These are the activities that children will always remember. These experiences shape what kind of learners our children become.

Dr. Laura Kingsley, Executive Director of Elementary Schools

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Disrupting the Narrative for Children Living in Poverty – By Dr. Wendy Katz

Social Mobility, Racial and Ethnic Bias, and Student Achievement in High Poverty Schools: During a recent Leadership Florida session, these were the sensitive topics that confronted me and others to examine our thinking and to engage with other Florida leaders in deep conversation and debate. Leadership Florida Education Program is a partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Florida Department of Education. This program, in its third year, provides 44 individuals, and the communities and constituencies they serve, with access to the very best content on K-12 education from international, national, and statewide sources. This purpose of this program is to advance K-12 outcomes in Florida and to secure Florida’s place among the top tier in the country.

Tequilla Banks was the first speaker. She co-leads The New Teacher Project (TNTP) Client Team and Partnership with school systems focusing on building thriving teams. Her message was powerful as she posted the United States map showing social mobility: When I looked at the map, I was appalled realizing that Florida was in the area in our country where children in poverty have the poorest chance of moving up. It was also curious that the same dismal outcomes were not shared in other parts of the country. Although I am extremely proud of the many efforts underway in Sarasota to impact our children suffering from intergenerational poverty such as the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level ReadingEdExploreSRQ, and Sarasota County Schools’ priority of closing the achievement gap, I have a greater understanding of the magnitude of this challenge.

Ms. Banks referenced a new study Unrealized Impact: The Case for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and encouraged us to reflect on our own racial and ethnic biases in a sensitive yet candid way.

“The process of ensuring equally-high outcomes for all and removing the predictability of success or failure that currently correlates with any social or cultural factor.”

It occurred to me that during the forty-plus years I have served in the public-school system, I can only recall two times (2000 and 2008) when I had an opportunity to deal with the topic of racial and ethnic bias and economic privilege through diversity/inclusivity training. One occasion took place at a principals’ meeting where we all lined up across the room and then were asked to respond to statements. If the statement was true for us individually, we took two steps forward; if the answer to the statement was ‘no,’ we took two steps backward. Examples of statements included if one of your parents was a professional, if you had books in your home, if one of your parents had an advanced college degree, and if you attended summer camp. By the last question, there was a distinct difference between where individuals stood in the room. What a disturbing visual reality about privilege and social mobility!

We also learned about some of the barriers to interrupting social mobility challenges: teacher certification, fear about discussing equity and poverty, fixed mindsets, and students of color and low-income families disproportionately placed in classrooms with low-quality content instruction and the least proficient teachers.

In addition, we were charged with partnering with local universities and promoting the teaching profession as a viable option. Fortunately, Sarasota County had identified this need and has begun to implement programs to create change. Nationally, “The number of teachers of color would need to more than double from 230,000+ to roughly 542,000 if the share of the educator force were to match that of students of color relative to the public-school population.” “Among persistently poor students of both sexes, exposure to at least one teacher of color in grades 3–5 increased students’ self-report intent to pursue a four-year college degree by 19%.”

Ms. Bank’s parting message suggested that lasting change in schools and districts requires high-community engagement. I realized that other Florida counties have challenges far beyond what we experience in Sarasota because we are blessed with tremendous community support and rich resources for which our schools can benefit from continuously.

The last day of our session took us to Carver Middle School in Orange County, Florida. The district and school are in the process of transforming a fragile school community. We were graciously hosted by the staff and key district leaders in their brand-new school building. Evidently, the former building was unacceptable: old, dingy, and hardly a school environment that exudes pride for the staff, students, or community. The story unfolded about their history as an F/D school consistently over the last decade. Principal after principal has tried to convert the school into a learning institution rather than a discipline factory. The Deputy Superintendent, Dr. Jesus Jara, explained that Orange County has not been successful in transferring highly-effective principals from other schools to Carver. Instead, they selected a superstar assistant principal with a passion for working in a school with children living in poverty. The district then provided intense levels of tiered support. The new principal and members of the district staff spent an entire summer carefully recruiting high-quality teachers because research emphatically proclaims the single best determinant for increasing student achievement is the teacher. “Many factors contribute to a student’s academic performance, including individual characteristics and family and neighborhood experiences. But research suggests that, among school-related factors, teachers matter most. When it comes to student performance on reading and math tests, a teacher is estimated to have two to three times the impact of any other school factor, including services, facilities, and even leadership.”Rand Education.

The teachers and administrators were then given sizeable monetary incentives ($10,000. $20,000, $25,000) for three consecutive years.

The classroom visits validated the words spoken by the school leaders. In every classroom, we saw consistent evidence of standard-aligned instruction, productive struggle, resources and support, and students explaining their thinking and being asked to prove they understood a skill or concept. Already the school has experienced unprecedented success as last year the school moved from an F to a C.

As the session ended and I began my journey home, I continued to reflect on my learning. Having the opportunity to witness a school district embracing research-based practices and making decisions that can be leveraged to improve the school culture and student achievement was both inspiring and humbling. I feel a strong sense of responsibility to share what I have learned with others to disrupt the all too common mindsets about children living in poverty.

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