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Stay Informed

Fighting for Equity

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Recently, our program director, Mayada Mansour, had the opportunity to speak to a convening of superintendents about the work we do. Below is a copy of her remarks that explains why we focus on equity in schools and what we’re doing to try and address the gaps we see.

Over the course of my career, I have come to know and understand “institutional racism.”  It’s not a series of overt actions that are consciously directed at one group of people to undermine their ability to succeed.  It’s the systemic assumptions and practices that lead to predictable outcomes for minority groups, especially African Americans in our country.  In education, it is disguised as “the way things are” or “the best we can do,” and while many don’t recognize that race has anything to do with the choices being made, the evidence demonstrates that power and privilege still create disparate outcomes for our children (see our School Works findings).

For us, the key to dismantling institutional racism is educational equity. An equitable education is one that systematically provides the individual supports needed for each student to reach and exceed a shared standard of success.   It implies all students are capable of excellence; they just need different supports to get there.

At A+ Schools, our organizational vision is educational equity.  We fight for the school system to provide every child with the individual supports he/she needs to graduate from high school and post-secondary education.  

Through our programs we want to do two key things: (1) build informed citizens that understand equity and what it means to fight for it and (2) provide the platform for the voices of parents, students and community members who are directly impacted to work collectively and be heard.

Consider this: if you were a gardener and each year one of your plants (let’s say it’s your zucchini) wasn’t blossoming but other vegetables were, what would you do? It’s likely you’d research what specific conditions zucchini need to make sure you provided them. It could be more light or less light, a specific type of soil, more water or less water, etc. Fighting for equity in our schools means that we fight for a school system that provides each student with the conditions he/she needs in order to blossom. Even if the child’s roots are planted in an unhealthy home or community, school can be the place he/she blossoms.

All of what schools can control when it comes to providing students with an equitable education falls into one of four categories: 1. Teaching, 2. Resources, 3. Opportunities, and 4. Supports. In schools with no disparity in outcomes, all students are benefitting from these items and race is not a predictor of success. In schools with large achievement gaps by race, a combination of things are happening.  African American students are being systematically locked out or pushed out of opportunities, they’re in schools with high staff turnover, they’re not being taught thinking and studying skills, their behavior is criminalized, and they’re being denied specific supports they need.

We fight for equity in 4 ways:

1. As a watchdog.

  • We conduct our own research and policy analysis independent from Pittsburgh Public Schools and provide what we find to the public.  We have shared information on the district’s measures of effective teaching, and distribution of effective teachers, and the district’s budget.
  • We annually publish the Report to the Community so that the public can track progress on student outcomes and have a tool for asking questions at their own schools.
  • A+ Schools volunteers attend school board meetings through Board Watch and score their governance, so that when kids get report cards in Pittsburgh, the board gets a report card for their governance.

 2. As an advocate for policies and practices that will result in equitable schools.

  • A+ Schools volunteers annually interview school staff through School Works to find out what’s working in schools, what’s standing in the way of equity, and what supports schools need. Each year, we share what the volunteers collected with the district and the public and advocate for specific actions to be taken by the district. A few of the results of our advocacy have been increased access to advanced courses and smaller caseloads for counselors and social workers.
  • As the district began to reconfigure its spending, we engaged hundreds of people to determine the priorities for district spending and used the results of our own independent budget analysis to advocate for system changes in the way the district allocates resources. The result of our advocacy was music and library services for every school, foreign languages and advanced courses in every high school, and greater input from parents into school budgets.

3. As an educator of the public.

  • We share information, celebrate successes and keep people informed through a regular e-newsletter that goes out to our list of over 4,000 emails.
  • Our volunteer trainings are partly education and partly what to do as volunteers. Through Board Watch and School  Works alone, we have engaged over 400 people in understanding how schools and school boards work and participating in collecting data or evaluating the board.
  • Each year, we present information to thousands of people as panelists at community events or presenters at schools.
  • We have a set of workshops that we can deliver to help parents and community members know their right to participate in schools, know how school funding works, and know how to read their school’s data.

 4. As organizers of the people most negatively impacted by inequities, like-minded allies and partners.

  • We are building a Parent Nation made up of parent groups across the city who believe in educational equity. In some of our neediest communities, we have organizers working to build teams of parents at schools who will organize others in their community to make improvements to their schools.
  • TeenBloc is a city-wide group of high school students who are also organizing other young people. They are building chapters in high schools and convening for training and running campaigns as young leaders and organizers.
  • We have a table of partners that represent organizations who support equity and want to stand with us.
  • We run campaigns that draw on the talents and skills of Parent Nation, Teen Bloc, our partners and like-minded parents and community members across the city to demand specific changes in our educational system.

I hope you’ll join us as a volunteer in one of our programs, you’ll read up on our research, and that you’ll work in your own sphere to root out and undermine institutional racism.

Mayada Mansour