Middle School Assistant Principal, Spokane Public Schools

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What is your school and/or district doing to ensure students are experiencing an education that is socially just?

In a recent conversation with some other community leaders I was asked, as a middle school assistant principal working in the poorest zip code in Washington State, what is your district doing to address issues around social justice? I said, "Well, we have a focus on improving instructional practices, we engage in efforts to ensure students are college and career ready, and different things like that, that ultimately should close the acievement gap and provide equal access to opportunities for all students." My friends responded (and I paraphrase), "No, what is your school or district doing to impact PEOPLE, to impact and change the CULTURE and the COMMUNITY? How are they allocating and distributing resources to those most in need? What are the systemic commitments to addressing the whole child?" I thought for a few moments but didn't have very many powerfully definitive answers.

I have a vision to replicate aspects of proven efforts that have transformed disparaging communities with the purpose of transforming the culture and community for which I serve. Share with me your thinking, your experiences, and your ideas, and your follow-up questions. What is your school and/or district doing to ensure students are experiencing an education that is socially just?

  • Aug 15 2013: Here is a small-scale, yet effective idea. The middle school I teach at has many students who go home to a house where regular meals may not be provided. To help these students, teachers compile a list of students in their classes they feel could benefit from extra food at home. The students are then put onto one list and on Fridays, these students are called to the office and given a backpack full of various snacks and non-perishable, healthy food options to help them get through the weekend until they are back at school on Monday where they can eat both breakfast and lunch. The program is called "Backpack Kids".
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    Aug 11 2013: Andre, Just as a matter of interest .... what is your schools mission statement ... the district .... the state.

    It probably speaks to a quality education, at the most affordable cost, developing the minds, heart, and character, etc ..... My question back to you ... is social justice a part of the federal mandates, core curriculum, STEM, state mandates, etc

    Andre I am not trying to be cute ... the facts are that mandates, budgets, and high stakes testing are the focus that you and others must attend to.

    The only vehicle available to address these extras are classes. The class may taken on a project and interface with the community.

    Ask your business leader friend what he and others in the business community have committed to. Have they provided a opportunity for students to apply their knowledge in their businesses. Have they contacted their representatives on the behalf of education. Why did he put the onus on you? Do they attend school meetings and work with you and the students?

    Administrators and teachers catch a lot of guff that they have little or no control over. Right now you are catching it because of the US failure in the PISA Exams and Arne Duncan's private war to socialize the education system.

    Leaders in business do not throw out comments like that ... that does not speak of leadership. A leader would ask how can WE do this or that. How could WE fund it. What would it look like. Who would have to be on board. I would like to sit down with you to look at the prospects. That would be a leader.

    Invite him to visit the school, introduce him to the real world of education ... diminishing budgets and growing mandates with little or no input.

    Andre, I am on your side. Yours is not a easy task but on that will take considerable focus and the ability to adjust to changes and challenges. Good luck. I wish you well. Bob.
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    Aug 11 2013: Your first answer was correct, Andre. Good grief! The US is ranked 14th in the world (and falling) just in the basics. Let's fix core education before we start debating what "socially just" means.
  • Aug 17 2013: The expectation of your friends that the school system should be doing things to impact PEOPLE, to impact and change the CULTURE and the COMMUNITY is a bit frightening. I wholeheartedly agree with Lawren's comment "Let's fix core education before we start debating what "socially just" means." Robert is also on target in calling for a review of the mission statement of the school system. In my mind, getting a quality education impacts people, changes the culture and changes the community. Using the education system to push a political agenda, push a particular set of social values, or similar subliminal messages sets a dangerous president. As Stuart points out, using resources designated for a quality traditional education in one area to solve a perceived social justice problem in another area may create a political issue if the taxpayer is unsatisfied with the educational priorities of resource stewards. Let's make teaching them how to think and providing them the knowledge they need to survive and an opportunity to apply this knowledge under qualified educational professionals our top priority.

    I think we should teach the teachers and administrators how to identify situations and teaching moments for social justice, such as Fritzie recommends, but this is an adult level discussion and learning opportunity. Now if there are glaring health related issues like a need for food or health services at home, then I like ideas such as the one Rebecca proposes, improving the general health of the student, thus improving their ability to focus on learning, to the extent the budget permits, but this should not come at the expense of providing a high quality education for all students. I would hope educational administrators are balancing these sorts of issues as necessary, community by community.
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    Aug 12 2013: I think you are terribly underpaid if you have to do all that. Change people, culture, and community? Explains why kids can't read if educators are busy with social reform...
  • Aug 12 2013: Good luck, I think your school can not take the place of a family or the local society. Keep centered giving the students the skills they need to move forward and those things that get in the way, like bullying. From what you said, your population not only has the hormone issues but also poverty which means they may be lacking in food.
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    Aug 12 2013: As you are in the Spokane Public Schools, you are probably familiar with this resource: http://www.spokaneschools.org/page/56
  • Aug 11 2013: Wow!

    A few questions first.

    1. Who decides who is "most in need"?

    2. Or, more importantly, who decides who is not in need and can therefore be stiffed?

    3. Isn't education the main impact we are looking for from our schools?

    4. As tax payers do we really want the school system focused on "changing the culture and community"?

    Unless I am missing something the argument about public schools being burdened to "redistribute assets for those most in need" seems like a huge slap in the face. It seems to me the minute you determine that my kid is not in need of the resources that my tax dollars are paying for that is the minute I move to the suburb where they don't feel that way. In the end you gut your school of any tax base it used to have.

    I do not see public schools as the place where social justice is arbitrarily enforced by some biased bureaucrat. The minute the governor announces that public schools in that state will redistribute resources to those most in need will be the minute those who are not "most in need" vote to get rid of the governor.
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    Aug 11 2013: Here is a City of Seattle link: http://www.seattle.gov/rsji/about.htm

    Social justice has long been a primary concern in urban schools, and your answer reflects one part of the general strategy. Many school districts have social justice initiatives, including trainings of teachers and administrators at the beginning of each year, often for a day or more, in teaching and classroom management with a social justice focus. One such initiative is Courageous Conversations.(Look up Glen Singleton)

    Because school climate must foster community and deter bullying, schools I know hold climate assemblies in which the principal and other speakers address the matter of students responsibilities as members of community. An example many schools connected to was the Seeds of Compassion Tour (with the Dahlai Lama), but I know in our district schools often have used the Olweus program as a framework for addressing community and prevention of bullying at the same time. http://www.violencepreventionworks.org/public/index.page
    These are some typical efforts in this area. Our poor urban school district in a great stroke of luck- less typically!- landed about seven years ago on the agenda when Desmund Tutu visited our city. He spoke at an assembly.

    I don't know whether my urban school district was typical in its activities related to social justice, but I expect we were.

    In terms of distributing resources to those most in need, a former superintendent, Joseph Olschefske, devised something called the Weighted Student formula.http://reason.org/files/wsf/overview.pdf Through this system, school moneys were allocated in such a way that students perceived as having higher needs (as reflected in smaller class sizes and other support) drove more money than students without exceptional needs.

    Beyond such a mechanism specific to one District, the state mandates smaller child to staff ratios for students with special needs and disabilities and schools get federal money for more needy students.