Seneca Family of Agencies began thirty years ago as a small residential treatment program for some of the most vulnerable foster youth in California. Now, Seneca works with over seventy school districts and charter public schools throughout California and Washington. Their model follows a team-oriented approach that helps build everyone’s capacity for an inclusive school environment to better serve students with trauma histories, mental health needs, disabilities or other barriers to success.
The philosophy of Seneca’s work comes from their experiences within and across public systems of care and in working with communities. They believe that the answers to even our communities’ most profound challenges can be found within individuals, and that parents are the primary experts on what works well for their children. And, they believe that designing schools that work for students who have historically struggled the most will result in schools that work for all students.
Lihi Rosenthal, Executive Director of Education at Seneca Family of Agencies, spoke about why some of these common sense strategies have not been widely implemented. “Because of how their funding streams are allocated, both Medicaid-funded mental health services for young people in need and special education services for children with disabilities follow a ‘fail first’ approach,” says Lihi. In other words, students have to struggle mightily after experiencing some sort of trauma before they can receive treatment and services to help them do better.
Once students’ difficulties rise to the level of crisis, then and only then are they cleared to receive expert help from qualified mental health specialists, special educators, and other transdisciplinary professionals. Yet, here again, treatment or services are reserved only for those who have already qualified for help, and are not made available to the school as a whole, even though there may be many other students who could benefit from them. According to Lihi, “The system tends to focus on the few students in crisis, rather than more holistically looking at delivering programs that might benefit all students.” As a result, families of students who struggle the most are often sent to multiple agencies located miles away from the school, decreasing the likelihood that individual interventions will carry over from closed-door therapy rooms into other domains of a young person’s life, from the classroom to the family dining room to the soccer field and the cafeteria.
In contrast, Seneca partners with schools to design interventions that are delivered not through isolated services, but which are integrated with a school culture of safety, belonging and academic curiosity. Wendy Durst, Director of Strategic Partnerships at Seneca Family of Agencies, says, “Seneca works with schools to design preventative and early intervention strategies that bring transdisciplinary experts out of their siloes and into the places where students spend the most time in schools – the hallways, lunch rooms, and their general education classrooms.”
This approach – Seneca’s Unconditional Education model – is currently being studied by SRI International, an external evaluator assigned to the program as part of a federal Investing in Innovation (i3) grant Seneca was awarded in 2013. After its first full year of investigation, the model has shown promising early results at the seven California schools included in the study, including statistically significant gains in literacy and math for students with disabilities and English Language Learners.
Part of defining basic education is determining what each and every student should have access to in their school. Currently, our system does not guarantee access to student supports that are critical to many students’ academic success—including support staff like counselors or nurses, and programming like additional tutoring. There are a number of approaches we can take to making sure that students receive the supports and resources they need.
The Learning Assistance Program
Currently, Washington provides additional supports to students that are struggling academically through the Learning Assistance Program (LAP). Districts receive funding for this program from the state based on their enrollment of low-income students. Districts must spend LAP funds on services from a list of state-approved, evidence-based practices, including one-on-one or group tutoring and extended learning time, as well as limited use of funds for staff professional development and parent engagement. Beginning in the 2015-16 school year, districts must prioritize spending on K-4 literacy interventions. This focus on elementary literacy combined with limited LAP funding has resulted in some districts being unable to provide services to students in middle and high school grades.
The current funding formula for LAP does not align additional student supports and actual student need. While funding is provided to districts based on low-income enrollment, services are provided to students based on academic need, as identified by the district, regardless of income. This results in two potential misalignments. First, all academically struggling students may not be funded if there are more students in the district that need support than there are low-income students. Second, the full range of academic and non-academic needs of low-income students may not be met if they are not eligible for LAP services.
The funding formula also takes into consideration the salaries of certificated teachers in the district, even though many program services are provided by paraeducators. This creates inequities between districts because funding is different based on the characteristics of the adults in the district, not the students, even if student need is the same between districts.
LAP can be used as a mechanism to target the McCleary investments towards student supports with some changes to increase effectiveness. These changes may include:
Changing the funding formula to be based on student need, not adult characteristics;
Changing the formula to align with student eligibility for services;
Altering and/or expanding the allowable uses for LAP funds and increasing funding levels to ensure the needs of all eligible students are met; and
While considering changes to LAP, we should also be examining the needs of low-income students that are non-academic and, therefore, not addressed by the Learning Assistance Program.
Access to Support Staff
Washington provides districts with minimal funding within the current funding formula for support staff, such as counselors, social workers, nurses, and family engagement coordinators. Many of the allocations for these positions are fractions of full-time employees, meaning the amount of money districts receive is inadequate to hire these staff for more than a couple of hours a week. Our current funding structure also does not require districts to spend money allocated for specific staff positions to hire those staff. This allows districts flexibility in staffing to meet the needs of their communities, but, particularly in our environment of inadequate funding, also means that students may not have access to these staff because districts are unable or choose not to hire them. Possible ways to ensure that every student has access to the services provided by support staff could include increasing funding for support staff; requiring minimum staffing levels for support staff, potentially triggered by high-need student enrollment levels; and facilitating and encouraging partnerships between community-based service providers and districts and schools.
Special Education and Transitional Bilingual Instructional Program
Washington provides districts with additional funding for students qualifying for special education services and for English Language Learners (ELL). These funds must be spent on qualifying students, however, the funds provided by the state may not be adequate to meet the needs of all students. Particularly with special education students, the state limits the amount of special education funding to 12.7% of district enrollment. As a result, districts with larger special education student populations than the state cap may not receive the necessary funding to serve all of their students.
