Schools and trust: What works for communities of color

As COVID-19 swept through San Diego’s City Heights community, a diverse neighborhood with a robust population of immigrants from Latin America, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Somalia, Hoover High School evolved from being a learning hub for teenagers to being a communal educational hub for COVID-19 information, safety practices, testing, and vaccinations.

Principal Jason Babineau says the trust the school has built with the surrounding community, over multiple years, produced such a sense of safety that 60% of its students have returned for in-person instruction since the school reopened in April. 

“The element of trust within an entire community is paramount always because we’re taking care of community members’ and parents’ children,” he says. “But in times of public health crisis, there’s nothing more important than trust and solid partnership, and that is developed over time.”

Why We Wrote This

How do schools build trust with families? As students return to classrooms, diverse communities in California offer ideas for moving forward from inequities amplified by the pandemic.

As Hoover High and other public schools in California return to classroom instruction, building community and trust is critical since 60% percent of the state’s six million students identify as Black, Latino, or Hispanic. Those groups, along with low-income students, reported the poorest educational outcomes pre-pandemic and experienced significant learning losses during the last year. 

At a time when public schools are trying to be seen as a viable option, the pandemic has amplified long-standing issues like racial inequity and lack of support, say parents and advocates from communities here and in states like New York. But some have suggestions for how schools can move forward, bringing all families with them. They say that diversifying the teacher pool, teaching an inclusive curriculum, supporting parents holistically, and bridging the digital divide are all necessary tools for creating community and achieving student success. 

“We can’t go back to school as usual because we’ve had equity issues for decades,” says Natalie Wheatfall-Lum, director of P-16 Education Policy at The Education Trust–West, a nonprofit that seeks to close the educational gap for students of color and those living in poverty.

Acknowledging “ghosts” of the past

Keri Rodrigues, founding president of the National Parents Union, which advocates for the educational needs of children, says it’s important to recognize that “people who are parents today were students yesterday.” 

Parents of historically underserved students don’t automatically trust their children’s schools to educate them, she says, because “there are still ghosts in the classroom for many of us who were underserved or pushed out or treated badly.” Her overall message for educators: Listen and partner with us. 

This spring, surveys showed Black and Latino parents across the United States were less inclined to send their children back to in-person schooling than their white counterparts. Attention to health protocols, infrastructure issues, and worry about putting intergenerational households at risk are among the concerns. Asian parents are also hesitant due to the recent spike in anti-Asian assaults. Some families in these demographic groups have turned to home schooling and learning pods instead.

Just over half of California public school students, 55%, many from low-income families, were still learning remotely from home as of the end of April, according to an analysis from the Oakland-based nonprofit EdSource.  

For Ms. Wheatfall-Lum, the trust-building starts with a focus on uplifting the poorest students, a move that will benefit students of color and all students. As she sees it, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

For example, school advocates have long lauded the importance of bridging the digital divide between low-income students and their more affluent peers to improve educational outcomes. Although there is more work to be done closing the gap, the pandemic revealed that giving students access to technology also increased communication and partnership between families and schools.

At Hoover High – part of the San Diego Unified School District, the second largest in the state – maintaining community has included using Zoom for outreach. Some meetings are confidential forums where immigrant families in particular can ask questions anonymously. In recent years, the school has stayed attuned to those it serves by using surveys, understanding language needs, and really listening to parents. Technology is Hoover High’s latest means of support, with Principal Babineau estimating that Zoom and other platforms have “increased parental involvement, by at least double.” 

Kisha Borden, president of the San Diego Education Association, a teachers union, praises the district’s laptop and hotspot distribution efforts. But she adds, “It is a little concerning that before COVID we had that many students who needed technology who just couldn’t get it.”

“If we keep all of those devices [85,000] in the hands of our students and we continue to advocate for broadband access and Wi-Fi access,” she says, then students from low-income communities can have access to the same educational resources that those from wealthier neighborhoods have always had.

Moves like that would improve achievement for underserved students and engender more trust with their families, advocates say.

More than just academics 

Schools that want to shift outcomes for young people “have to take more responsibility and care for the mamas and daddies that they [students] come from,” says Lakisha Young, the executive director of Oakland REACH, a parent-led group that created a Virtual Family Hub in 2020.

The holistic model her group offers – which has boosted student achievement and includes partnering with the local school district – has attracted the attention of other districts and parent advocacy groups around the U.S. Besides assisting students with tutoring and after-school activities, Oakland REACH supports parents with tech training on topics like Gmail and Zoom and with financial literacy courses and job opportunities. 

Ms. Rodrigues agrees with this community-building approach. “Parents are out there trying to do the best that they can,” she says. “We’ve got to say – once and for all – ‘We’re going to break this cycle of poverty. We’re going to help parents. We’re going to help heal communities.’” 

A focus on what’s being taught

School reform advocates say that retooling curriculum to be inclusive also builds trust with families of color.

California had already been increasing ethnic studies coursework before state legislatures elsewhere in the U.S. recently started passing laws prohibiting some types of anti-racist instruction. San Diego Unified School District has an ethnic studies graduation requirement that will go into effect for freshmen entering high school this fall. Los Angeles Unified has a similar requirement; and the state of California, after contentious debate, recently approved a statewide ethnic studies curriculum for high schools, the first of its kind in the nation.

Ms. Wheatfall-Lum, from The Education Trust–West, echoing other school advocates, says what’s taught should reflect “the experiences of all students in the classroom” to ensure that their identities “are valued and lifted up in the day-to-day work that they’re doing.”

Teaching culturally affirming curriculum, they all say, shows families that they are seen, valued, and understood by school leaders.

Hoover High senior Erick Belmudez took a Chicano studies course in 2019, the fall of his junior year. For him, such courses are necessary and eye opening.

“It’s the things we never hear about in history: what happened to other countries and people,” he says, adding that it’s critical for students “to learn about others’ background and why we’re divided.” 

In general, he says his teachers have done a good job handling race-related issues that have arisen nationally and in California. “Hoover has made it so that we feel a sense of belonging,” he says.

Also on the wish list: teacher diversity

Christina Laster, an Afro Latina parent of four, says that the pool of educators must diversify if schools in the Golden State want to meet the needs of its diverse population. 

Ms. Laster, who lives in Palm Springs and works as the director of policy and legislation with the National Parents Union, says her children and grandchildren “need teachers that look like them.”

Studies have shown that teachers of color positively affect the educational outcomes for students of color and all students. This month, San Diego Unified School District announced a new effort to diversify its teachers and district staff by recruiting students and community members. While about 76% of students in the district identify as people of color, only about a third of teachers do.

A national push for more diversity is also underway. President Biden has included teacher diversity in his American Families Plan, and an open letter asking for the topic to be a priority was sent this week to Miguel Cardona, the secretary of education, signed by groups including The Education Trust, National Parents Union, and State of Black Education Oakland.

The needle moved a bit in Massachusetts during the pandemic with the state’s allowance for emergency teaching licenses resulting in at least 25% of some 7,000 licenses as of March being given to teachers of color. San Diego Unified School District plans to offer stipends to students who enroll in training programs and return to work in its schools. One of the groups that sent the open letter to Washington, The Center for Black Educator Development, uses a model that trains high schoolers to teach early literacy skills to primary school students, and provides paid apprenticeships and fellowships for teacher candidates through community funders, according to founder and chief executive officer Sharif El-Mekki.

As schools continue to work toward communities of trust with families, Ms. Laster’s hope for all children mirrors her hope for her own: “I want them to be free to learn and thrive.”


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