The U.S. Education Department on June 22 hosted the first session of its Equity Summit Series, which officials hope will provide the opportunity to “reimagine” schools to ensure equitable access to resources and supports for all students.
ED officials said that the pandemic exacerbated inequities in education, health, and economic stability, and the resources provided through the American Rescue Plan Act are among the tools available to address the inequities.
“This is a moment in education to boldly address the patterns of inequity that have been pervasive in our schools. This is our moment to ensure that we reopen, reinvest, and reimagine our schools differently and better than ever before,” said Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. “To advance equity, we must innovate, share promising practices, and work together to create the education system that all of our students deserve, a system where students are at the center, while recognizing that for far too long, we haven’t lived up to that promise.”
Cardona said equity will be a focus of ED and be infused in its efforts for the next four years. “These next months and years will determine the trajectory of success for millions of students in our care. This is our moment.”
“We are committed to ensuring that every student gets what they need, when they need it, in the way that they need it to be successful — not only in school but in life,” said Deputy Secretary Cindy Marten. She said this is a “once in a generation opportunity” to invest in early childhood education, higher education, teachers, infrastructure, and community building.
Noting that the June 22 session was held on the anniversary of the decision in Olmstead v. L.C., which ensured the rights of people with disabilities to access supports and services in the community, Marten said that by the end of the summer, ED will release guidance on the “challenges and opportunities” for reopening for students with disabilities.
During a panel discussion, federal, state, and local education stakeholders discussed the need for an increased focus on equity as schools return in the fall and beyond.
The return to school and increased federal resources provide an opportunity to “think realistically about the needs of children and recognize how their social, emotional, and psychological needs are related to their academic and intellectual needs,” said Pedro Noguera, dean of the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education. “There’s no reason why we can’t produce better outcomes for all kinds of children across the country, and this should not be a controversial issue.”
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“There was a crisis in America that preceded the pandemic,” said Miami-Dade County Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. “That crisis, unfortunately, has worsened dramatically for those students who had the most fragile conditions.”
Carvalho said equity in education is not about providing one-size-fits-all supports to students. He said Miami-Dade has focused on providing supports at all levels to meet student needs — not only in academics, but also to provide food, technological and online access, and social-emotional supports — in an “articulate, more direct, more individualized approach.”
He cited wraparound services for students, with a focus on elementary-age children; professional development for teachers to address academic and social-emotional needs; and strong parent and community involvement, including educating parents on the opportunities available to them, as key to boosting equity in his district.
A continued focus on the needs of students experiencing trauma is also key to addressing education equity for underserved students, panelists said.
Olivia Carter, a school counselor at Jefferson Elementary School in Cape Girardeau, Mo., and the 2021 School Counselor of the Year, said “we recognize that students don’t just have adverse childhood experiences from outside the school, but they may come into school and experience trauma.”
She said the district and school embedded trauma-informed practices and worked with families and the community to identify how to better address the needs of the students. She said the school used project-based learning based on the students’ lived experiences that came together with trauma-informed practices at the school.
Panelists also discussed the importance of providing support for all students, citing the need to create inclusive environments for LQBTQ+ students, and the importance of trusting relationships and a commitment to each child.
“It is 100 percent our responsibility to see our students, to recognize them, to value them … it’s our responsibility to humanize students,” Carter said. “I look from the lens of equity: Is this humanizing or dehumanizing for a student?”
—Charles Hendrix covers education funding and other Title I issues for LRP Publications.