“I am a leader.” “I am not ghetto.” “I am not incapable of being interested in mathematics and the sciences.” “I am destined for great things.” As part of a new school reform campaign, a statewide coalition of students from low-income families is posting statements on Twitter and Facebook that are both poignant and backed by research about system change: If you want schools to improve, they say, believe in us.
The student statements are one element of a campaign to upend stereotypes, support teachers who work with students from diverse backgrounds and urge schools to create communities where it is understood that all students can succeed. The campaign, organized by the advocacy group Californians for Justice and its Student Voice project, was launched at a kickoff event at Roosevelt Middle School in Oakland this month that included a keynote address by Lupita Cortez Alcalá, California’s deputy superintendent, and a panel discussion with Gordon Jackson, director of student services for the California Department of Education. A Long Beach launch event is scheduled for Nov. 19.
Student Voice, which currently has 328 active members in the districts of Long Beach Unified, Fresno Unified, Oakland Unified and East Side Union High School, last year mobilized 3,000 students and advocates, the group said, and successfully lobbied the State Board of Education to require districts to include students in the creation of school spending plans known as Local Control and Accountability Plans.
Now their goal is to eliminate the “belief gap,” a term they define as a lack of belief among some educators in the potential of students from low-income families and students of color. Negative stereotypes often go unnoticed and unquestioned in schools, they say, and contribute to a second belief gap in society – a disbelief in the value of investing in teachers and schools. “What’s keeping us from providing staff with the resources they need?” the campaign asked in its research report, Growing Connections, Transforming Beliefs.
The campaign, which includes new student survey data as well as its report, comes as schools across California and the nation are under pressure from the U.S. Department of Education to rethink the way staff and students interact and reduce the number of student suspensions. Social and emotional skill building – including rewarding positive behavior, offering counseling as needed and providing opportunities for students to make amends through restorative justice practices – is a solution, the report concludes.
“Building meaningful connections of mutual respect, support and high expectations is the foundation for closing the belief gap,” said Taryn Ishida, executive director of Californians for Justice.
According to Student Voice and Californians for Justice, the concept of a belief gap emerged after they conducted research on how to improve low-performing schools. The research included surveying 2,000 students, 98 percent of whom identified as low-income, about their interactions with staff in four districts – Long Beach Unified, Fresno Unified, Oakland Unified and East Side Union High School. In addition, the research team convened focus groups with 57 students, interviewed more than 150 educators, parents and policy experts, and reviewed 80 scholarly reports about the impact of a positive school culture.
“I have a very similar story,” said Lupita Cortez Alcalá, California deputy superintendent. “I believe in you and I believe in this cause.”
When asked to identify the top three resources needed to graduate and be prepared for college or a career, 80 percent of the students surveyed selected “quality teachers” as the most important. That choice was followed by tutoring and after-school programs, chosen by 48 percent of students, and “challenging classes,” chosen by 46 percent of students.
But the report acknowledged that California teachers often don’t have the time they need to connect with students, in part because of high student-to-teacher ratios at schools. According to California Common Sense, a Mountain View-based nonprofit policy organization, in 2012-13, the most recent data available, California had a student-to-teacher ratio of 25 to 1, the highest in the nation and well above the 15-to-1 national average.
“The system is extremely under-resourced – when you lack resources you are demoralized and you start to believe you’re set up for failure,” said Trish Gorham, president of the Oakland Education Association union, in the report.
On the positive side, the survey found that 55 percent of students agreed with the statement, “Adults in my school make me feel like I matter.” But 25 percent disagreed and 20 percent said they didn’t know.
Sixty-five percent of students agreed with the statement, “Teachers believe every student can be a success,” with 20 percent disagreeing and 15 percent saying they didn’t know.
In focus group meetings, students defined an effective teacher as one who is willing to talk after class, expresses compassion and offers encouragement.
Cliff Hong, principal of Roosevelt Middle School, said that having adults at his school who are committed to getting to know the students has made a difference. “The teachers that we’ve brought on have done a great job of connecting with the kids,” he said.
In the last year, he said, suspension rates have dropped by 80 percent, aided by a full-time staff member for restorative justice, which is a method of conflict resolution that allows students to make amends, and a full-time staff member for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, which is a framework of various interventions that offer tiers of rewards and services to encourage healthy social interactions.
Positive relationships benefit everyone on campus, Hong said. A staff survey showed that 95 percent of teachers feel acknowledged and supported, he said.
In the classroom, Roosevelt English teacher Jeremy Crouthamel said he tries to pause before reacting to a frustrated student “to see if there’s something behind it,” and then starts by asking if a student has slept, has had something to eat and is feeling OK.
“I try to make grace the center of the classroom,” he said.
Stephanie Alexandre, a 7th-grader, said that before she came to Roosevelt she had thought that middle school “was going to be scary.” But her teachers “made sure the classrooms were safe,” she said. How? “If there were kids distracting other kids from learning, the teacher would stop and check in with them,” she said. Also, she said, the classroom looked good. “They made the classroom colorful,” she said.
Raul Montellano, a student at Fresno High School who was part of the panel discussion, said that two weeks earlier he had felt so overwhelmed by stress that he had skipped classes. “A teacher from 6th period saw me and she said, ‘Where were you? Why weren’t you at class?'” He appreciated her interest. “I knew somebody cared about me,” he said.
Later, he said, he talked to the teacher about the pressures he felt. “She made me feel welcome and that everything was going to be OK,” he said.
Alcalá told the students in the Roosevelt Middle School auditorium to push to have their voices heard. “I have a very similar story,” she said.
At 3 years old, she emigrated with her family from Tijuana, Mexico, to Poway, she said, and later failed kindergarten because her English was poor. Her older brother was called names, her sister had a teacher who pulled her hair and they all floundered academically in elementary school, she said.
But she said she found an ally. “Like many of you,” she said, “I had that one teacher, Mrs. Margaret Peterson, that made me feel special and supported; she always called on me when I raised my hand and I trusted her.”
In 6th grade, while studying Spanish, she said she finally grasped grammar and composition in both Spanish and English. Her grades soared. She graduated from UC San Diego and earned a master’s degree in Planning Administration and Social Policy from the Graduate School of Education at Harvard.
“I believe in you,” Alcalá told the students, “and I believe in this cause.”