Monthly Archives: June 2017

Schools Respond to Threats

First of all, a superintendent isn’t making a decision like this on his or her own, especially in large cities, where the school system is embedded in many other systems that are servicing kids and families. You make decisions about closing schools, in normal circumstances, with city hall, with the police and transportation department — as part of a team that is thinking about how the city functions. You’re changing the entire flow of what’s happening in a city on a given day.  A terrorist threat is not a normal circumstance, which makes it more imperative that you work as part of a team that is thinking about the entire city.

But the decision should be part of the same protocol that helps shape more ordinary decisions around closing schools. In every year, in every school system, you’re going to have to make a set of calls around closing or opening schools where you could be right or you could be wrong. Most of the time you’re going to have 50 percent of the people happy and the other 50 percent of the people unhappy. Whether it’s snow, water main breaks, Halloween pranks — no matter what you do, you’re going to have a sector of the community that thinks that you acted in the wrong way, because it impacted their lives in a negative sense. Here, the stakes are incredibly higher. If the protocols are off, then you compound what is already fraught and extraordinary.

What factors do you weigh when you make these decisions?

The safety of children always comes first. But because there are no guarantees, you are also weighing families and home care, you’re weighing children who are eligible for free and reduced meals and their access to food, you’re weighing issues with teachers and their travel and their ability to get to school and deal with their own family responsibilities in an emergency.

So there are going to be dilemmas. Normally, you have a bias toward keeping schools open and keeping kids in schools. That should be the default. Kids generally are safest at school. On the other hand, there are going to be some circumstances where that’s not true.

In every circumstance, you are going to go with your judgment — that it’s a hoax or it’s a prank or you’re only going to get three inches of snow instead of 12. Sometimes you’re going to be wrong. But I would always rather be wrong in a way that protects the safety of the children. The challenge, of course, is that you have a lot of parents and a lot of children who are counting on schools being open.

The type of decision facing Los Angeles and New York and other districts in recent days seems unique and new because of the threat of political, mass violence — and because it’s happening in a climate that is highly sensitized to that threat of violence. That makes it even more imperative that you’re making decisions in the context of a team of people who are making the best judgment at a specific point in time, with a specific set of facts, bringing expertise that you and your staff might not have.

Some have criticized the LA schools for the decision to close. What’s your perspective?

Without having specific information or being part of those decisions, I think it’s irresponsible to criticize someone for choosing to close schools. Of course, you need to have the real-world understanding that you’re always going to be making these decisions, and you can’t close schools every day of the year because people are saying terrible things are going to happen. You would be surprised how often districts have to make judgments about safety, even if not to this degree of risk.

As a superintendent, you have to know that this is the kind of call where you’ll have a lot of backseat driving. People are always going to be responding to what you do after the fact. Hopefully, as in this case in Los Angeles, they are going to be responding when nothing has happened.

You’d rather take the hit and say, as I think Ramon Cortines did in Los Angeles, “I made the call to the best of my abilities, and as always, I’m accountable.” And if you’ve done your job in advance with the community and your partners, you’re going to have plenty of people who are going to be there with you saying, “The superintendent made the right decision.”

the Good Student

The world needs young adults who are ethically aware, connected to their communities, and ready to dig into the problems threatening the common good. But today’s college admissions process, which can consume teenagers and dictate what they do and value, instead encourages a competitive focus on personal successes and accolades. Colleges admissions do endorse community service, but too often, service commitments become sidelined, trumped up, or perfunctory.

A growing consortium of key stakeholders wants to change that dynamic, joining an effort to reform the college admissions process so it prioritizes concern for others and authentic community engagement. Those goals are part of a new approach to admissions outlined in Turning the Tide, a report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common (MCC) initiative that has now been endorsed by more than 140 colleges and universities, high schools and districts, and allied organizations and scholars.

