Diversity, equity, and nextgen learning

Philadelphia, where our school is located, has the dubious distinction of being on two top-ten lists you don’t want to be on: it is one of the most racially segregated cities in the nation and one of its most economically divided. And it has plenty of company: New York, Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee are all on both lists, and Chicago and Boston aren’t far behind. In these cities and countless others, racially and economically segregated schools and neighborhoods are much closer to the norm than the exception. Whether we call ourselves NextGen learning, or Deeper Learning, or student-centered, or personalized, or John Dewey with a chromebook, we need to acknowledge this reality: to realize its full potential, NextGen learning needs to be happening in the places where young people face the greatest barriers to success, and where schools are just as likely to be part of the problem as the solution.

While places like the High School for Recording Arts, WHEELS, or Youthbuild Philadelphia set a powerful example, in reality the number of “progressive” schools serving highly disadvantaged communities remains vanishingly small. To change this, we need a change in both mindset and systems.

In terms of mindset, we need to let go of the idea that the academic work is the Main Thing, and everything else merely supports that. This sort of thinking permeates education generally: we think the reason to invest in healthcare or mental health or extracurricular programs is because they will improve grades or test scores, as if that were the only good reason to offer these supports. In NextGen world, this manifests in a fixation on PBL or personalization as the real work, with elements like community building in a subordinate role. The problem with this way of thinking is that it relegates critical work to the margins. At the Workshop School, we’re realizing that what matters most to students’ long-term success (especially disadvantaged students) is just as much about restorative and trauma-informed practice as it is project based learning. (The reverse is also true: we have worked with schools that are very strong on youth development principles and practices but have realized that they are at odds with traditional approaches to teaching and learning.) As educators, we need engage students in authentic learning and help them build the skills that are most needed in college and career. But we also need to be youth workers, focused on seeing students’ strengths, attuned to the challenges the face in life, and committed to meeting them where they are and supporting them without judging.

Changing our systems needs to happen at two levels. The first involves drawing clear lines between supports at the classroom level (for which teachers are primarily responsible) and those available at the school level. Our school is very much a work in progress on this front. When a student is sent to the office to talk with a counselor or an administrator, the line between support and discipline is often blurry, as are the procedures and conditions under which that student returns to the classroom. One of our goals for next year is to help all staff develop a repertoire of trauma-informed practices to engage students who are struggling, and to further clarify and articulate how restorative processes work at the school level.

The most challenging aspect of shifting systems to support NextGen learning in high poverty schools is, not surprisingly, lack of resources. Tiered intervention models like Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) or Response to Intervention (RTI) have been around for a long time, and all seek to delineate the links between classroom support and prevention and more intensive levels of intervention. In most under-resourced schools the challenge is that the intensive interventions that are supposed to be in place simply are not. Money is certainly a factor here, but so is the decision to invest heavily in security (metal detectors, police and other security officers) over mental health and other student supports.

The good news is that this work has begun to receive significant attention in recent years. Programs like the Deeper Learning Equity Fellowship have highlighted school and classroom-level projects aimed at improving systems and practices to support our most disadvantaged young people. And here in Philadelphia, the HIVE @ Springpoint is bringing together schools and youth development organizations (which typically live in surprisingly different ecosystems) to collaborate on expanding and supporting the use of trauma-informed practices.

This work needs to continue. But we also need more opportunities to connect and collaborate nationally. I am constantly on the hunt for new schools to go visit, and I’ve been lucky enough to see quite a few. Nearly everywhere I’ve been, these schools have operated in relative isolation, the exception rather than the rule. We need opportunities, both physical and virtual, to wrestle with common questions and share what’s working. As the conversation about equity continues to expand, I hope we see such spaces created in the near future.

This post originally appeared on April 19, 2018 in Education Week’s NextGen Learning blog.