Community Vision for Education of Children
Bearing witness while bearing burden
By | Allan Tellis, Chief Writer, Denver
Navigating the complexities of the contemporary educational system can oftentimes leave community members with more questions than answers. In conversation with their peers, parents routinely voice concerns about whether or not the current educational system is properly equipped to prepare their child for life outside of school. There was also a deep sense of consternation about the ability of their local educational system to be flexible enough to work for every student, especially their own children, while maintaining a sense of academic rigor that propels students towards higher intellectual abilities. This idea of how the educational system should function is complicated as ever-present societal factors such as race and class infuse their way into foundational institutions, like local schools.
For many, education can, at its best, function as a reprieve from these heavy social issues. For some family and community members, however, the educational system a battleground meant to break current social stigmas and give children the tools to break primitive social constructs. The educational system, for all community members, was seemingly supposed to be purposed for much more than creating an apparatus for students to learn the prevailing academic habits of the day. The educational system provides a way to create a community focal point–it functions as a system capable of producing places for people to learn, and perhaps most importantly, provides a way to help shape the future by catering to the needs of the youth. This process, according to community members, has been stifled by the inability to create a unified vision for how those aspirations should be facilitated.
What community members encounter instead of the educational system of their dreams, is a functionally broken system which leaves multiple parties pointing fingers at each other, trying to place blame for the apparent failures of a system that appears insurmountable; much bigger than any of its particular constituent parts. When discussing the educational system in their peer groups, community members often dwell in the abstract, thinking of the esoteric meaning of education. In the meantime, their real lives are deeply affected by the way the educational system effectively functions.
Their lives become so intertwined with their relationship with the school system that they could very well “need therapy after” all is said and done.
Students and parents alike envision an educational system that doesn’t leave everyone who comes into contact with it traumatized. At a young age students learn that educational institutions are industrial complexes more concerned with policing their behavior than helping them pursue scholarship. Parents, for their part, feel they are forced to send their kids off to schools where they know it will be difficult for their children’s ingenuity to not be dulled to the point they simply become well-disciplined chair sitters.
This orientation towards policing over teaching is not subtle and it is not lost upon the children that attend urban schools. For instance, students at local school vocalized their hopes to one day attend schools that are not reminiscent of prisons. In short order they identified tangible aspects of their educational environment that elicited feelings of being incarcerated like the building’s floor plan and the emphasis on controlling behavior and time. They also hope one day their younger siblings are able to attend schools without armed police patrolling the hallways. Dealing with the material reality and aesthetic of the school is not the only way the current educational system wears on the confidence of kids and sanity of parents, but it is a major factor.
What do community members see when they look at our current educational system?
“I think it’s like a double-edged sword. As you’re fighting to make the school better for your students, your student is being left behind”
Facing the pressures of being expected to conform to the expectations of what they believe to be a rigged and highly racialized educational system can leave students and parents feeling powerless and full of despair. For instance, one parent from the Whittier neighborhood, tearfully told the story of being called by her son’s school, and informed that her son had attempted suicide. “I got the call. He tried to hang himself because of the bullying,” she said. “There are other children feeling the same way, feeling either they’re too dumb or they can’t understand this. These children need to be recognized.”
While she was the only parent who shared this story, there was a widely shared knowing about receiving dreaded calls such as these. The level of fear, and vulnerability this mother displayed was a sentiment shared by many parents who also worried about the fate of children that are different. Due to her son’s atypical learning style, he felt clumsy in the educational system, unable fit in with his classmates. She further unpacked her son’s disposition, noting that he felt like a “failure” because he was unable to meet the prescribed cognitive tasks for his peer group.
Not acknowledging the struggles of these students is not a salient solution for educational systems as they look to improve. In fact, high school students reflected at length about how a significant number of their peers had disappeared from their educational environment. Many of their classmates were dropping out and perhaps more importantly, these students were more concerned with the notion that no one seemed to bat an eye as students rejected formal schooling altogether. Community members were perplexed when trying to bridge the gap between the intentions people have for the educational system as far as supporting students, with the reality of many students feeling like “just a number,” as one student phrased it. Not only were parents concerned about their children being properly supported; many parents, especially parents of color, expressed deeply rooted concerns about their children being belittled at school.
Parents take hard their children’s experiences with having their identities harmed by their teachers: telling them “they would never become anything”, or using coded language to shame students like labeling them “hooligans.” However, combatting this inappropriate behavior has been tricky for some parents. As one mother noted, she experienced textbook gaslighting while confronting an educator about the way the teacher treated her daughter. Preparing for this discussion with her daughter’s teacher was difficult, but it seemed to this mother to be right, to be necessary. Her daughter’s teacher, as she recalls, avoided any responsibility for using derogatory, racial language when engaging with her daughter.
