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Shared Learning to Advance Racially Just Schools

Educating the Whole Child blog: The Power of Shared Learning by Roberta Furger

This post is part of LPI's Educating the Whole Child blog series, which explores research, policy, and practices to support students' healthy growth and development.

Elvia Vasquez, a public school parent and community leader in Sacramento, CA, has long dreamed of the “ideal” school—one in which students would be engaged and feel safe, seen, and supported and where families were welcome partners. She wasn’t sure her vision was possible, though, until she visited UCLA Community School in September of 2019 and spent time in classrooms and hearing from educators, students, and partners. As part of a daylong learning experience, she heard about the systems, structures, and practices that support students’ health, well-being, and academic success and that nurture a culture of inclusivity. And she carried that learning back to her community, sharing her excitement and knowledge with local families and students, as well as with school board members and district staff.

“Through the site visit, Elvia realized that what she wants is possible,” recalled Tere Flores Onofre, director of organizing with Sacramento Area Congregations Together. “Elvia is a leader who has experienced a lot of exclusion. To see that what she wants is possible—that another community has made it happen—is very inspiring. It also gives us a picture of what we might do,“ she added.

Elvia’s “aha moment” came as part of a shared learning initiative organized by the Learning Policy Institute in conjunction with the California Partnership for the Future of Learning, a statewide alliance of community organizing and advocacy groups advancing a shared vision of a transformational, racially just education system. Launched in early 2019, the initiative creates opportunities for organizers and local parent, student, and community leaders—like Flores Onofre and Vasquez—to learn alongside advocates, educators, and district and state policymakers. Through in-person school site visits and—since COVID-19—virtual sessions, participants learn about and experience evidence-based and equitable practices that promote authentic learning, foster relationships of trust and respect, and chip away at structural inequities that undermine opportunities for historically marginalized students, including students of color, English learners, newcomers, and youth in foster care or experiencing homelessness.

Site visits have included one Tk-5 elementary school and five high schools in Northern and Southern California, chosen for their success in supporting the academic success and the health and well-being of diverse students. Three of the high schools are also community schools. In addition, there have been three virtual learning opportunities since the start of COVID-19, each focused on addressing pressing concerns identified by community partners, including through a needs assessment conducted with students and families. Topics covered have included cultivating strong relationships during distance learning, supporting students’ mental health and social and emotional wellness, and supporting students and families through transformational community schools. Whether in person or virtual, learning sessions tap and elevate diverse perspectives, experiences, and expertise, from researchers, policymakers, and educators, to students, families, and community partners. In doing so, they elevate the broader ecosystem that is needed to effect meaningful and lasting school transformation.

Across all of these learning opportunities, some key themes have emerged as essential to creating schools that shift longstanding structural inequities in opportunity and engage students, families, and communities of color as partners. These themes—or levers for change—are well supported by research and resonate with the lived realities of participants who, like Vasquez, integrate and make meaning of the learning, whether they’re a parent leader, an organizer or advocate, or a state or local policymaker or policy staff.

Lessons from Shared Learning

Lesson No. 1: Nurture relationships of trust and respect. Research shows the foundational role that trusting relationships among educators, students, and families play in the success of students and schools. Supportive structures and thoughtful practices cultivate and nurture trusting relationships. This includes the use of advisories, such as at Hillsdale High School and Oakland International High School—two Bay Area high schools visited as part of the shared learning initiative. An advisory functions like an in-school family, bringing together a small group of students with one staff member, for a full year or even as long as all four years of high school. Advisories create the structure and foster the supportive relationships that keep students connected to caring adults on campus and make it easy for families to reach out when they have questions or concerns.

Respectful and culturally affirming engagement strategies, like Parent-Teacher Home Visits, begin with learning about students and families in environments where they feel most comfortable, like their home, a neighborhood park, or other community location. Nick Bua, a teacher at Monterey Trail High School in the Elk Grove Unified School District in Sacramento, CA, shared about his experience with home visits during a virtual learning session. “As a teacher, it has been pretty transformative for me to do these home visits,” said Bua. “When you get into the home of a family and you learn their full story and you step into their lives and their world, it really changes how you see that student in the classroom, and it changes what that phone call home is like.” Bua said the relationships developed through home visits were especially valuable when his school shifted to distance learning because of COVID-19.

Lesson No. 2: Integrate students’ interests, culture, and community into learning. A key lesson from all of the schools highlighted in the learning initiative—and reinforced by participating student leaders—is the importance of rooting learning in the life experiences of young people. At Life Academy High School in Oakland, for example, participants learned about how students engage in a graduate capstone project, in which they select an issue of interest and explore it throughout their senior year in a rigorous research process. The project culminates with a formal presentation before peers, teachers, and members of the community during which students share what they’ve learned and reflect on the project. Life Academy is part of the California Performance Assessment Collaborative, a network that supports the implementation of high-quality performance assessments. At Adelante Selby Lane Spanish Immersion School, which employs the Sobrato Early Academic Language (SEAL) model in preschool through 3rd grade, educators partner with families to honor and celebrate their culture and language and integrate families and community members into classroom learning.

