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School Climate Data Is an Equity Issue

Note: Members from Educators For Excellence (E4E) are guest posting this week. Today's post if from Steven Almazan, a 2014 E4E-Los Angeles Teacher Policy Team member and fourth and fifth grade special education teacher at New Open World Academy.

In education policy conversations, words like "equity" and "civil rights" are often used in an abstract sense, paired with vague notions of failing schools. For me, these ideas could not be more concrete. I am the second generation in my family to be educated in Los Angeles schools, and the first to teach in them. My parents attended Roosevelt High School in the 1970's, when it was widely considered one of the worst schools in the nation. My mother actually never graduated--she is one of millions of students of color the system failed. I grew up in Boyle Heights and attended my neighborhood school, until my parents moved me to a parochial school because they didn't want me to have their experience.

Sadly, I am the exception--not the rule--in terms of college access for members of my community. Most of my neighborhood friends were pulled into gangs, and pushed out of school. I was one of the first in my family to attend college, and during my time at the University of Southern California (USC), I worked with a group of my college peers to support high school students in organizing around the School Climate Bill of Rights for LAUSD in 2012. The School Climate Bill of Rights resolution, which was adopted by the LAUSD School Board last year, guaranteed a safe, high-quality school for every student, recognizing that an appropriate learning environment is a prerequisite for improved academic achievement.

The School Climate Bill of Rights banned a trend of suspending students for minor infractions, which were negatively impacting many of our at-risk youth and particularly boys of color. And it demands the district prioritize better outcomes for students of color, invest in alternatives to suspensions and collect and publish data around issues that impact a school's learning environment. This important resolution has laid the groundwork for improving the culture of LAUSD, but implementation has a long way to go before our students walk into schools that are worthy of them.

Teachers, like myself, recognize we have an important role to play in setting the right tone in our classrooms and schools to create an environment in which students are engaged, supported, and feel safe. That's one of the reasons I recently joined a team of 13 educators on an E4E-Los Angeles Teacher Policy Team to create recommendations to help the district effectively implement the School Climate Bill of Rights.

The team brought a unique set of experiences to the table. We had first-year teachers like me, 20+ year veterans, deans of charter schools, and union leaders. We came with different perspectives, but a common goal: improving outcomes for our neediest students and particularly boys of color.

Our Policy team realized that the bill of rights provides a strong foundation for all students, teachers, and parents to fight for the school they need and deserve. Yet, there are concrete steps that the school, district, and state can take to improve implementation and better serve our children. In June, our Policy Team will be releasing all of our recommendations, but today I want to share the significant role that we think data can play in improving the learning environment in our schools.

Our district can encourage honest conversations by presenting school climate data that is currently collected (parent surveys, suspensions, expulsions, citations, etc.) in a clear, user-friendly format that disaggregates the statistics by race, gender, and disability status, making the disparities easy to see. Currently the School Climate Report Card, the tool for publicly releasing data, only presents survey data from parents in the aggregate, and the data around suspensions, expulsions, and citations lives on a back page on LAUSD's website, making it difficult to access and limiting its effectiveness. Integrating these two important sources of data to produce an improved School Climate Report Card that includes the disaggregated data, presented in a parent-friendly format, could help create a useful common language to discuss disparate outcomes.

But this seismic shift in school climate policy cannot just live at the district level. While an improved report card can help identify positive and negative trends taking place, the burden is on schools to utilize these findings in a productive way. So, for instance, if we find African-American boys in middle school are being suspended at higher rates than any other demographic group, educators could collaborate to identify the root cause of this trend and design interventions to reverse it. Our Teacher Policy Team found that by looking at school-wide and district-wide data we were able to identify trends that forced us to recognize something systemic must be happening. Having this same conversation in all of our schools would move us away from only talking about individual kids or individual incidents to identify these important patterns that show us as teachers what we need to be doing differently to serve all students.

The School Climate Bill of Rights was an important first step in raising awareness around the critical role school environment plays in the pursuit of higher academic achievement. The next step is making sure we're using the data and other outcomes it created to actually help students. Teachers like myself are excited to lend our experiences and unique perspectives to the conversation.

--Steven Almazan

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