is what our state will require to eliminate the achievement gap for all students. Although I am African American and have a particular passion for my children and those who look like me, my greatest passion as a teacher and a Washingtonian is to see ALL of our students find success in life, not only as students but as they enter adulthood and pursue careers and family life.

Going into the day, I was very aware that the Center for the Improvement of Student Learning was on the chopping block in at least one bill. I wanted to be sure the African American community was aware of what we had to offer, so as individuals went to visit their legislators, they could speak favorably on our behalf. I was in my office at 8:30 or so grabbing flyers and extra business cards. I was hoping to touch base with Superintendent Dorn to double-check our meeting times for the afternoon (I had been asked to introduce him in two different meetings). By 9:30 I was at the Washington Center for the Performing Arts where the majority of the day’s events would take place. I wasn’t sure how many people I would see. Roz had mentioned that this year the focus would be different – not celebration but education on how to engage in political process.

I had the opportunity behind stage to meet community members from Vancouver all the way to north of Seattle. I made a five minute presentation on the final report for the African American Achievement Gap Study and left people with a challenge to take ultimate responsibility for our children and not to leave the responsibility to the Legislature or to OSPI. It was encouraging to see so many people in the audience that I had worked with in the past from Tacoma Public Schools and Spokane Public Schools and, more recently, from Puyallup and Seattle Public Schools. It was exciting to see students and teachers, fathers and mothers, grandparents and interested community members – all present to engage in making a positive impact on our state.

As is the case for my life, I had to run from that presentation to my car to the Hill where I would meet Superintendent Dorn to bring him to the Washington Christian Leaders Coalition meeting. My intentions were to introduce the superintendent, although I had received a text message from a pastor friend of mine, Pastor Carl Livingston from Seattle, who had arranged to put the needs of the CISL office on their agenda. In the event that I would have the opportunity, I had made 40 flyers, picked up 30 information cards and 30 business cards to pass out to those who were interested in participating in the work of CISL in the future.

Pastor Livingston ended up being the facilitator of the meeting when we arrived and gave both Superintendent Dorn and I a wonderful introduction before giving him the floor for his 20 minute arranged speech. My job was to make sure he got out of the building in 20 minutes so he would not be late to his next meeting. When the time came, the group did not want to let him go. It seemed that everyone still had questions. Mr. Dorn was still a stranger to them. They wanted to know who he was, to understand how he was going to represent the needs of African American children. Finally, I had to insist that he leave the room, and the new moderator asked if I would be available to remain to respond to questions and then take some time to share about CISL.

I had come with flyers and hand-outs and business cards, but I had not expected to be given the floor for more than 45 minutes. What an honor! I had expected to merely share for a couple of minutes, but this group of pastors gave me the opportunity to share in detail about the services CISL could provide, to make connections with those who were already doing amazing work in the African American community and to celebrate that work as a group. Some people were skeptical that CISL or anyone could really make a difference. Some believed that the teachers and administrators and systems that truly needed change would be unwilling to receive any help. Many others were just excited that there existed an agency within OSPI that could provide free training for parents and for educators. Others were suddenly full of ideas about how CISL could help facilitate conversations in church meetings and amongst community organizations to improve the educational experiences of the African American students in Washington State.

What a wonderful, unexpected opportunity! Although I will be sending a personal thank you letter to the Washington Christian Leaders Coalition for the chance to address this group of local leaders, I want to publicly thank Pastor Livingston and the rest of the leadership team of WCLC for this opportunity. We received word today that as of the most recent decisions, CISL will remain in operation. We have to work together as a community. The African American Legislative Day was a great example of community. We cannot expect others to help us before we help ourselves.

Thank you to everyone who attended this event! Thank you to the Commission on African American Affairs for organizing the special events. Thank you to WCLC. Thank you to Tabor 100. Thank you to anyone who may not have attended any of the special events but who met with legislators. Whether you are White or Black, Latino or Native American, Asian or Pacific Islander, the greatest lesson to be learned by this experience is that when we come together as communities, whether ethnic communities or neighborhoods, we can make real, lasting change. The other lesson is that we all must engage in the political process and take special interest in the issues that impact us and those about whom we care.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Parent Engagement that Best Serves your Community

In the last week I have presented in 4 different cities…at staff meetings, school improvement meetings, and a district-wide parent engagement meeting. Everywhere I go, educators are clamoring for help. Teachers and administrators know they need to get parents engaged in schools, but they’re not really sure how to do it. I would love to say that I have all the answers, but I really don’t. I, like you, have many questions still. How do we develop thriving PTA’s? How do we meet the needs of our students whose families are in economic crisis? How do we find funding to provide the necessary resources for all of our families… and even our schools?