While special education students and ELLs receive specialized services, they also interact regularly with all school staff. However, often only the specialized staff are trained in best practices for working with these student populations. This means that outside of the specialized programing students receive, they may not be adequately supported in the school setting as a whole. Students receiving special education or English language services also may have non-academic or additional academic needs outside of those programs, and require access to other school support staff and services.
As we explore ways to better support every student in Washington schools, this could include examining the adequacy of funding for special education and the Transitional Bilingual Instruction Program (ELL students), funding professional development for all school staff in working with special education and ELL students, and encouraging schools and districts to integrate the services and supports students need outside of the specialized programming, rather than providing services in a silo.
Students’ academic success is determined by a number of factors, including social emotional skills, physical and mental health, academic self-concept, family situation, and expectations of school staff. It is important that students have access to both the academic and non-academic supports they need in order to be successful. Washington has been taking steps to improve access to non-academic supports in recent years, including the development of social emotional learning (SEL) standards and the passage of HB 1541, which creates the integrated student supports protocol. The Washington Integrated Student Supports Protocol (WISSP) will be a tool districts can use to assess student need, strategically partner with families and community based organizations, and leverage district and community resources. These are important steps in our state’s efforts to address all of the factors that impact student achievement, but more can and should be done as we invest in 2017. This could include funding professional development for school staff in cultural competency, trauma-informed practices, and social emotional learning; funding family engagement coordinators for schools; and investing in continued implementation of the WISSP and SEL benchmarks and standards.
Investing in student supports, both academic and non-academic, and providing student access to services through staff, state investment, and partnerships can ensure that our McCleary investments will improve student outcomes.
There isn’t a law that forbids any one of us from understanding how capable we are or how capable we are allowed to be. A few posts back, I mentioned my friend Deonte Bridges and how he was, in a figurative sense, the “Guru of Virtues.” The other day, he posted something online that I feel we should all understand. He wrote, “The system is run by two things in my opinion: Fear and Dependency. Until you give those up, you will find yourself mentally and physically controlled by things and faces that you have never seen.”
I learned a very long time ago, mainly through my stepdad’s harsh but necessary teachings, that you cannot depend on the system entirely as the sole source for your education, and you should always, if necessary, depend on something that is strong and logical. For me, I depended on actual people who made real changes in this nation through their perspectives and strength to prevail, because I figured that form of education would always be necessary. I happened to be right for once.
I believe if Malcom X or Martin Luther King were still alive, they would want us to remember that we didn’t get to where we are today by waiting for the system to change. We got to where we are today by challenging the system and taking back what was rightfully ours, and we must continue to do the same now. There is so much more power in shared knowledge and perspective than there is with restricted access to basic awareness that the broken system provides. I hope that now, more than ever, students recognize that the power is within them, but it’s up to them to embrace it.
My reaction to the election was that this is yet another time when a nation has been seized. Throughout the election, I wondered and if anyone ever thought to ask, “When was America ever great? And how could he possibly make America great again if it was never really great?” Despite what has shaken a nation over the past several days, and what will be a very different reality moving forward in the next four years, we all have to remember that this country was built on unjust ground due to an unfair system. Certain individuals took it upon themselves to decide who would be privileged and who would be burdened, without any logic or true understanding of what it takes for a person to truly be privileged, and how easy it is for a person to be burdened by intellectual poverty and be completely unaware of it.
What surprised me the most was that now, more than ever, millions of people understand a day in the life of a student who has to go to under-resourced schools, taking on ample amounts of adult challenges and anxieties, and continuously having and deal with systematic bullying and oppression as early as 9 years old due to the education system alone. It was shocking how an entire nation felt these emotions all at once. It’s not just certain people or ethnic groups who have to deal with the burden of being uncertain. Now we all do.
The system may never change, but that’s why it’s more important than ever to consider what your role is within the system, and how you can make a difference. Sure, protesting and uniting in that way does some good, but it’s time to support each other’s progressions and fundraise for our kids who will now probably have fewer resources than before. It’s time to use the unity and bond that has been created over the past several days and progress it. Sure, one person can make you feel as if you have no value or power, but the opportunities surrounding the McCleary education funding debate ask you whether that is something you will continue to believe. Will you settle for believing you are worth less than you are, because someone makes you feel that way? I hope the answer is “No,” because you can’t allow fear to carry you through a lifetime of experiences that have already been deemed to be uncertain.
What is McCleary saying to us now? Well, it’s saying that things are going to be different moving forward, but that the fight for quality, equitable education must always be at the forefront of what we continue to advocate for. Every person, regardless of background, color, age, or sexual orientation, is going to be affected in some way by this election. However, it is up to us to change the perspective for our students and help them to redefine the barriers of privilege and poverty, because nowadays you have to ask yourself, “Is there really a difference now with the current changes in the White House?” Could McCleary be saying that, despite the unfortunate event that has transpired, the one thing we still need to do is come together and figure out a way to engage and inspire our students in a unique way? I think that’s exactly what it is saying.
George Eliot once wrote, “There is no despair so absolute as that which comes with the first moments of our first great sorrow, when we have not yet known what it is to have suffered and be healed, to have despaired and have recovered hope.” Regardless of the outcome, the presence of McCleary will always serve as a reminder for every student, now more than ever, to believe the power that they hold is unique to them.
