Equity in Education Requires Transformational Change in St. Louis School Systems
“We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or science. We are not to raise up from among them authors, orators, poets or men of letters…nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we have ample supply… We will teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way.” — General Education Board, 1912
This summer will mark my 20th year as an educator and activist seeking to transform unjust systems and conditions. I have had the privilege to teach middle school; coach new teachers; work with district leadership in states around the country; advise legislators and civic leaders on education policy and change; and, work with communities of local and global educators focused on reimagining school systems. For 20 years, I have been obsessed with learning as much as I can about how to ensure every child, particularly those from marginalized communities and identities, experiences a liberatory education.
Five years ago, this journey brought me back home to St. Louis. I fell in love with a man who also happened to be from here and we came home to get married and build the next chapter of our lives. I was inspired by the activism and activists during and after Ferguson and saw the potential for our community to enact true systemic change. I decided to commit the next chapter of my career to this effort, working in coalition with others to catalyze change in the systems meant to serve the most vulnerable children in my hometown.
After a year of conversations — with families trapped in struggling schools, with inspiring educators working to liberate children, with community activists trying to reshape systems, and with civic and business leaders seeking more promising avenues for change — we launched The Opportunity Trust.
The organization is founded in the belief that opportunity is not zero-sum and that increasing equity will benefit us all. We are starting by building a more just and equitable public education system — a system that ensures diverse learners thrive and that improves and evolves over time in response to families’ and communities’ needs, particularly those from marginalized backgrounds. Our approach is grounded in insights from ongoing community conversations, and in research on how children learn and develop, and on how to create dynamic learning organizations.
To be clear, no one has yet built such a system. St. Louis could be the first.
We are at a unique moment to make this a reality. As we emerge from this year marked by Covid-19 and ongoing national reckoning for racial justice, we are clearer than ever of the limitations of our school systems. We have also seen unprecedented innovation and resilience. But we’re left with this question:
Will we return to the system we had prior to 2020 that works for some and is massively detrimental to others? Or will we leverage our collective will and imagination to build something better?
At The Opportunity Trust, we believe that a liberatory public education system is less about arriving at a particular end state and more about co-creation led by students and families and conditions that foster continuous reflection and improvement. A just and responsive system must also commit to meaningful progress toward racial and economic equity. Based on what we understand right now, we believe this requires at least 4 fundamental shifts in the design and orientation of our school systems:
- Define, measure, and commit to make progress toward economic and racial equity. This looks like examining and then removing barriers to access and engagement for low income students and families of color. This looks like simplified and accessible enrollment processes that prioritize space for marginalized children. It looks like setting and achieving goals around the recruitment, development, and retention of teachers who share the background of students. It requires rethinking (or even eliminating) gifted and talented and magnet programs that overwhelmingly serve white and middle class children. It requires an equity indicators dashboard that is published and reported on regularly. It means that children are able to read and do math at grade level.
- Redistribute power to students, educators, and community members. This is not “buy-in” or “feedback” but actual decision-making authority. This looks like student representatives on teacher hiring committees and community boards made up of parents and other stakeholders that have authority over budgets, schedules, and principal evaluation. It looks like co-location of neighborhood services and ongoing adult education. It requires community approval of plans for underutilized buildings. It requires investing in parent leadership and capacity building for all parents to effectively assume these leadership roles, especially those living in or close to poverty. It is an elected board that sees its role as increasing engagement and community empowerment.
- Transform and expand central supports for all city schools with a focus on learning, partnership, and innovation. This is only possible with much greater collaboration between district and charter schools. It looks like city-wide learning communities led by students, teachers, and community members. It looks like partnerships with leading local and national capacity building organizations. It requires transparent and accessible data and reporting that students, educators, and community can use to learn about what is working and why. It requires creating better measures of school quality that focus on academic growth and include social-emotional development and school climate.
- Address upstream conditions that perpetuate inequities between systems and make it challenging to reimagine them. This looks like transforming how we fund public education and pay teachers. It looks like expanding access to high quality early childhood education. A thorough discussion of this can be found in these excellent reports from Forward Through Ferguson and First Steps To Equity.
These are monumental shifts in how all of our school systems are designed and operating today. And like all systems designed to maintain the status quo and white supremacy, our school systems are designed to be impervious to change. So much so that classrooms, schools, and districts today operate almost identically to how they did one hundred years ago.
Overcoming the inertia of a system fueled by nearly two centuries of intentional inequity first requires that a critical mass of stakeholders agree that the system must be transformed. We must then agree that the best and most sustainable solutions will come from those most marginalized by the system whom it is actually supposed to empower. It then requires that we collectively build our capacity to do this transformation work and begin to put into place some of the conditions necessary to activate change. This is the work The Opportunity Trust has focused on in our first three years.
We are constantly learning. Every day, we are evolving our approaches based on feedback from our partners and community, data on what is and is not working, and new research on learning science and insights from systems change. We dove head first into this work while simultaneously trying to build an organization. Now three years in, one of the most salient reflections we have looking forward is that building a just and responsive public education system requires that we commit to creating a truly just and responsive organization. To model the liberatory design and practices we hope will define our public school systems, we commit to the following in the coming year:
- Define, measure and report on equity commitments in our own organization and begin working to remove barriers to achieving them.
- Redistribute decision-making power in how we invest resources to students, educators, and a broader base of community members who share the backgrounds of those most marginalized in our community.
- Launch a new learning platform to support our community in understanding what is working, to hold systems accountable to racial and economic equity indicators in education, and to celebrate and amplify progress toward more equitable educational outcomes.
The stakes of getting this right are incalculable — for the lived experiences of children in classrooms today, for the options they’ll have access to, for the vibrancy and future of our city.
We are optimistic. Every day we see the potential in the joy and curiosity of our children. We are motivated by passionate caregivers who are moving mountains to ensure children have what they need to thrive. We are inspired by talented educators working through incredible constraints to innovate teaching and learning for their students. We will continue supporting their efforts, spaces for co-creation and reimagination, and learning and collaboration across our divided ecosystem.
Every transition is an opportunity for transformation. This is our chance to reframe the unproductive dialogue surrounding change in education and refocus our time and energy on reimagining and building the more just, relevant, and equitable school system all of our children deserve and our city requires.