To actually change the annual rituals of college admissions is a daunting challenge, since many of us have grown accustomed to the idea that the path to the perfect school means focusing intently on personal metrics. But the report offers a roadmap of practical steps that school counselors and college admissions officers can take to reframe the process. The advice centers on one key idea: The importance of intentional messaging that colleges will place a high value on authentic community engagement and contributions to others.

FOR HIGH SCHOOL COUNSELORS

For high school counselors, already the primary coaches in the college search process, a report that elevates the value of personal commitments and authentic connection can help lead students in the right direction.

“It’s a great tool to have as a counselor, because I can point to it and say this Turning the Tide report suggests that colleges want to see that you’re engaging in authentic service,” explains Sarah Style, a guidance counselor at Newton South High School in Massachusetts. “It gives us an opportunity to say, this is what authentic service means, and this is what it doesn’t mean.”

FOR COLLEGE ADMISSIONS OFFICERS

Changing college admissions is a two-way street. Beyond the work that high schools do, colleges will have to indicate to applicants the value their institution places on community service and ethical development — and what exactly service means to them.

To do that, college admissions officers can:

  • Include explicit opportunities on applications for teenagers to write about community service engagements or significant family responsibilities. Some students won’t explain a service commitment if they aren’t given the space to do so. Applications should also give examples of what students can include in this section. Students may not understand that caring for younger siblings or working on an anti-bullying campaign counts as authentic service.
  • Look critically at how service has impacted students. Admissions officers should use these written responses to assess how service has helped students become more cognizant of their strengths and weaknesses, deepen their understanding of communities different from their own,
  • Ask recommenders to consider how students work with diverse groups.Along with asking teachers and coaches about students’ intellectual engagement, growth, and leadership,
  • Consider the messages imparted through admissions materials. At the University of Washington, for example, the school’s key value is contribution to the common good, says Phillip Ballinger, the associate vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions. “And if that’s not being perceived by families and parents, then we need to make some efforts to change that,” he says.

GETTING STARTED

the University of Washington, admissions readers have a “holistic review process” that looks at what kinds of opportunities students have had in their high school, and how they have taken advantage of those opportunities. Essay questions examine students’ day-to-day responsibilities and commitments. “If they’re already contributing to their community before college,” says Ballinger, “that’s something they’re going to want to continue doing.”

Admissions readers at the University of Rochester are looking for students with a “developmental arc,” says Jonathan Burdick, the dean of college admission and vice-provost for enrollment initiatives. And while grades are important, “we are less interested in that than we are at all the other things they still have left to do in college,” Burdick says. “We care a lot about assembling a diverse freshman class with many different perspectives, and that doesn’t always align hand in hand with higher academic achievement.”

A recent essay question at Rochester has allowed students to more directly demonstrate this path of growth. The application asked students to respond to a quotation from Frederick Douglass, who lived in Rochester, that reads, “Man’s greatness consists in his ability to do and the proper application of his power to get things done.”

Through this question, says Burdick, “The university is trying to enroll and foster independent thinkers who are positive change agents in their communities, and we want to know how they approach that ideal and do that in their own community.”

Undocumented Students

For undocumented students, close relationships with teachers and guidance counselors can make a world of difference, says education and immigration expert Roberto Gonzales. Educators can not only provide much-needed emotional support; they can also be the resource these students and their families need to stay safe and participate fully in their communities.

If a student discloses his or her status and asks for advice, you don’t have to have all the answers right away, says Gonzales, who spent 12 years chronicling the experiences of undocumented young people for his book Lives in Limbo. More important is acknowledging the student’s concerns and telling the student that you’ll figure it out together — and then talk to colleagues, visit local community centers, or find answers online. Tell the student, “I can find ways to better help you.”