McCleary is trying to get people to realize that, although the American Dream is just an illusion, it doesn’t mean you stop dreaming and give up. Instead, change the perspective of your life and live as best as you can. Remember how this nation was built, and how hard individuals have had to fight for change and equal opportunity in all areas of life in America. Education is the foundation for all great things and, sadly, many people in power understand that. What must we do moving forward? Be optimistic. Encourage our students to believe in something greater than themselves.
There is always going to be someone or something that is going to tell you that you cannot do something or be something. But as Albert Einstein said, “Life is like riding a bike. The key is to keep moving forward.” I lived my life in fear for quite some time, not knowing whether I was going to need another unexpected surgery that I couldn’t afford, or whether I was ever going to be able to become a great writer. Now that I am a few years older, I have learned that often we don’t fear things because we are afraid; we fear things because of their presence.
No one knows what the future holds, and it’s a scary reality. I’m sure we all dream of an equitable and prosperous educational system that empowers every student but, truth be told, why are we depending on a broken system to empower the fresh and priceless minds of our kids that is supported by a divided nation? How can we as advocates, parents, and teachers help our kids perfect and realize their power and skills? I have an idea, but it’s going to require some time, patience and, most importantly, hope in not the system but in each other.
Education is the art of learning and creating perspective. No one can ever take away your ability to learn, as long as you agree to never stop thinking, reading, and questioning everything. That’s how I found my way to journalism.
During my sophomore year through the helpful guidance of a great mentor of mine, I was admitted into the Masters in Education Policy class at the University of Washington. It sounds really impressive but, truth be told, I was terrified. I was in a class with current teachers, Masters candidates, and students in the processes of pursuing a doctoral degree. I was just a sophomore who wanted to be part of revamping the current education system. I had no knowledge of how advocating for policy changes worked. I didn’t know if I would ever have the confidence to challenge the very people who had so much power over my K-12 schooling. All I really had was my experiences and memory of the great fight that I put up to make it through the system by any means necessary.
The first day of my graduate class was actually the first day of my bio anthropology class. Evolution never really intrigued me until I changed the perspective. The first chapter and lecture was on the evolution of birds. It’s not a super exciting topic but I worked with it. The book gave a very bland example of birds in the Galapagos Islands and how they changed or “evolved” over time. It was tragic (not really) in the sense of birds evolving over time and eventually dying off. There were birds with small beaks and birds with larger beaks. In hindsight, there was a variety of birds that carried their own unique traits, some that carried advantages within their own birthright, and some that did not have any advantages at all. A drought happened, which caused the seeds – the main food supply on the small island – to become enlarged. The disadvantaged birds were the ones that had smaller beaks. They couldn’t eat the larger seeds once they became enlarged due to the drought. They were disadvantaged because they were not physically equipped to break down or swallow the enlarged seeds that were produced by the environment. I remember thinking, “Well that sucks – how unfair.” The birds with the larger beaks were seen as the ones with the greatest advantage because they could in fact digest and eat the seeds, and take away the food supply from the disadvantaged. The only reason the larger-beaked birds survived over the smaller-beaked birds was because of their given or inherited advantages. The short-beaked birds died off because they found it impossible to survive without the proper resources. My professor mentioned that he believed that they tried to survive, but were unable because their disadvantages were just too great. That really intrigued me.
I remember not paying attention really until he started going in-depth about how there was always a “struggle for existence.” Learning how organisms have evolved and survived over time was fascinating in the sense that animals are not the only organisms that compete to survive in unruly or extremely disadvantaged environments.
One thing that I was reminded of this past week when I attended the Washington Student Achievement Council’s Pave the Way Conference in Tacoma was that, when it comes to education and the reality of the current system, receiving a quality and equitable education should no longer be a means of survival.
In society, an individual’s socioeconomic status (SES) is seen as a determinant in how a person is able to maintain, sustain and progress in life. Whether it be going to college or finding a career, SES in a sense allows you to see your advantages and disadvantages within the scope of your environment. The disadvantages within the environment are circumstances that can include addiction, poverty, abuse, neglect, and a wide range of other issues on top of a failing education system that a student is required to participate in.
The problem I see, as well as many advocates, is that the current system is not designed to support the advancement of every child. Instead, it’s tailored more to generalized outcomes than actual investments in advancements.
At some point in time, those who come from a particular SES – whether it be high, middle or low – that individual has to live in the “reality” of that status for some time. That’s a tough reality that we all have to face. We are given our disadvantages and advantages based on a status that is imposed on us at birth. I am sure there are many people much like myself who have looked at their surroundings while growing up and have said, “I didn’t ask for my life or parents to be this way,” or “I didn’t ask for all these problems.” Our survival abilities as humans come from how we deal with our unruly environments and imposed status and realities, but for most kids who are counting on the education system to help them to make it out and have a better chance at life, that’s failing them as well.
We need to stop expecting children to have the answers to overcoming poverty because there isn’t a special algorithm, especially when a quality education isn’t yet an option for everyone who wants one.
I haven’t heard of a school system that has properly equipped, fully funded without question, and strategically and morally invested in giving every child the proper resources to achieve. Instead, I continue to see a child’s background and SES being used as a shield or a reason to not fully invest, because they are seen as not as having as much potential as students who come from moderately stable (if not extremely stable) environments. It is not up to the system to decide who has the most potential and who is worth investing in, and who is not. That decision should be left up to the child.