Eventually, during the confrontation, the teacher began to sob. In justifying her tears, the teacher asserted that engaging in this type of conversation was causing her an overwhelming amount of stress. Throughout the conversations, several parents echoed similar thoughts, noting that there seems to be an impermeable barricade keeping them from having a strong determinant presence in their children’s schools. One father summed much of these sentiments with a call for action. He suggested that school systems must fundamentally turn over and embrace a bottom up approach. By doing so, he believes parents won’t feel as though they are outsiders watching the effects of the policies implemented by disconnected administrators at their children’s’ schools.
Rather, in this model, he hopes parents become the policy shapers, constructing the vision for the future of the school. Empowering and including parents may work to relieve some of the tension between them and school faculty as interactions between groups may then have lower stakes; in this way, the vision for the school would include parents’ concerns for a welcoming and supportive environment that sees children for who they are.
How can educational institutions adapt to meet the changing needs of urban communities?
“I always get this image of the day every kid comes into kindergarten someone is holding that kid in the air and the whole community is around them.”
Community members clearly stated their desire was to construct an educational system that allows children to learn dynamically, and facilitates their children developing the skills that will make them competitive/competent in the contemporary economy and social world. While the details of this aspiration were articulated in a wide array of pragmatic steps, it is clear that education cannot simply focus on students memorizing information in circumstances that don’t resemble the dynamism of real life. For one particular third grader, a better education includes schooling that exposes him to “real life situations” and helps students “learn what is around them.” This student wants to learn how to navigate the bus system for example, or learn how to navigate his neighborhood’s streets easily. Topics like these are not are not available for this third grader at the moment, and students and parents alike found this gap to be a shortcoming in the city’s educational practices.
Many parents vocalized their concern that the educational system has become so focused on standardized tests that a fixation on what is being learned has displaced what they believe to be an essential function of education, which is “teaching students how to learn.” Not only is this focus on test results not representative of the way students will be assessed after their days of formal education, but the emphasis on content focused education using standardized metrics to understand students reduces administrators’ ability to determine how students are developing in their academic performance according to parents. Beyond the lack of transference of testing metrics to the real world, there was a pervasive sense amongst the discussion groups that hyper-structured educational settings create faux social circumstances that do not equip students to learn how to operate in less structured social settings.
Community members envisioned creating an educational setting that reflects a more open and inclusive view of education. In their ideal education environment, through schooling students would acquire skills that cannot be standardized and published in a textbook. One father asserted that his experience studying abroad was foundational in shaping his educational experience and believes education should include an emphasis on exposing students to fundamentally different world views. Other parents noted that teachers are restricted in that they only teach from the worldview they are most familiar with. To remedy this parents suggested that diversifying the teaching force would give students a chance to create a dynamic similar to experiencing different world views. For instance, one father, who is an African immigrant, noted several observations his son made to him about his experience in the schools. “From a kid’s perspective, he says, ‘I don’t see a lot of diversity from teachers so it would be nice if I could go to a class that I could be part of that teacher experience.’”
It was strongly suggested by parents that institutions beyond the traditional school must be incorporated when mapping out the future of education. In order for children to experience the robust opportunities that learning outside of school can provide, parents need to feel assured that these other institutions are held to palatable standards. Parents no longer consider traditional school settings the only places education takes place, and as a society we must do more to enhance the ability of other institutions where children learn to be able to educate properly. Although an overreliance on metrics produced from the standardization of education was rebuked during the discussions, there was a sense that adding standards to major hubs of youth learning like YMCA‘s and other similarly educationally-focused programs may enhance the ability for children to become educated citizens.
How do community aspirations for education square with our with our current racial landscape?
“We need in Colorado more black teachers, so our kids can identify with them. It’s hard for a white male teacher to identify with my son; they don’t understand him.”
While education should serve to give all children access to similar opportunities, the social and political dynamics that reflect inequitable conditions in the world outside of schools inevitably shapes our educational institutions. Students do not exist in a vacuum and are undeniably aware of how socio-economic trends like white flight and gentrification shape their educational settings and, moreover, their communities.
“You don’t understand since you’re here it’s going to start a snowball effect; there’s going to be more white people coming and that’s when we’re going to get pushed out to another community,” said a student to his peers. His classmate responded to his frustration noting that her family had bounced around the city’s neighborhoods moving continually east in order to obtain affordable housing. She noted that increases in accompanying changes to the cultural makeup of the city’s neighborhoods stirred tension about the collateral costs of such rapid change. This sense of disconnect was only amplified by interactions with teachers who misread the consequences of these demographic shifts. Or rather as the student put it, “I feel like we need more teachers that, that like connect with you, [because] honestly I have them savior teachers back in Montbello.”