There are no easy answers to these questions, no silver bullets. I wish I could leave every presentation knowing that I have left families and educators with every answer to every question, with the ability to create a successful situation for every child tomorrow, but I am not superwoman (although I would love to be), nor am I God. What I do know is that most of these answers reside within the members of a community. What I can bring is a new perspective about who should be around the table at school improvement meetings and PTA meetings. I may not have the answers, but I believe I can bring the right questions, which will hopefully lead a community to find the answers that will best serve that community.

Although it would be much easier to have one clear answer, I think there is great danger in the cookie-cutter mentality - that there is one way to engage parents, one way to engage students of color in their learning, one way to develop family-community-school partnerships. I am hoping with CISL that we can provide you with such a variety of best practices that as we facilitate conversations with your educators, your families, your community leaders, you will learn about those practices that best match the needs of your environment.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Thoughts on Cultural Competency

Hello, Everyone! I know it’s been a while since I last wrote in this blog. Sorry, sorry, sorry! It’s been a crazy couple of months wrapping up the African American Achievement Gap Study. We now have a Final Report that you can access from our website. As a matter of fact, I asked the other commissions if they would allow us to post all of the final reports on our website so people who were interested could go to one place to gather information.

Today I want to write to you about the process post-Final Report. As some of you know, I have been doing presentations on eliminating the achievement gap since I came on board at CISL. I have done presentations at conferences, in staff meetings and in individual classrooms. I plan to continue with these presentations, so please invite me or Sally Brownfield (our other facilitator) to visit you. We can share data as well as strategies that may be helpful as you consider the diverse populations you serve every day. I would also be more than happy to present this information to parent groups. Parents are often left out of the data loop and don’t realize how critical this information is for the success of their own children.

Just this week, in honor of Dr. King, the five different achievement gap study groups were invited to make two separate presentations to the Senate Education Committee and the House Education Committee. As a newbie to the Hill, I was a little nervous. What would I have to say to these important people? Then I remembered, when it comes to educating our students of color, I am really the expert. I went into our first presentation with confidence, excited to share our findings with this committee. Unfortunately, the experience served to remind all of us why we are even involved in this work…

At the end of our presentation, one of the members of the committee asked the powerful question – What is “cultural competence”? There may be many of you out there who have heard this term thrown around on occasion and who may also have the same question. The question itself was not a problem. My colleague shared the theoretical definition – cultural competence is the ability to communicate and interact effectively with members of different cultures (particularly those to which you do not belong). Again, the problem was not the question. The problem came with the attachment I made to the definition. I decided we talk too often about the theoretical. I wanted each member of the committee to understand a practical application of cultural competence, and so I added a description of a situation in which cultural competency is required. For example, when disciplining an African American child, one should not take a step into that boy’s personal space and proceed to raise one’s voice. This will be perceived as a challenge to the young man who will likely respond in a negative way and further disengage from the work that is happening in the classroom.

Before I could completely finish my thought, this member interrupted me to submit that this was not what she was thinking. She was convinced that cultural competence should relate more to understanding the cultural challenges that occur when a student moves from another country where people have no toilets… I was dumbfounded and chose to mention that I was raised as an African American in a white home (I was adopted), whereas my husband and most of my students were raised in an urban, predominantly African American community. I saw very distinct cultural differences between us and had to learn to adapt in order to communicate effectively. Before I could finish, this person interrupted me and began to suggest that these differences were not in fact things that teachers should learn about. She said teachers already had too much to worry about and should not have to also worry about these minor distinctions. She even suggested that students who were born and raised here really weren’t so different that trainings on these cultural differences would even be necessary.

I mention this interaction to you because of the response of all the other members of the study groups. As I sat through the rest of the presentation (our heated interaction was eventually cut off by the committee chair), I was shaking inside. I was worried that I had said the wrong thing, although I had not raised my voice and had remained very respectful. I was worried that I had sounded stupid, although I really believed everything I had spoken out loud. Every word I had spoken was based on 15 years of experience in the classroom. As I turned around to return to my seat after the presentation, most of the members of the other groups shook my hand. Some even said “thank-you.” In the face of my insecurity, the other presenters were so excited that I had made a stand for the heart of the reason we were even involved in these studies and making these presentations. Many of them stopped me after all the presentations were over to say they really appreciated my willingness to speak out in the face of such important figures.

