Currently, there are actually two answers to this question. Under normal circumstances I would say that the failure to meet the unique needs of every child is our biggest challenge.  But these are not normal times and I would need to couple that with the loss of learning due to Covid-19.

 

First, CCSD needs to build a more inclusive approach to education that respects and protects the unique learning styles for all our children but most especially for our marginalized students. 

 

So inclusive learning provides all students with access to flexible learning choices and effective paths for achieving educational goals in an environment where all students feel valued and have equal access to learning. I want to emphasize the word “ALL” here.  In an inclusive education environment, all children, regardless of ability or disability, learn together in the same age-appropriate classroom. It is based on the understanding that all children and families are valued equally and deserve access to the same opportunities.

 

Inclusive learning goes hand in hand with Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which is a set of principles for curriculum development that gives all students an equal opportunity to learn.  Basically, it recognizes that a one size fits all approach to learning is not realistic – even with our general education students – not just our marginalized children - and advocates to create flexible learning opportunities designed to meet individual needs.

 

Let’s talk the benefits of inclusive learning –

 

  • A big one is for our mainstreamed special needs students; these are the ADHD/ADD children, the high functioning Asperger’s or Autistic student, the dyslexic student, anyone who has an IEP or 504 that does not mandate fulltime specialized classroom instruction, etc. For a large majority of these students, they are not afforded an in class co-taught teacher and being pulled out of the classrooms for specialized instruction is the only option.  Well this is disruptive for the teacher, the class’s students and the student being pulled out – as well as the fact that now everyone knows that this student, or students, need extra help (which can itself lead to social issues like the ability to make friends, being labeled “different”, or being a target for bullies, etc.).  In a more inclusive environment, the classroom teacher and learning support teacher would work together to build a plan to keep those students in the classroom for their extra help.  This would further allow for general education teachers and specialists to work together and support each other in the same learning environment, which would consequently benefit all students in the classroom who would then be offered additional resources and support. This support often results in greater academic and social gains – social gains would be, for example, better communication and social skills – for both students with disabilities as well as students without disabilities.

Furthermore – with inclusive learning, studies have shown that

  • Teachers develop supportive relationships with students

  • Teachers decrease the potential for incivility and unproductive conflict

  • Student participation and engagement increases

  • Students are more likely to take intellectual risks, persist with difficult material and retain learning across contexts

  • that inclusion is beneficial for all students—not just for those who get special education services. In fact, research shows that inclusive education has positive short-term and long-term effects for all students.

  • Kids with special education needs who are in inclusive classes are absent less often. They develop stronger skills in reading and math. They’re also more likely to have jobs and pursue education after high school.

  • The same research shows that their peers benefit, too. They’re more comfortable with and more tolerant of differences. It makes different less different.  They also have increased positive self-esteem and diverse, caring friendships.

 

In an Individualized Education Program (IEP), is a blueprint or plan for child’s special education experience at school.  It provides individualized special education and related services to meet the child’s unique needs.  Differentiated instruction and co-teaching in a general education classroom make it easier for students with  standards-based IEPs to be taught the same material as their classmates.

 

But what this means is that we need to provide our teachers with a better understanding of the IEP’s and the or 504 process in order to integrate inclusive learning into their classrooms.  We need to provide them with the resources to understand and put positive behavioral modification practices in place that do not marginalize students but focus on how to work those into the student’s learning plan.  We need to give them the training and technology to get their buy-in for this change in the traditional learning plan. 

 

But let’s move on just a bit from inclusive learning for the special needs student to the student who is marginalized due to race, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, etc.  Those are students who are also at risk to barriers to education who would also benefit from an inclusive learning environment.  For this I would embrace the PTA’s 4 principles of Transformative Family Engagement to become more

  • Inclusive to embrace and value diverse perspectives;

  • more individualized to meet the unique needs of every family and child;

  • more integrated to connect and align with the educational system;

  • more impactful in order to empower families to support their child’s success.

 

This can be done by

  • Creating a welcoming, respectful learning environment.

  • Determine essential course components

  • Communicate clear and high expectations and provide constructive feedback

  • Provide natural supports for learning to enhance opportunities for all students

  • Use teaching methods that consider diverse learning preferences, abilities, ways of knowing, and prior experience and knowledge.

  • Offer multiple ways for students to demonstrate their knowledge

  • Promote respectful interaction among students and between teachers and the students (e.g. student feedback)

  • Provide parents and students an opportunity to become active participants in the climate of their schools.  Of course, I believe having a strong PTA and Foundation at the school gives more opportunities for social and educational involvement.