A key lesson from all of the schools highlighted in the learning initiative—and reinforced by participating student leaders—is the importance of rooting learning in the life experiences of young people.

Lesson No. 3: Support teachers and tap their leadership. Teachers are the single most important in-school factor in students’ success. Each of the schools visited or elevated through a virtual session invests in the leadership and professional learning of their staff as an essential component of their equity strategy. In a daylong visit to UCLA Community School, teachers recounted the affirming experience of working side by side with UCLA professors to develop the school’s math curriculum. One veteran teacher recalled feeling that for the first time “we were treated as professionals,” with valued expertise and knowledge. At Oakland International High School, a community school and member of the Internationals Network, participants learned of the school’s innovative “Learning Lab,” a teacher development program designed to prepare individuals with the unique set of knowledge, skills, and understandings needed to support the school’s newcomer students in learning English through a project-based curriculum. Prospective teachers work as instructional assistants alongside experienced teachers and participate in the school’s teacher-led professional development while they take their credential coursework to join the teaching profession.

Lesson No. 4: Practice shared decision-making. Collaborative leadership and practices are a core pillar of community schools and participants saw many examples of how this value was put into action. All of the community schools we visited had site leadership teams, which are responsible for making decisions about budget and programming.  These teams often include teachers, parents/caregivers, and other staff, in addition to the principal. Positions on the leadership teams or other leadership roles rotated, providing opportunities for many staff, parents/caregivers, and others to build their leadership skills and contribute to the success of their school. Confronted by the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19, Mendez High School in the Boyle Heights community of East Los Angeles flexed its shared leadership muscle when developing a plan for school reopening in the fall of 2020. An ad hoc committee that included certificated and classified staff, administrators, representatives from community partner organizations, students, and families made the decision to switch from the six-courses-per-term semester system to a quarter system, in which students’ course load would be reduced to three courses a term.  The change, which required district approval, was in response to hearing about the stress for both students and staff of being on Zoom 6 hours a day. The shift allowed more time for students to tap the academic and mental health supports available through the community school. It also created time for teachers to meet one-on-one with students, especially important during distance learning. And, because it was made collaboratively, the decision was understood and supported by the school community.

Lesson No. 5: Nurture Partnerships to Extend School Capacity. Partnerships extend the capacity of schools and districts to meet the needs and support the interests of students and families. Throughout the learning initiative, participants were introduced to rich examples of partnerships that leverage community assets and expertise, support the leadership development of students and families, and mitigate the impact of decades of disinvestment in communities of color by providing a rich array of services, from after-school programs and academic supports to health care and legal assistance. Community partners have played a pivotal role during the pandemic, connecting students and families to vital services and addressing immediate needs. At Mendez High School, for example, community school partner InnerCity Struggle distributed Wi-Fi hotspots and laptop computers, as well as food and cash assistance. UCLA Community School’s innovative partnership with the university has been the catalyst for an immigration law clinic as well as a visual and performing arts education program for students and families. Both initiatives are run in partnership with UCLA students and staff. While the mix of partners naturally varies across schools and districts, common characteristics included a shared mission and vision and a commitment to respectful and reciprocal collaboration.

Building Capacity, Deepening Engagement

By taking part in the shared learning opportunities, participants are building their capacity to be informed and engaged leaders and decision makers in their schools and districts. Xilonin Cruz-Gonzalez, immediate past president of the California School Boards Association (CSBA) and member of the Azuza Unified School Board, participated in the learning session at Adelante Selby Lane Spanish Immersion School, where she saw firsthand the power of the SEAL model of dual language instruction. Like Vasquez in Sacramento, she took the learning back to her community, as well as to her statewide colleagues in CSBA.  

Cruz-Gonzalez appreciated and learned from the diverse voices elevated in the learning sessions. The reflections of Redwood City Unified Superintendent John Baker during the visit to Adelante Selby Lane “framed my conversations with our superintendent and staff about what it takes to implement SEAL,” she explained. Hearing from students and families during a virtual session reinforced for her the need to center the “lived experiences of students and families” in planning and decision-making.

Inclusive decision-making is a foundational element of California’s Local Control Funding Formula, but local processes often do not include investments in the capacity building needed to ensure the meaningful participation of these key stakeholders. Learning opportunities, developed collaboratively with community organizations and their partners, help to fill this gap by democratizing research, providing examples of equity practices and models that can be implemented in schools and districts, and elevating the knowledge, expertise, and experience of students and families.