Just as those short-beaked birds didn’t choose to be born in what would later on be considered as a “disadvantage,” they had no choice but to figure out a way to survive within their environment and to make that disadvantage work, or literally die trying. People do not choose to be born into harsh situations and environments. I can’t imagine someone waking up and saying to themselves, “Today seems like a great day to be burdened with hunger or extreme poverty.” I couldn’t imagine a child choosing to be in that position or in disadvantaged environment as a direct result of their family’s socioeconomic status. I strongly believe that McCleary is trying to get the very people who have the power to change the life experience of every child through a quality, immersive, and fully funded education.
We see in today’s society the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, and those in-between making it, but barely making it. Even within school districts, we see certain schools that have more access to resources because they are performing at higher levels than the schools who do not, which is only a direct result of not having a multitude of resources on top of the imposed realities that their education conveys to them. That was one of the strongest points that I heard at the Pave the Way Conference.
McCleary is helping to ensure that the decision is left up to the child and not the system. It only makes sense to invest in all students equally because if not, that sounds illegal.
At the Pave the Way Conference, I remember checking the agenda of breakouts after the morning speaker, Gary Orfield, finished his powerful address. He focused on the impact of policy and equal opportunity for success in American society. I checked my agenda and took notice that one of the sessions was about the “Realities of Poverty.”
One of the main goals of the session was to educate individuals on how poverty affects the development of an individual’s self-concept and influences a person’s values and beliefs. One thing that really resonated with me was that, when it comes to creating policies and truly advocating for kids from various backgrounds who may be experiencing various levels of poverty, there must a deeper understanding of how barriers are built within children that burden them every morning they walk through the doors of their respected schools. We have to see how poverty becomes a frequent reality for tomorrow’s adults, which is primarily due to a social system that does not provide pathways out of poverty that are realistic and long term, but instead generalized investments for expected outcomes.
I think McCleary is challenging the very people who have the power to create change within the current education system in the state of Washington. I believe that McCleary is asking what they are really afraid of.
The Pave the Way “Realities of Poverty” session went into great detail about how, in today’s society, we are socialized to judge and to not fully be aware, which causes us to miss out on the understanding piece. The facilitator gave a powerful example of how she once saw a man with rotten teeth and her first thought was, “He must be on drugs,” instead of taking a step back and thinking about our American society where over 40% of underserved communities do not have access to quality, affordable healthcare. Maybe his teeth were rotten because he does not have the means to see a dentist. She then went on to speak about how children see themselves through what is given/expected of them. McCleary could allow every student in the state of Washington to know that they will survive and access the American dream. After all, today’s children are tomorrow’s adults.
By MyKaila Young, League of Education Voters intern
With the proposal of a new and improved system that will help to ensure that all students feel confident and equipped, one thing I, as well many educators, policymakers and parents may be wondering is: how can the new system set in place with McCleary be used to inspire students moving forward? In addition to teaching kids the fundamentals of learning, how can we teach them the fundamentals of a living an enriched and motivated life in a way that’s engaging for every student – those who have a strong network of support at home and those who do not?
To begin this week of following McCleary, resilience is best defined as the ability to work with challenges in a way that teaches and enriches, and in turn allows an individual to thrive. It’s what many might consider to be one the great and rare virtues in life. I mean rare in the sense that not all students understand how to obtain it, where it comes from, etc. The task is figuring out how all students can understand it and, in turn, embrace it in a way that it is maintained to college and beyond. How do you get students to become resilient?
It’s not very often when I’m at a loss for words. In fact, I can count on my hand the number of times that I’ve been so inspired or surprised to the point I could barely write or think. All I wanted to do was just hold on to that moment. This has only happened a few times. The first was when I read Life Without Principle for the first time. The second was when I received the Gates Millennium Scholarship. The third was when I stood in front of the Eiffel Tower last year on Thanksgiving. The fourth was when former Congressman John Lewis acknowledged my presence, and the very last experience was a bit peculiar because it consisted of crossing paths with a complete stranger and receiving a card.
A business card is a business card, but he didn’t have just an ordinary business card. He had an answer to exactly what the K-12 system is missing. Part of what McCleary understands and recognizes is based on the statistics and feedback of the current system, but this stranger who handed me his card really understood, and built an entire organization around it.
In hindsight, his organization propels the missing fragment in the K-12 system that some students find, while others, unfortunately, do not. His story was printed on the back of his card, and my entire life was completely changed. I was overtaken with inspiration, and once again unaware of what to do with myself for the fifth time in my life.
I’ve met a lot of remarkable and inspiring people over the years, but this encounter was a bit different. His story filled my heart with so much hope and possibility for the future that it inspired me to the point of silence. He is also a Gates Millennium Scholar, CEO of From Hardships to Scholarships, and goes by the name Deonte Bridges. He is someone who I’ve added to my list of Great Inspirations.
Deonte is originally from Atlanta, and he introduced me to the impact that this virtue of resiliency can have when it comes to education.
I attended the Annual Library Association Conference in Orlando, and former Congressman John Lewis was one of the keynote speakers. I was staying at the Hyatt Regency and near the reception desk when he walked by with a few of his colleagues. I waved at him and he waved back at me. As if life wasn’t great enough after that moment, I was able to casually network with my fellow GMS Scholars over the next five days. It was in that same lobby that I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time to meet Deonte Bridges.