Parents are all too aware of how race and class intersect to fundamentally shape how one child will experience their formal education versus another child with a different background. One white parent, in a display of vulnerability and self-awareness, noted his difficulty in making sense of the fact his child’s formal education will likely be positive as he believes our educational systems are essentially rigged to affirm the capabilities of affluent white students. Race and class are such powerful and intersecting social markers that it was difficult for participants to envision an educational environment that mitigates their effects on how children are educated. Parents, especially the parents from more diverse neighborhoods, became extremely imaginative about what it would look like if educational settings were to experience radically different circumstances in which every student had access to the same resources. Similarly, parents longed for an educational environment where the biases that are so pervasive in society are not reinforced by educators.
The political dynamic education is entrenched in also hinders educational institutions from reflecting the vision of community members. Locally in Denver, parents have become concerned about the way Denver’s school board has functioned over the years. This concern caused participants to accuse the school board of being corrupt, elaborating that board members use the opportunity as a political stepping stone as they climb towards higher offices.
Discerning the landscape
Denver’s demographics have seen quite a bit of change over the last several years and these shifts have placed a spotlight on the city’s racial dynamics. Students, parents and educators noted that there can be barriers created between educator and student when cultural
competence is not displayed by those regularly interacting with students and parents power. This dynamic becomes even more apparent as teachers, many of whom are young and white, are ushered into a “spicy community” for which they don’t have much previous personal experience. In fact, in many communities throughout Denver and Aurora white residents are not the majority and, in some cases, there is a majority of none. The students in far northeast Denver are concerned that this disconnect creates an environment where they feel disconnected from their teachers. These students stated that they feel, in large part, that their relationship with their instructors is based on their ability to communicate with these adults, and in their experience, a lack of cultural competence often leads to a lack of understanding.
Parents with students in the far northeast area also noted that it is pivotal that students are able to interact in institutions where people of color, namely black people, exist in every strata of the institutional hierarchy. These parents believe that students can be put at ease when they know that their relationship with educators is not tainted by racial dynamics rooted in white supremacy. Furthermore, it was asserted that educators can only use their particular worldview as a frame of reference to teach and interact. Due to this, community members feel that good educational systems actively pursue diversity amongst their instructors.
Some parents did caution such immediate and harsh criticism of instructors noting that the conditions they are working under do not make such competence easy to display or develop, especially when combined with the principle demands of teaching. One mother for instance pointed out, “it has been [her] experience that the teachers can’t really teach because they have to wear several hats. This child has ADHD; this child doesn’t have a father at home; this child doesn’t have a mother at home.” Other parents agreed that teachers are put in a difficult predicament if they already do not have a reference point for students’ struggles and are asked to teach while simultaneously navigating a complex social and professional environment.
These cultural disconnects between community and educators can have consequences that reach beyond an uncomfortable conversation or two. Parents say they have experienced situations where these types of cultural disconnects can lead to inappropriate labels of students which can serve to further stigmatize already marginalized students. These labels, whether they be that a young lady is “sassy” or that a young man is “insubordinate”, can come with long lasting consequences, especially for students of color.
Parents, students and educators envisioned an educational system that doesn’t fear the stakeholders of the local community being the driving force behind schools. Parents in the most urban densely populated parts of Denver noted that there appears to be a fear from educational leadership to foster an environment in which parents are truly empowered. The perceived fears of parents, in this case, was noted as a major cause of distrust between the community and their educational system. Community members noted that without the development of an organic relationship between educational systems, community members can begin to feel as though the educational system is simply “imposing on the community” as opposed to integrating itself the community. On that same accord, parents and students felt that having a robust relationship between parents and educators would lead to a more fulfilling experience for the neighborhood, the students, the educator, and the parents.
However, establishing this robust, symbiotic relationship between communities and schools comes with nuanced problems. In far northeast Denver, where the Hispanic population has been steadily growing over the years, students noted that cultural barriers can keep their parents from feeling comfortable interacting with educational institutions.
Closer to the heart of the city, in the Park Hill neighborhood, parents encouraged each other to be aggressive in taking control of the school, suggesting that parents should demand to see what they want to come to fruition in educational institutions and afterwards, that they should not feel bad about their tone.
Parents envisioned a future in which the often hidden structural apparatuses that make the educational system function are open and accessible to them. For instance, they compared the way the Cherry Creek School District handles financial practices and policies to the way the Aurora Public Schools district showcases financials as an example of how education in urban cores is taken out of the hands of parents. They praised the transparency of the former while accusing the latter of shrouding such information deep inside the district’s bureaucracy in hopes that parents would not concern themselves with that level of involvement in the district.
Participants envisioned an educational system that was nimble and flexible enough to adapt to the needs of its most unique students. Currently, with packed classrooms, overtaxed teachers, and overwhelmed administrators, it can become impossible for students to get their specific
One parent didn’t want to place the blame at the feet of the teachers but believes there were simply “too many students in the classroom for her daughter to be noticed.”