If the answer to the achievement gap issue was merely in helping people learn to be better math teachers or better English teachers… However, the issue is not in teachers’ abilities to do a better job of teaching content. The bigger concern is that too many teachers do not know how to communicate with the children and families with whom they interact each day. I would even suggest that most teachers have a desire to do a better job in this area. They are just not sure where to go to learn how to do a better job.

After hours of thinking about this unfortunate incident, I have come to the conclusion that this very conversation may be the most important one we can have as we go forward in making efforts to eliminate the achievement gap. This weekend many of us will gather from every ethnic group. I plan to ask each group to give me the 5 – 10 most critical elements of culture that they would like me to communicate with teachers as I go into schools to help educators through this process. If there is anything you would like to share from your culture and experience, please feel free to do so via our e-mail (cisl@k12.wa.us). I would love to add your voices to ours.

When all is said and done, what happened that one day with that one individual is not the big deal. The big deal is that there are still far too many educators who believe as this person does and who need to understand the damage we are doing to our students when we don’t communicate effectively with each one. Is this a difficult charge? Yes! As a former teacher who spent most of my career in very diverse communities nothing like the one in which I grew up, I am aware of the challenges of developing an effective bank of strategies. However, I like many of you, believe that the education of all of our students is so critical to the future of our communities, our state, our nation that it’s worth doing the work required to become knowledgeable about what really works. Please join me in making our schools a better place for all students!

Friday, December 5, 2008

HB2722 African-American Achievement Gap Study

I’m back after a long season of being out of the office in Baltimore, Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma… everywhere but home. I wanted to take this opportunity to share with you some of the important work CISL has been doing lately.

Some of you may have attended one of the town hall meetings associated with the House Bill 2722, the African-American Achievement Gap Study. We held town hall meetings in Seattle, Spokane and Tacoma over the course of the past 2 weeks, hoping to hear from educators, parents, students and community members about their experiences with education. The town hall presentations offered our state’s data around African-American student success in math and reading, as well as data related to the importance of teacher quality, student supports, leadership and family/community involvement.

Following the presentations, all participants had the opportunity to share in small groups around the four goals the committee has developed: (1) Providing quality early learning opportunities for all African-American children; (2) Making sure the teachers teaching African-American students are of the highest quality; (3) Making sure all African-American students graduate on time, ready for college and career opportunities, and (4) Assuring that all African-American students enter post-secondary institutions without the need for remediation. These conversations were rich and provided the committee with wonderful feedback that will inform the final plan.

More than anything, I think the town hall meetings were most powerful in that they provided opportunities for those who do not usually have a voice to share their own experiences. Giving people a voice empowers them to believe they are important, that what they say and do matters. As an African-American mother, educator and community member, I was so proud to be a part of these events, to be able to see other mothers and children talk about education publically, many for the first time.

As we closed out these meetings, I stood in front of each group and exhorted them to not wait for the Legislature or school districts to mandate change, to begin to take action in their own homes, in their own schools, in their own communities. I don’t know that parents realize the immense power of their decisions. As most of the research will support, parent involvement is critical to the success of all students, Black, White, Latino, Asian or Native American. Parents do not need to wait for this bill to go to the Legislature. They can begin to take time to find quiet places for their children to do homework. They can set aside time each day for the family to stop everything and read. Parents can take time to talk with their children about what goes on at school each day.

Being a parent is not easy. I have three of my own children, and each is as different as possible from the other. What works with my youngest does not work with my oldest. The teachers my daughter has operate much differently from the teachers my oldest son has, and they are in the same school. I guess I have decided we need to take one step at a time. Make a determination to try one new thing that you are not doing right now. Don’t try to do it all. There is a document on our website that provides some suggestions about how to get involved with your kids in ways that will help them be successful. Pick one thing on that sheet and try it for a month or two until you feel confident. Then try something else.

You are the master of your own destiny. Schools are not perfect places. There is much that still has to be changed so all schools are serving all kids well, but all we have control over is what happens in our homes with our children. Let’s make every moment count!
Erin Jones, Director
Center for the Improvement of Student Learning