We were standing by the second elevator towers in the Hyatt and he was casually dressed in a white shirt. At the time, I didn’t know how powerful he was, or who he was for that matter, because I’m a little behind in ALL social media movements. That’s one thing I promised myself at the beginning of next year I would work on – using my social media accounts more, instead of writing in my journals all the time. I didn’t know that he took the Internet by storm when he graduated his senior year, around the same time he was welcomed into the GMS family.
Deonte was first male valedictorian of his high school in more than a decade and earned over $1,000,000 in scholarships – all while overcoming hardships such as the untimely death of his brother, his mother’s diagnosis with cancer, and being robbed at gunpoint. In a live interview he invited me to watch, he said he remembers a time during his freshman year of high school when he told everyone that he was going to get a million dollars in scholarships. Everyone thought he was crazy and didn’t believe him or in his ability to make something like that happen as an inner city youth. When he did it, despite everything else that was going on in his life, it took the world by storm. He had that same Alice in Wonderland Confidence I spoke about in my previous blog.
With over 1 million YouTube views of his powerful speech about overcoming the odds, people in Europe, Africa, and throughout the U.S were taken away by the beautiful virtue he carried throughout the K-12 educational system and Morehouse College. From there, he was featured on CNN Live, in Essence Magazine, and on a wide range of talk shows.
Deonte currently speaks to educators and students on topics such as education, character development, resilience, and values, to name a few. His full motivational series answers that burning question we all have: how we can instill this rare but vital virtue into the hearts and minds of every student in the K-12 system.
I guess you can say he’s like the Guru of Virtues when it comes to empowering young students to understand and acknowledge how much potential they have, and how they can unleash it no matter which obstacles or unexpected visits from adversity they may have.
As a young girl, when I would read literature, it was solely because I recognized that I had the potential to be great at something. I had a small hint when I was 9 that it would be writing. I just needed to figure out what I could do with it, or if I was even capable of doing anything with it. In Henry Thoreau’s Life Without Principles, I learned that although society may try to limit what I believe I can do, or make me feel that I didn’t have any potential, ultimately the decision was up to me. I related to his thoughts, words and perspectives in a way that helped me protect my potential at any costs, and in turn become resilient.
Although, Aristotle, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and the great Henry Thoreau have all left behind their legacies, I will never forget the experience of finding someone to relate to. But every student is different. We can’t expect every student to pick up a copy of the books I read and expect them to become resilient, or we can’t expect every student to do what Deonte did to become resilient, because we all find resiliency in different ways. However, what we can do is give every student access to different programs and resources that will help them ultimately decide how they can become resilient in a way that is unique to them. That’s what From Hardships to Scholarships offers, and more.
When I read his card, he reminded me of the same exact hope that I carried with me over the years when I made the choice to always see the value and potential in my life, even if I was part of a system that made me feel like I did not matter. The only difference between my earlier inspiration and how it’s maintained today is that I found someone who is still living I can relate to – but my resiliency is different it is from how he found his. I share mine through writing, and he is actively working and sharing his in a way that’s helping all students and faculty think about what they want their legacies to be, and how much potential they have.
It made me wonder if McCleary is really asking whether there is enough funding geared towards programs to help kids who may not have the best sources of inspiration. Would they benefit from leadership programs offered in a more engaging way?
Is there enough money and time being invested in helping kids personally develop their passions and sense of self, in addition to learning the fundamentals? Where can we start when considering how to recruit more faculty that can relate to students and what they experience once the schools doors close? From Hardships to Scholarships answered all my burning questions after getting to know the founder himself through his organization and motivational series.
I often wonder how we can expect a child to go on to do great work and fully utilize their Education Passports beyond high school if their inspiration, sense of self, and drive isn’t fully developed. Education is something that is lifelong. It’s not just about algorithms, equations, or how Christopher Columbus had it all wrong. It’s about growing into your potential and then, in turn, sharing it with people around you in such a way that contributes to making the world a better place. It’s about preparing students for the next phase of life. And although that’s an algorithm within itself, it’s something that Pi squared can’t always solve.
McCleary and redefining what basic education means is a start to helping students figure out how to solve the more complex algorithms when the school doors close. Life is hard for us all at certain points. We should encourage all students to wear their potential as armor and allow their passion and knowledge to carry them to the success that every person, whether student or educator, desires.
By MyKaila Young, League of Education Voters intern
Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, a son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, and the child of farm workers can become the president of a nation.”
As promised, over the next few months I’ll be following the McCleary ruling and breaking down its significance and which benefits it will bring to the current K-12 education system for students, from my perspective.
What is McCleary? It’s what Malcolm X would call the New Passport or what Nelson Mandela might call the Great Engine of Personal Development. If we look at the K-12 system as the Leadership Academy that helps cultivate and guide students in the right direction in pursuit of becoming the next generation of leaders, it may be a little easier to understand.
Our Declaration of Independence says that every person has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The Declaration of Independence is the great equalizer and, in this scenario, will act as the “The Boss.” So, The Boss says that every person who enters into this Leadership Academy will leave prepared, satisfied, confident, equipped, and ready to take on the challenge of becoming part of the next generation of leaders.
In fact, The Boss says it’s illegal to not fully invest in the Leadership Academy and prosperity of every student. In hindsight, students are not allowed to be robbed of a quality and enriching education. That’s both beautiful and cause of one of the biggest debates throughout the country. Are students really receiving the resources and guidance they need to prosper? In other words, are we teaching kids to drive but when it comes time for them to get behind the wheel, did we only really give them 2 ½ tires?