Other parents lamented the added stress students can experience at an early age when they are funneled into one-size-fits-all programs that they may not be ready for. One mother noted that this was the case for her daughter who was struggling with life skills and academics as early as the first grade. The rapid pace at which the educational system tries to make sense of these unique students leaves little room for nuance or adaptability. This can, as parents suggested, lead to children being prematurely labeled, but not being diagnosed properly, and then consequently developing a sense of inferiority because they are not able to do the tasks they’ve been prescribed.
The current educational system is ill-equipped to handle the baggage accompanying students from outside of the institution. Many institutions don’t foster an environment that privileges “social-emotional learning” over preparing students to take standardized tests, at least in the eyes of several parents and students. This orientation towards creating good test takers can make instructors appear unsympathetic to the needs of unique students. Parents from all areas of the city registered complaints that they had to fight to have their children’s known needs implemented by their respective schools. Many students become shy, and feel unable to speak up for themselves when interacting with a teacher who seems uninterested in altering their curriculum to work in conjunction with the specific needs of a non-traditional student.
While innovation and change were traits favored by participants, they did not want such novelty to come at the expense of maintaining the historical legacy of the educational institutions in their communities. Especially in the neighborhoods of Montbello and Park Hill, educational institutions have served as more than just buildings purposed for academic study; they have also functioned as symbols of pride for the successful legacies of their respective communities. Students focused on the advantages of being connected to an institution that has tradition beyond their current student enrollment. Without this connection students suggested they often feel like a number being processed from the beginning of their academic careers until they graduate.
Furthermore, they felt cheated out of an experience that many of their older community members had before strategies like co-location, charter schools and innovation schools ruled the educational scene.
Some argued these tactics led to the erasure of legacy and eventually drives a wedge between the educational institution and the community. Others however, noted that changes in the modern educational landscape have not made an organic relationship between community members and local schools possible. While walking through the difficulties of connecting educational institutions and community members one father noted that “probably nobody on your block goes to the same schools that your kids go to; everybody feels like, ‘I’m going to do what’s right for my kid and school choice plays a role in that.’” According to this parent and several others the disillusionment of a unified community goal makes it increasingly difficult to define what direction the community wants the local educational institutions to head in.
A Park Hill grandmother, who has been extremely active in both the neighborhood’s schools and churches since 1963, is deeply concerned about the disconnect that is growing between that neighborhood and its educationally-focused institutions. Parents praised the work of educators who work to establish themselves in the community, as is the case for the current principal of one of the neighborhood’s oldest schools, Stedman Elementary.
Widening education’s narrow focus
“One of the things I’ve been imagining and working on creating is this idea that learning happens any and everywhere, so that school itself is not defined by a four-walled building that children have to go to every single day in the same way.”
The idea of moving education beyond the solely academic extends into reimagining the way education prepares students for life outside of the formal school setting. Parents and students expressed that there has been a pervasive notion in our educational institutions that in order to achieve success in the future, students must excel early in their academic career to later attend college. However, parents and students alike believe being asked to choose between attending an elite university or living an unfulfilling life is a false choice. This perceived binary not only puts pressure on students to prematurely know what they want to accomplish in life; it also creates anxiety in students who are not thriving academically to resign themselves to the notion that their prospects for the future are limited.
Parents feel that it is important for their children to be aware that their education can take many different forms including learning a trade.
Some students go their entire formal academic careers without being presented any post high school options that do not include a four year degree. While parents did assert that college should be normalized and not presented as an option for only well-off and gifted students, there was a strong sense of concern that students are not being shown a full display of options.
On the student side of things, this reductive slate of choices undermines trust in the educational system, as they know they’re not being told the whole truth. Several parents expressed concern that this setup allows “middle of the pack students to check out” early in their academic careers and thus fall through the cracks.
Envisioning a more perfect educational future was a difficult task for students, parents and educators. Most of the conversations involved addressing the negative–the current limitations of our educational systems–and then assuming that the opposite would in fact be positive. While this “other option” approach is not likely to produce the educational panacea many hope for, it is an interesting starting place.
Through the dialogues of individuals that represent several communities it did become clear that the current state of affairs is not adequate for everyone involved. It is fraught with complex social and political dynamics which can produce competing remedies. Currently, parents often feel disempowered, students feel lost and neglected and educators feel overwhelmed. However, participants maintained a sense of optimism, hoping things can, and should get better. Several parents shared stories of improvement, when things did in fact get better, treating those moments as exceptions to a more dominant narrative.
Allan Tellis is a journalist who is dedicated to uplifting voices in underrepresented communities in ways that give these voices their full depth. Allan has written for a variety of publications over the last seven years but has most prolifically written about marginalized communities in the city of Denver.