WASHINGTON, D.C.—Student mental health and teacher shortages are major roadblocks to academic recovery that schools cannot overcome without support—and long-term funding—from the nation’s leaders, a budding coalition of Black and Latino superintendents told District Administration as they walked to the U.S. Capitol in the first-annual 100 Superintendent March.
The opportunity to plea for help from Congress in solving two education crises was organized on March 29 by the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents and the National Alliance of Black School Educators. “It is not just programs; it’s helping students realize who they are as people—if you don’t, you go into a deficit modality,” Jesus Vaca, superintendent of the Somis Union School District north of Los Angeles, said as he made his way to the Capitol. “When accountability says a school is doing well, that means academics, but that’s not a complete picture.”
“When you look at state accountability measures, they never get to who a child is,” added Superintendent A. Joseph Dara of the Berlin Central School District in New York. “You can’t just fund academics.”
One example of abandoning deficit-based thinking is this: Viewing English learners as gifted for their multilingualism. Many of the leaders at the march said policymakers also need to embrace this new mindset—and back it with healthy funding for Title III and similar programs that better enable educators to take advantage of the assets these students bring to the classrooms. Somis said that his district’s shift in focus—along with emphasizing social-emotional learning—has already resulted in steadily improving attendance.
But school leaders are facing an uphill battle when it comes to the currently punitive nature of standardized testing and state accountability systems, Superintendent Dana Bedden of Centennial School District near Philadelphia said after delivering his remarks in Congress. “Let’s make the system about spotlighting opportunities rather than a hammer for punishment,” Bedden urged.
‘It’s no longer just a job of curriculum’
The five superintendents who spoke in a hearing with congressional staffers at the U.S. Capitol raised the alarms on student mental health, teacher shortages, the deep flaws in state accountability measures, and the importance of increased funding for Title I, special education and other programs for underresourced students and schools. The speakers and other participants in the march hope their messages will be taken to heart as Congress takes action on the education spending included in President Joe Biden’s federal budget.
Another goal was to allow Congress to hear the unified voices of Black and Latino students, said Superintendent Francisco Durán of Arlington Public Schools in Virginia. “These issues are affecting all students,” Duran pointed out. “We’re homing in on the additional impacts and barriers for Black and Latino students.”
The superintendents are also advocating for increased professional development funding to ensure teachers can meet a wide range of student needs, including serving English learners as gifted in language.
For Superintendent Nyah Hamlett, supporting students’ mental health at Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools in North Carolina means centering student voice throughout her district’s operations. This helps students develop a sense of connection to their schools and educators. “We’re allowing student voice to be a part of district decision-making,” Hamlett said. “They can be fierce and fearless about telling us what they want and when we’re focused on the wrong things.”
When it comes to teacher shortages, rural schools are feeling particularly strained, added Superintendent Marisa Chapa of Bienevides ISD in South Texas. “We don’t have the pipeline,” she said. “We don’t have the compensation.”
Vaca, of the Somis Union School District, said the nation’s leaders need to understand the changing nature of school leadership. “It’s a new world from 10 years ago,” Vaca asserted. “It’s no longer just a job of curriculum, it’s also a job of everything else and knowing how to cover all the needs society is bringing upon schools.”