Unfortunately, not all students are leaving the Academy ready for the world and feeling confident to be great leaders, which makes The Boss sad. The appointees who have been entrusted with the funds to create and support the programs that help cultivate the leaders through the Academy, or making sure all kids leave the Academy with four tires and not 2 ½, now have to go back to the drawing board.
Here at the League of Education Voters, we are advocating for a stronger Leadership Academy, or K-12 system for students. Under McCleary, we would like to redefine what basic education is, and which resources are really needed for student success to cultivate the strongest, confident and most prosperous leadership for every student, regardless of his or her background.
It should no longer be about who has the greater means; it should be about having an equal playing field in pursuit of helping every student make the economy and the world a better place. McCleary can give every student their own individual and valid Education Passport – one that won’t just get them through high school, but to college and beyond. One that will take them to unimaginable and prosperous places.
When I applied for the Gates Millennium Scholarship (GMS) back in 2013, it was nine essays, no word limit, full creative control to answer all questions – a little gift I felt was just for me to be able to showcase my skill and love for writing. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave me my passport to prosperity and unimaginable places, college being the first stop and then the opportunity to study in Spain, Paris, Ireland, and next to Poland in just a few months.
Currently, it is required that all students receive 1,000 hours of instruction annually. How these hours are split up throughout the years to create the greatest leaders is dependent upon well, what the teacher can do with the resources the appointees give. I found through my own personal experience that my teachers needed more support with what they wanted to do to help my classmates and I learn as much as possible in a way that works for us. Look at it like this, if students create the best art by using color instead of lead pencils, but with 21 students in a class and only enough money to buy colored pencils and paint for 15, do you see how that could be problematic and could potentially make The Boss unhappy? If a teacher has 21 students and needs 21 sets of paintbrushes and colored pencils because it is a pathway to help students understand the material to get them to the next stage of the leadership academy successfully, then that should not be up for debate.
I was a reluctant case. I was passing by through the K-12 system because I had to deal with what I was given. In hindsight, I had a few experiences being the student that “couldn’t paint” because there weren’t enough resources. However, I had a lot of outside practice thanks to my dad making my sisters and me the Jackson 5 of Education growing up. He made us work on our skills and passions for what felt like an additional 1,000 hours throughout the school year. I’m sure as a parent, he understood that there were many cracks in the K-12 system, but probably felt that there was no sense in fighting a system that was broken and probably wasn’t going to be repaired anytime soon.
Our summers were not typical summers. It was the Jackson 5 Academy of Learning, which I appreciate now but hated back then. This is why McCleary is such a big deal. It could be the start to fixing the system. I was constantly writing, reading, and writing some more to the point where I was confident enough to give birth to a dream and pursue it, because I had the perspective and knowledge that I could succeed. In fact, it became quite ridiculous how much I started writing over the years. In college, the only kind of partying I really did was in the UW’s Suzzallo Library with the Dewey Decimal System or in my Ballard studio with my laptop and Google docs.
When it came to applying to one of the most prestigious undergraduate scholarships in the country (Gates Millennium), I didn’t consider the odds that were against me. Instead, I felt confident enough in my ability to write because that’s all they were asking me and every other student in the country to do, just write. So I went to town because at this point, it wasn’t about any challenge or obstacle in front of me, but it came down to skill, experience and ability. I also knew my rights that Thomas Jefferson outlined for all individuals in the Declaration of Independence. So for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I applied to that scholarship.
I’ve always believed that someday I could be a great writer and reporter. If I wanted to be on the New York Times Best Seller list or even be skilled enough to work at CNN, it had to start with a confident and disciplined belief. That’s what my dad, Michael, taught me. As I grew older, I recognized that I couldn’t dream and hold on to doubt at the same time. One was a heavy load and the other always made me feel like Alice in Wonderland.
McCleary questions whether students have the confidence to pursue their wildest dreams. Do they feel capable? If not, how can that change? I see my mentors and colleagues at LEV really trying to figure that out.
When I received the Welcome to the GMS Family packet, I felt as if I could take on the world and nothing was out of my reach. Not only did it guarantee me a free undergraduate education but a free education through earning my doctorate. One of my best friends from Colorado is also a Gates scholar with a compelling story and an astounding amount of what I like to call Alice in Wonderland Confidence, as well. Her name is Michael and when I met her, I didn’t feel crazy that my dreams seemed to go far beyond the stars or like I was stuck in some kind of Wonderland.
On the phone one day, I asked her what she wanted to do as a career and what her dreams were. She told me that she wanted to work for NASA. I will never forget that moment. I was looking for the Caesar croutons in aisle 4 at QFC and I remember stopping in my tracks, unsure if I heard her correctly because it was such a confident response. Her dream job was to be an astronaut. This is a true story. People would always tell her that she had a better chance of becoming president of the U.S than becoming an astronaut for NASA. Nelson Mandela had a great point –education is the fuel that drives a student to believe in the possibility of the things they may see as impossible.
Does the current K-12 system allow students to believe in the possibility of a great future? I imagine McCleary as the hope and challenge to the impossible that students may feel. I imagine it giving students the same Alice in Wonderland confidence that Michael and I had in order to go after our dreams and challenge the status quo of our backgrounds. I imagine McCleary being the engine that fuels the confidence for many other students to dream of being great writers, reporters, and astronauts.
I believe that McCleary could give birth to a new system of belief for every student. When considering McCleary, I think a lot of people involved in the issue are asking, do we need more arts and leadership programs? Better use of testing and more conversations? I’ll be reaching out and sharing their perspective and experiences, as well. The debate over how the 1,000 hours of instruction in all grade levels will be supported and spent is heating up, so stay tuned – it’s interesting business that you won’t want to miss.
