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Difficult Dialogues on Disproportionality

Who's in your basement?

A blog is a conversation and I hope that you will join in and bring your perspectives and experiences.  I come to this conversation first as a product of public education, and second as the parent of students who attended public schools.  My public school education was in a segregated system in a large city in the North.  My classmates and I were segregated by race, and possibly by ability, but any labels were not so evident then.  We were fairly well integrated by socioeconomic status.  It may have been that the kids whose parents were black doctors and lawyers lived in a different neighborhood for K-8, but we all came together in high school.  So, disproportionality in placement, special education classification, and disciplinary actions were not that evident to me. 

On the other hand, my children were educated in a school system that had lots of diversity, both racially and economically, and lots of labels: gifted, Title I Basic Skills, talented, honors, advanced placement, regular.  These labels translated into lots of opportunities for looking at who is in each group, who is not in each group, and who’s in “the basement.”

Sometimes “the basement” is a physical place in a building.  In a keynote address at a conference on disproportionality a few years ago, renowned speaker on equity Dr. Pedro Noguera shared a story about talking to a group of teachers and school administrators about the achievement gap.  The principal approached him about a discipline challenge that his school was having.  The principal noted that some African-American male students were constantly getting into trouble when they came upstairs to their classes from their classes in the basement.  Noguera’s fairly curt solution was, “Then get them out of the basement.”  I introduced myself and asked Dr. Noguera where that school was located and, sadly, I wasn’t surprised when he named one of my children’s schools, where African-American boys were the majority of the students in the bottom floor of that four-story building.

More often, “the basement” is a place in the data – that bottom quartile in student achievement data that is coupled with high rates of disciplinary referrals, suspensions, and expulsions.  That data basement is about who’s accessing the least restrictive environments for special education students and who’s experiencing large rates of placement in segregated settings.  It’s about who is taking rigorous college prep courses including algebra by grade 8, and who isn’t due to the lack of supports and scaffolding.  The data basements include post-secondary education attainment and completion rates, unemployment rates, and incarceration rates.  We’ve heard the national data and know who is in our country’s “basement.”  Do you know who is in “the basement” in your schools, districts, and communities?

Taking it on Together is Tough

Here in the Northeast, basements tend to be musty, dusty, and damp.  We hate to go down in them and we definitely don’t invite guests.  But if we want to clear out and deal with what’s in our educational basements, we need to bring everyone together – school and district administrators, educators (not just special educators), support service providers, community leaders, and parents of students across the ability groups.  Each has to own up, accept what’s theirs, and commit to taking action to move it out.  “Never doubt that a small group of concerned and committed citizens can change the world” is an often used quote from Margaret Mead that is a core value for me.  And that’s the perspective that I bring to addressing disproportionality as a leader of a non-profit parent-led information, training, and advocacy organization – Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN) in New Jersey.

Through a cooperative agreement with the state education agency, we are working in districts to bring those key stakeholders to the table to gather, analyze, and share data that unveils some not-too-pretty information on what is and is not happening for students. It is a difficult, uncomfortable, and necessary dialogue.  For professionals, this transparency with “guests” in the room is tough.  For families and communities — especially of students who are being left behind — the sense of sadness, anger, blame, and self-examination is profound, until they are convinced that together, something can and will happen to wrestle with the systemic issues and change the trajectory.

Many excellent tools are available to start these dialogues, to help districts to make sure that the right people are in the room, and to have groups begin to coalesce around these serious issues.  In some districts, we start with overall capacity building activities to develop partnerships with parents/families and community stakeholders, and identify and discuss the needs, concerns, aspirations, and successes regarding issues that affect the education and well-being of students.  Administrators, teachers, parents, and community leaders have used the Leading by Convening resources to learn skills for a new paradigm for shared leadership, while working with the group and also for catalyzing their own constituents to support the group’s work.  We educate and support parents by being informed and contributing partners during those tough conversations that must happen if we are going to move the numbers and get rid of the basements.  To help parents increase their knowledge, skills, and confidence to actively participate in these decision-making groups, we offer training and support using the Wisconsin Family Assistance Center on Education, Training, and Support’s series of on-line modules and in-person workshops on Serving on Groups.

We help facilitate the collaboration among these voices through team-building processes that result in constructive dialogues about the data to be looked at, how that data will be analyzed, and ways to share the data with the group and with the entire community in order to build a sense of urgency.  Groups use the data to develop shared goals and a vision for the work, along with a group identity that helps everyone to stay focused each time they meet.  A plan is developed, with measures for evaluating progress, celebrating successes, and recalibrating when things don’t work out as planned.  The members of the group and their constituents work together to put the plan into action and commit to staying the course.

By creating a partnership, addressing the real challenges of disproportionality is far more possible.  Groups begin to realize the many strengths and resources that have come to the table, with shared goals of eliminating that basement data and using the physical space for learning activities for all students.  They take responsibility for solutions and action, both individually and systemically.  Because this work is not easy and requires long-term diligence to keep our students out of the basements, SPAN works to build local leadership commitment as well as parent and community capacity that will help sustain the change efforts beyond the short time that we provide direct support.

- Debra Jennings

Debra Jennings's experience as an advocate and leader includes organizing and supporting grassroots parent advocacy organizations and efforts around general and special education issues. She joined SPAN in 1997 to lead its “Parents Engaged in Public Policy Project” and now serves as its Executive Co-Director for Parent Leadership and National Projects. On several state and national advisory committees, Debra is committed to ensuring that the voices of parents/families and communities are not left out of discussions of policies and practices impacting children and families. Debra is a graduate of Northwestern University with a degree in Economics and has completed coursework in business, finance, public administration and non-profit management at the Kellogg School of Management and Seton Hall University Center for Public Service. Debra’s eclectic professional experience prior to joining SPAN in 1997 includes construction, economic development, finance and constituent affairs. Debra also served on a local school board. She is the mom and first advocate of two daughters, one of whom received special education services and the other who participated in Title I Basic Skills. Both are college graduates. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, a middle school administrator.