 

CCSD needs to invest in the Every Child One Voice philosophy.  We have the best teachers in the State who are hungry for innovative educational opportunities for their students.  We know the one mold of learning is not successful for all our students and need to work harder to provide a more inclusive learning philosophy for our students.

 

So I’m not going to talk about Covid-19 and how that will affect our schools tonight.  There are too many unknowns at this point.  I will say I have been doing a lot of reading about the different positions regarding how to safely go back to a brick and morter school.  We’ll talk about my thoughts when there is more information with which to make better decisions.

 

But let’s remember we need to support our educators during these times as they negotiate the challenges faced with distance digital learning and work to ensure our students are not losing knowledge.  It is imperative that we provide them with the resources, the partnerships, the support and the tools necessary to ensure foundational learning is not lost and our students are on a continuing path for success.

As a passionate supporter of PTA and its educational priorities, I fully believe that so many of the issues plaguing student success can be solved with effective Family Engagement.  This includes not only engaging parents in enhancing the climate of our schools, but also engaging students, staff, and community members to create atmospheres conducive to learning and social growth.  Studies have consistently proven that when the entire community is involved in its schools, student success increases exponentially.  

I would begin by advocating for adopting a more Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approach to education, which has been proven a successful model for improved learning not only for our marginalized student but also for our general education student.  

I would further embrace the PTA’s 4 principles of Transformative Family Engagement which state that schools must be 

•          Inclusive to embrace and value diverse perspectives

•          More individualized to meet the unique needs of every family and child

•          More integrated to connect and align with the educational system

•          More impactful in order to empower families to support their child’s success

 

This can be done by 

•          Creating a welcoming, respectful learning environment. 

•          Determine essential course components

•          Communicate clear and high expectations and provide constructive feedback

•          Provide natural supports for learning to enhance opportunities for all students

•          Use teaching methods that consider diverse learning preferences, abilities, ways of knowing, and prior experience and knowledge. 

•          Offer multiple ways for students to demonstrate their knowledge 

•          Promote respectful interaction among students and between teachers and the students (e.g. student feedback)

•          Provide parents and students an opportunity to become active participants in the climate of their schools.  Of course, I believe having a strong PTA and Foundation at the school gives more opportunities for social and educational involvement

A Chief Equity Officer would add value by ensuring that marginalized students are not being left behind.  They can address such issues as racism, bullying, resource inequities, and will further understanding by Stakeholders of CCSD's continued commitment to equity and inclusivity within our schools.  It would also provide an extra layer of equity and transparency to Stakeholders concerning the CCSD budget and SPLOST allocations. 

However, the parameters of that role would have to be clearly defined by the Board, including, but not limited to, ensuring said position was protected from lobbyists and political pressure; defining equitable distribution of funds; and ensuring complete transparency and further defining the District's policy of diversity and inclusion for Stakeholders. 

I actually think that this position that should be run as a committee, with the Chief Equity Officer being the committee chair and the face to the community, and a staff to help manage the vast responsibilities that this position would entail.  Candidates should have experience teaching and leading, can build bridges between the schools and community groups, are immune from political influence, and understand the business of public education.

 A successful Chief Equity Officer should, at minimum, be able to

·      Identify and work towards eliminating the underlying issues within the schools that perpetuate inequality

 

  • work towards greater diversity regarding staffing and training

  • create engagement and outreach efforts that are directed towards marginalized student populations and their families/communities

  • develop policies and procedures for all departments and administration that address budget allocations and programs to determine their impact or lack of impact on student equity

Funding would have to come from the Cobb County School District, and this might be an issue with the potential of a $80 million loss in funding from the State next year.  While federal and state grant options to supplement salary can be explored, the District would have to carve out a compensation package for this position.  It should not come at the expense of hiring and properly compensating teachers. 

Equity and excellence in education must be compatible goals.  We must do better as a District at providing those marginalized students the opportunities needed to close the achievement gap. By performing an Equity Audit and adopting the recommended measures for improvement, we can ensure educational success for all our students. 

 

 An Equity Audit should primarily address four questions –

 

1.Do all students in the District have the same access to the same educational programs in their schools?

2.Are student discipline practices and policies the same for all students regardless of race, religion, socioeconomic status, etc.?

3.Is there an equitable distribution of school funds to all schools in the District?

4.Are we creating opportunities to close the achievement gap for students in under-represented communities?

 Support for this role must come by promoting transparency and granting access to all CCSD records regarding discipline, bullying, family engagement practices, accurate school and community demographics, etc.  Further, this role must have the complete support of the District, both financially and with a commitment to furthering the common goal of equity in education.