By MyKaila Young, League of Education Voters intern
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” This is a quote from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. The novel tells a story of contrasts and comparisons between London and Paris during the French Revolution. When I went to Paris by myself for Thanksgiving last year, I thought about everything I pictured going on in this book I read as a child. Two Cities was one of many on the shelves at the Tacoma Rescue Mission, a family shelter on 15th and Yakima where I used to live with my mom and sisters. The book didn’t have any obvious connections to my life like my favorite book of all time, Life Without Principle by Henry Thoreau. I was ten years old when I picked up out that piece of literature from the shelves.
A little bit about myself: I am a Tacoma native, senior at the University of Washington studying journalism, and I want to be a great author, writer and reporter someday. I love writing. In fact, if you were to ask me what gets me out of bed every morning, I could tell you that writing nearly makes it impossible for me to even get to bed. I could stay up all night writing.
I’ve probably read Life Without Principle a dozen times. Henry Thoreau gave me something to think about and challenge. His thoughts and perspectives intrigued me. I wanted to know what he was talking about and if there was any truth behind his wisdom. Naturally, I started questioning and challenging everything. On the subject of poverty, I wondered what makes a person poor. With education, who was really in control of what I was able to learn if we allowed individuals like Henry Thoreau, Martin Luther King, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Aristotle on the shelves at public libraries and in peculiar places like shelters?
As long as I had access to education and sources of knowledge, no one person, institution or experience would ever make me feel poor. In fact, I considered myself very wealthy because of all the knowledge that was made available to me.
Throughout Life Without Principle, Thoreau emphasized the importance of separating ourselves from society as a whole and living life according to our own works and decisions. Ultimately, after reading this book several times as a kid, I began to understand that just because I was poor and didn’t have everything that students whose parents could afford to send them to expensive private schools, with a wealth of resources that most public school students couldn’t access, it didn’t mean that I would never amount to anything or be able to go to college and excel.
I separated myself from the expectations of poverty, believed in myself, and viewed myself and my life situation as two separate entities. Growing up poor with a series of adversities, you have to find something or someone to believe in. Kids in poverty face a different experience than kids who grow up with the necessary means and resources. I continued to read and immersed myself into writing, mainly reflecting on the thoughts of many of my favorite authors, humanitarians and philosophers that I began to discover.
When I got my first public library card, I knew I could do anything. If I knew what the kids in the private schools knew and more, and still had access to public education, I was going to be fine. I was never working to prove anything; I was working to become all that I could be, because I remember how I felt growing up having to move homes so often because we didn’t have very much money, living in the shelters, watching my mom struggle, and a wide range of other hardships that I had to face. I wanted better for myself, and it wasn’t fair to my heart if I didn’t do something with this life that I was given. I felt it was a part of my greater birthright to be all that I could be and more.
The McCleary education funding debate is one that intrigues me. It makes me wonder how the opportunities it presents could change everything for kids adversely affected by the current system. I remember my experience going through the K-12 system, how hard it was, and how tenaciously I had to work outside of school hours to get to where I am today.
Over the next few months, I’ll be following the McCleary case and sharing the perspectives of educators, students, community leaders, and a little about my experiences in college.
It’s hard to believe it’s back-to-school time already. It feels like just yesterday when our kids wrapped up the school year in June and now we’re back at it again. At least the NFL gets underway tonight. And I’m ready for some football.
Here at the League of Education Voters, we’re drilling down on the opportunities and implications of the McCleary education funding lawsuit. We’re starting a blog series, so you can know where we’re leaning. Read the first installment here. And we want to know what you’re thinking, as well. This is a journey, so come aboard!
In the meantime, I invite you to read our September newsletter to learn more about our activist of the month, Col. Felix Vargas, and an upcoming free Lunchtime LEVinar on Expanded Learning Opportunities, featuring our partners from School’s Out Washington.
Also, I would like thank everyone who sent in questions for our podcast interviews with state Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) candidates Erin Jones and Chris Reykdal. We will post the interviews by the end of the month and continue to publicize OSPI candidate forums on the LEV website.
At the League of Education Voters, we recognize all of the hard work that you do toward improving public education across Washington state. We are pleased to announce our Activist of the Month for September: Felix Vargas.
Read more about Col. Vargas’ work advocating for public education—especially when it comes to equity in education around the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Read more
Education does not stop when the school bell rings. So young people’s access to high-quality expanded learning opportunities—afterschool, in the summer and throughout the year – should grow.
Join Stephanie Lennon and David Beard from School’s Out Washington to learn more about expanded learning, its role in helping students succeed and grow, and how you can help make this happen. This 30-minute Lunchtime LEVinar will take place on Thursday September 22, at 12:30 p.m. Learn more or register
Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction candidates Erin Jones and Chris Reykdal are continuing to speak at forums around the state.
See them September 20 in Tacoma and September 28 in Seattle. Also, watch for LEV-exclusive podcast interviews later this month at educationvoters.org and on LEV’s Facebook and Twitter pages! Learn more
What is required of our educational system will continue to change over time. We need to develop a program of basic education that can evolve based on current and future student needs and a funding mechanism that is flexible enough to support that shifting program. Let’s envision a program of basic education that is aspirational and that creates a new path forward for Washington state. Read more
At the League of Education Voters (LEV), we recognize all of the hard work that you do toward improving public education across Washington state. We are pleased to announce our Activist of the Month for September: Felix Vargas.
