California education leader calls immigration ‘the civil rights issue of our time’

May 8, 2017

Carl Cohn, executive director of the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence

As President Donald Trump and his new cabinet members focus increased attention on immigration and school choice, a longtime education leader in California says it’s more important than ever for schools to meet the needs of all their students, especially immigrants.

Carl Cohn, executive director of the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence that assists districts and schools throughout the state, says immigration is “the civil rights issue of our time.” And with school choice at the top of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ agenda, he says asking parents and community members what they want is critical to the future success of public schools.

Although Cohn is a former member of the State Board of Education and a former superintendent of both Long Beach Unified and San Diego Unified, he says his “formative years in education” as a high school counselor made him realize the importance of creating “a safe educational space for those students who were threatened, economically marginalized and left behind.”

“I was tasked with supporting those who dream big dreams, but are facing tremendous obstacles on their path to success,” he told a group of school counselors last month at a conference on college access for immigrant and undocumented students.

“As you know, there is no greater fear for a young student than the thought that a parent, who dropped them off at school in the morning, may not be there in the afternoon to pick them up,” he said. “Or, that of an older student, protected by DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), who leaves his wallet elsewhere and ends up deported from the country as happened recently.”

In his current work with the collaborative, Cohn shares his insights about what is going on in local schools with the educators he meets around the state in talks that draw on his years of experience and his passion for rescuing children “who historically have been underserved,” including low-income students, foster youth and English learners.

In a recent interview, Cohn said his concerns about the new administration have intensified since Trump took office. Fears about deportation among immigrant families, he said, are “incredibly palpable,” especially in some geographically isolated districts in the state.

“My assessment is that Trump and Jeff Sessions are doing this ‘good cop, bad cop’ thing,” he said. “Trump will say, ‘The Dreamers are nice kids, they don’t have anything to worry about.’ But, if you can’t control Jeff Sessions and ICE agents, that rhetoric that you’re not going after Dreamers is empty.”

Cohn started sounding the alarm about the potential negative effects of the Trump administration on education shortly after the election.

“It’s not so much that Betsy DeVos is an incredibly poor choice for secretary of education,” he said, in a speech to district and county superintendents last December. “It’s Betsy DeVos standing with the full authority of Jeff Sessions and the Department of Justice behind her. So, if you think traditional public education has a bright or solid future, I’m arguing that you’re dead wrong.”

He referred to comments Sessions made in the past that suggested protections for disabled students are ruining public schools.

The state’s new Local Control Funding Formula and Local Control and Accountability Plans, or LCAPs, give schools and districts new flexibility to address the diverse needs of their students and communities, Cohn said.

If Trump follows through on his promise to fund $20 billion for school choice, Cohn told superintendents they would have to work harder “to win over your stakeholders.”

He added: “I’m arguing that you cannot go with what got you there in this climate. We’ve got to change it up.”

The collaborative’s work, he said, is guided by four principles:

As Cohn has gained a better understanding of the challenges smaller districts face, his respect for the local level has grown, he said.

“This has been a steep learning curve for me,” he said. “I used to think that superintendents of large urban districts had the toughest jobs in the world. The truth is that’s not the case.”

Teachers love to live in Long Beach and San Diego, he said. 

“But when I go to Blythe and Indio, it’s different,” he explained. “In Blythe, where the economy is driven by two state prisons, the prison pays more than teachers earn. In Indio, an hour-and-a-half from Blythe, the teachers can’t come to trainings because they can’t get substitute teachers out there. “These are not problems I’ve ever encountered.”

Including parents and the community in school decision-making is crucial, he said.

“We have to reach them. We have to do whatever’s necessary to engage them in this process,” he said. “Where at times, we’ve kept folks at a distance, we’ve really got to open this process up. Otherwise, we’re going to be facing something we don’t want to face, and that is the potential for the disruption of traditional public schools as we know them.”

He cited dramatic changes made decades ago in Long Beach Unified as an example of what is possible.

It was the first district in the country to mandate school uniforms, after winning a court battle over the issue.

“People would say, ‘You can’t require kids to wear uniforms,’” Cohn said. “Or, ‘You can’t require kids to go to summer school if they’re not reading at grade level at end of 3rd grade.’ Or, ‘You can’t have single-gender programs.’”

But Cohn said that he and other district leaders didn’t let these naysayers stop them from doing the things they believed would help meet students’ needs.

Cohn knew the district was on the right track when the pastor of St. Anthony parochial schools in Long Beach, which he had attended, called him in for a chat.

“‘You are a son of St. Anthony’s,’” Cohn recalled the pastor telling him. “’Are you trying to put us out of business?’”

Long Beach Unified was attracting more students, Cohn said, because it was addressing community priorities, including preventing gang-related violence associated with certain clothing or colors worn by teens. 

St. Anthony’s, Cohn said, surveyed the parents of its former 8th-graders to find out why they didn’t enroll in the parochial high school.

“They said, ‘The public magnet schools do a better job of preparing kids for college and are taking a stronger stance on dress than the private school systems.’”

However, Cohn warned that narrowing gaps in achievement between different demographic groups cannot be accomplished quickly.

“It sometimes isn’t politically correct to say this, but closing the achievement gap takes time,” Cohn said.

“This is an issue that is often framed in a very simplistic, immediate way: ‘You’ve got Asians and whites up here, Latinos and African Americans down here,’” he said, holding one hand up high and the other far below it, demonstrating a gap.

Critics may say: “‘You’ve had this money for three years. How come it doesn’t look like this?’” he said, moving his hands together to close the gap.

Additional time is needed to focus “a new attention on the kids” and allow for “even more investments,” he explained.

California’s new dashboard of accountability indicators – which currently range from math and English language arts test scores to school suspensions and high school graduation rates – can help schools pinpoint students’ needs, he said. 

“I’m absolutely convinced that multiple measures are the way to go,” he said, adding that new local indicators to be added in September – such as school climate, which can include social and emotional learning – are “incredibly important.”

Now that the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, has replaced No Child Left Behind, officials from other states are looking to California’s accountability system for ideas they can use as they come up with additional ways to measure student success beyond test scores, he said.

“California is three years ahead of the rest of the nation on getting this right,” he said, noting that some elements of ESSA dovetail with the state’s new system. “Whenever I go somewhere outside the state, everyone wants to know what we’re doing in California.”

Enhancing educational opportunities for the poor, migrants, the undocumented and those fleeing war and persecution is “the great equalizer that creates a bright future for them,” he told the group of counselors. Because their work with these students is so important, he urged the counselors to advocate for themselves and their programs during the district planning and budgeting process.

“The overriding purpose of this shift to local control was to empower parents and school staffs at the local level to set priorities for how the new money coming from Sacramento should be spent at the local level,” he said.

The priorities of a school or district, he said, are “often influenced more by those who are good listeners and understand the power of persuasion.”

“Teachers and counselors often get this better than school administrators,” he said. “We as state leaders are counting on you to get it done for immigrant and undocumented students….We’re confident that you can deliver on this most important work on behalf of deserving students that we call ‘Dreamers.'”

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