Often, educators and education services leave parents out, expecting families to feed, clothe and shelter students but remain separate from the education process. While directors, educators and administrators are heard, parent voices are often ignored or silenced.
Bridge to Success in Waterbury, Connecticut, strives to uphold those voices, believing that family engagement is essential to educational and racial equity. When parents are engaged and listened to as active partners, students reach their full academic potential. Bridge to Success starts with both students and parents at the center of their work as co-contributors in shaping and shifting policies and programs, instead of bringing parents on board after the fact.
Despite growth in overall graduation rates in Waterbury, the achievement gaps between White, Black and Brown children persist. Demographic shifts have changed Waterbury from a predominately White working-class community to a burgeoning Latino and African-American population. Bridge to Success and its new Executive Director Althea M. Brooks recognize that policies, practices and beliefs of the community have not shifted at the rate of demographic changes, leaving behind many students and parents.
In the current divisive political climate, much of our public discourse on the issues of race and demographic changes are reduced to bitter criticism without a historical lens of the weight of racial inequity. Bridge to Success is committed to peeling back the layers of the onion of racial equity and providing a sacred space for students as well as parents to call out inequities and propose solutions.
Call out racial equity
Explicitly talking about racial inequity has been a provocative subject on the national level and even more so for Waterbury’s small local community. “When we talk about equity, we are talking about racial equity,” says Chemay Morales-James, Bridge to Success’ boost coordinator. “What was so important for me walking in the door was why this wasn’t central to all of the work? You can’t do any of this work in a community like Waterbury without equity being at the center. Equity and family/parent engagement have to be at the center and not on the periphery.”
Bridge to Success and its race equity partners support building the capacity and capability of schools to consider equity in their work. They challenge education practitioners to examine the impact of racial identity development and to recognize how children’s cultural development influences their academic performance and behavior. One partner, the Waterbury Public Schools system, has prioritized listening to voices of parents and students in the process of addressing inequities.
“Admitting that equity has to be at the center and tangibly moving forward in that direction is the biggest hurdle that systems can overcome, and now [Bridge to Success] is doing that,” Brook says. “Our Equity Matterz Think Tank and collaborative action networks [will] serve as the training and informing arm for our schools, parents and partners.”
Create a platform for parent and student voices
To move toward equity, parents, community leaders and educators should have conversations about how perceptions around race shape interactions in schools. To discuss racism and bias in public schooling, a two-day conference was recently convened with parents, students, educators and community leaders to discuss racism and bias in public schooling. It was Radical Advocates for Cross-Cultural Education (R.A.C.C.E.), My Reflection Matters and Lotus Counseling of Connecticut in partnership with the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund. Morales-James shared that many of those who convened are individuals “who for a long time have been silenced or who have felt fearful to say the truth [about inequity].” At the conference, she says, they felt a sense of relief at having a space to voice inequities experienced and witnessed in their interactions with schools.
Sessions were led with the belief that we should not “pathologize groups” by making generalized assumptions about race. Topics included mitigating high suspension rates among African-American and Latino students; employing mindfulness and yoga strategies for parents and schools as alternative options; dissecting trauma and its impact on education outcomes for Black and Brown students; and uplifting parent concerns. These types of community conversations are exactly what Brooks and Morales-James envision Bridge to Success will be participating in and leading as they continue bringing equity to the forefront of their community-based work.
Shape goals and strategies around parent and student concerns
Bridge to Success encourages communities to look beyond whole-populations results to see the story underneath. “Yes, we’ve moved the needle — graduation rates are getting better as a whole, but what do these number mean for diverse groups of students? How does that number look in comparison to Black or Latino students? The whole number is not enough to tell us if we are equitably meeting the needs of children and their parents,” Morales-James says. Although uncomfortable, the true equity work begins when onion layers are peeled back and the data underneath reveals inequities in performance among various racial groups.
Once the data is brought to light, collaborative action goals and strategies should be redefined. “Peeling the onion back on the data means our strategies and interventions will be different in our community, it will be different from group to group; then we can be clear about what our target goals are for those parents and students,” Brooks says.
The saying “a rising tide lifts all boats,” or broad interventions and strategies work for everyone, doesn’t fare in Bridge to Success’ plans for 2018. These plans start with student-level, quantitative data and qualitative data gleaned from students and parents during earlier focus groups and surveys, where they voiced concern over unwelcoming school communities and biased attitudes toward them as parents of color. Now, Bridge to Success is starting its targeted intervention and strategies with parents instead of teachers. “The heart of our work needs to center around parents and families, and we are putting them first,” Morales-James says.
Putting racial equity and parent engagement at the forefront changes the direction of an organization. Parents and students who feel the brunt of inequity the most are ready to be active participants. They’re asked to voice their concerns and are supported by a community as they navigate the Waterbury education system and advocate for their children.