Retired Colonel Felix Vargas of Pasco, Washington, has taken on the charge of helping the League of Education Voters understand the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) at a local level so that we can ensure that children who need additional support are not denied tutoring services promised by the federal government. Col. Vargas advocates with the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), and speaks regularly with Senator Patty Murray’s representatives and the local Pasco School District, which has not yet provided in writing the district’s plans for tutoring services.
About a year ago, Col. Vargas met LEV Community Organizer Ruvine Jiménez at a Pasco Citizens for Better Schools forum to support a school levy and he now meets with Ruvine at least once a week. He has since invited Ruvine to participate in two meetings with Congressman Dan Newhouse. These sessions have provided an opportunity to explain to the Congressman why it is important to maintain ESSA funding for the Tri-Cities region. Col. Vargas is working on what ESSA means for the community, such as adding resources for early learning programs like a pre-K learning center, and looking at how schools provide information and how they are evaluated.
Thanks to his work, the Tri-Cities community now has access to senior levels of leadership in government and education. Deputy State Superintendent Gil Mendoza has recently spoken on two occasions to the community on ESSA. Col. Vargas participated in an OSPI candidate forum in July and is helping to organize another similar forum this fall.
Col. Vargas also meets with a Latino parents’ group monthly to discuss why students are under-performing. He explains, “Beyond the obvious factors of language, culture and socioeconomic standing, we believe that the quality of instruction and teaching credentials have to be assessed and weighed as well. Our parents want a 360-degree review.” He listens closely to what the Latino parents say, and then holds quarterly meeting with the Pasco School District’s Parents Advisory Committee.
Col. Vargas is not shy about talking to anyone. He held concurrent careers in the U.S. Government as a military and civilian officer. He served as a Foreign Service officer with the U.S. State Department and as a U.S. Army Reserve officer. Col. Vargas served two tours of duty as an Army Ranger and Special Forces officer in Vietnam. After retiring from the U.S. government, he entered the corporate world, serving as manager of sales and marketing for an American helicopter company in Mexico City, where he sold helicopters to the Mexican government and the private sector.
From 2006 – 2010, Col. Vargas returned to Washington, DC, to champion education and training opportunities for the newest generation of U.S. military veterans returning from wars in the Middle East. He received a White House appointment as member, then chairman, of the U.S. Advisory Committee for Veterans Business Affairs during this time. In April 2010, he accepted an assignment to work with U.S. and international agencies assisting Haiti following the catastrophic earthquake in January 2010. Col. Vargas lived in Haiti for a year.
In 2012, he returned to his hometown of Pasco, Washington, where his focus now is on his community in the Tri-Cities. He hit the ground running, forming the Consejo Latino (Latino Council) to serve as a discussion group on issues of interest to a diverse and dynamic Hispanic community, getting involved in community policing and economic development of Latino businesses.
Two years ago, Col. Vargas added advocacy for voters’ rights, rights for injured agricultural workers, and education. He started reading and learning about the local education landscape. He recalls, “I was surprised to find out that two of our elementary schools have 98 percent Latino students, and the schools overall are 70 percent Latino in the Pasco district. Times sure have changed.” Col. Vargas was the only Latino in his high school graduating class, and the only other Latino(a) in the school at the time was his younger sister.
Education has now become a core issue for Col. Vargas. He recently met with the superintendent of Educational Service District 123 in Pasco to discuss developments and approach in such areas as early learning and bilingual education. He always expects and looks forward to civil and productive conversation. He says, “I will continue to collaborate with community providers and other partners at the State and Federal levels to seek solutions to the many challenges of education for all students. Let’s keep up the drumbeat.”
In the 2017 legislative session, Washington state is poised to make historic investments in basic education. But what will those dollars buy? The current program of “basic education” is not robust enough to meet our “paramount duty” and ensure that all students have the knowledge and skills to compete in today’s economy and participate in our state’s democracy. The upcoming investment provides an unprecedented opportunity to rethink our system of education and the resources and tools at our disposal to provide Washington students with the education promised by our Constitution.
What is required of our educational system will continue to change over time. We need to develop a program of basic education that can evolve based on current and future student needs and a funding mechanism that is flexible enough to support that shifting program. Let’s envision a program of basic education that is aspirational and that creates a new path forward for Washington state. The vision should include best practices, teaching and instruction that closes achievement gaps, supports that allow students to be the best learners, a program that doesn’t start with kindergarten and end with high school, but consists of the full education continuum—early learning through postsecondary.
Ample and equitable funding is necessary to build a robust education system that works for all children. However, money is a tool, not a solution. New dollars should be seen as a tool to improve our system for all students. We believe that this can be done by rethinking how we:
compensate teachers and staff
leverage funding and human resources according to meet student needs
recruit, retain, and train teachers
provide additional student supports
measure the effectiveness of our investments and improve practice
How should we redefine basic education? Well, we don’t have to look far. There are programs and practices across our state that are working but need the proper investments in order to be sustained and spread to other schools and districts. Over the next few months, we’ll share how money can be used as a tool to fix teacher compensation; recruit, retain, and train qualified teachers; and add necessary student supports that yield positive outcomes and close achievement gaps. We’ll also share stories from around the state on how districts, community-based organizations, and citizens are closing gaps and subsidizing “basic education” with local resources. Asking the paramount question: How can money be used to go beyond our current basic education?