SUPPORTING UNDOCUMENTED LEARNERS IN MIDDLE AND HIGH SCHOOL

Help families and children understand their rights. Schools are legally forbidden from asking about immigration status, and some students may not disclose (or may not know) their status. Districts and schools with immigrant populations should communicate proactively with all families, with messages of inclusion and to encourage DACA enrollment and renewal, as modeled by this resource from the Boston Public Schools and by a new BPS website called We Dream Together, designed for students. From early on, they should spread the message to students that everyone can aspire to go to college and pursue interests and career goals. That message should include the fact that undocumented students can legally attend college in the U.S.

 

Create a strong mentoring system. Gonzales identified a single characteristic shared by each of the high-achieving undocumented students he followed: “To the person, they could name three or four adult mentors in their lives,” he says. “These were teachers, counselors, adults within the school community who really helped forge a pathway for them.”

Look to colleges as a model for student services. At the postsecondary level, some colleges have taken the lead by creating resource centers for undocumented students, and these have been effective at providing the specific support these students need, Gonzales says. These resource centers include an identified staff person who acts as a liaison to students in navigating the bureaucracy of higher education. They also provide trainings for staff and faculty, and they convene support groups and clubs for undocumented students.

Stay aware of the challenges of adolescence. Navigating adolescence is challenging for all children, but it’s uniquely so for undocumented children, who may contend with stigma, exclusion, or self-seclusion or secrecy that families often feel compelled to impose. With DACA, “there are more supports to prevent kids from falling off,” Gonzales says. “There are new opportunities for guidance, allowing these young people and their families some breathing room — some chance to maintain their aspirations.”

Students Surviving

For students who identify as LGBTQ or are gender non-conforming, school can be a difficult, even dangerous, place. Especially in the wake of shifts in federal guidance on transgender students, educators can make a difference by openly supporting these students.

WHEN SCHOOL ISN’T SAFE

LGBTQ students can feel “isolated and alone and rejected” when peers and teachers don’t accept them, says Tracie Jones, who runs student diversity and inclusion programs at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). Children as young as kindergarten can be bullied for not fitting in with typical gender expectations. Transgender students are especially vulnerable, facing more hostility in school than peers who identify as gay or bisexual. According to a 2015 survey [PDF] by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 77 percent of transgender youth were mistreated at school (ranging from verbal harassment to prohibitions on dressing according to gender identity to physical or sexual assault); according to the Human Rights Campaign, transgender youth are twice as likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol[PDF] as straight, cisgender peers.

All of this affects learning. LGBTQ students who are harassed or excluded have lower GPAs than straight peers and are half as likely to pursue post-secondary education. “If you’re constantly in that space of fear, there’s no chance of being able to reach the content and the learning that’s going on in your classroom,” says Tina Owen-Moore, who founded the Alliance School in Milwaukee with the explicit mission of providing an environment that would support LGBTQ students.

Even coming to school can be difficult. When Owen-Moore started the Alliance School in 2005, attendance rates were at 61 percent. Many students who enrolled simply were not in the habit of coming to school because they didn’t perceive it “as a safe or welcoming place,” she says.

Vocal support from teachers and administrators can make a world of difference. Now the Alliance School has an attendance rate of 91 percent, and students are applying to college and focusing on their careers, rather than just trying to “get through” high school. “It’s so important to build a place where young people can thrive instead of just survive,” says Owen-Moore, now pursuing a doctorate at Harvard.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

  • A deeper dive into the discrimination and harassment that LGBTQ students face, from GLSEN’s 2015 National School Climate Survey
  • A comprehensive report of LGBTQ youth’s experiences and how adults can best support them, from the Human Rights Campaign
  • Resources, strategies, and background information on gender and the importance of supporting transgender students, from Welcoming Schools
  • A toolkit on allying with nonbinary youth and a fact sheet on being transgender, from Teaching ToleranceWe Want to Hear from You

Our country is polarized: How is that showing up in your school? What are you doing to protect students, confront discrimination, prevent bullying, and foster inclusion? Usable Knowledge would like to hear from you. Join us on Facebook and Twitter, using #OneAllHGSE. Send your advice and resources to uknow@gse.harvard.edu, and we’ll share as much as we can