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Betsy DeVos and Boys of Color on Agenda at Urban School Leaders' Conference

The Council of the Great City Schools kicked off its annual legislative and policy conference this weekend with uncertainty over how education priorities under the nascent Trump administration will affect its districts, but also with a commitment from members to continue long-standing initiatives, including improving district governance, curriculum, and supporting African-American, Latino, and Native-American boys.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is expected to address the group's members during lunch on Monday, and some members said this weekend that they were looking forward to hearing her message. Equity, the rollout of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, and school choice were among the topics that district leaders said in interviews they would like DeVos to address. (The council represents nearly 70 school districts.)

"We have decades of experience leading America's largest—and most complex districts—and we are hopeful to have a dialogue about how we continue to do that," said Seattle's superintendent Larry Nyland.

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"It is a new system, her voice will be heard, and we will be watching," said Michael McQuary, a school board member from San Diego.

"We hope to learn more about who she is and how we can work together," he said.

McQuary and Darrel Woo, a school trustee from Sacramento, Calif., said they were interested in hearing about her efforts to support education equity for all students and English-learners.

"We must be vigilant on behalf of all students," Woo said.

Woo said he was wary about DeVos' advocacy for school vouchers. He fears that a voucher program will draw funds away from traditional public school districts and funnel those public dollars to private religious institutions, he said.

In a February speech to Congress, President Trump proposed a school choice program that would allow disadvantaged Latino and African-American families to choose schools that are best for them, including charter schools, private schools, home schools, or religious schools. The White House has yet to float a detailed proposal for a federal choice plan, but a federal tax credit scholarship program seems one likely avenue. 

"Vouchers [are] an avenue for getting public money into private schools, that's how I see it, that's what I fear," Woo said.

Districts Pledge to Continue Focus on Males of Color  

In addition to getting an overview of possible education policy changes on the federal and state level, the Council also held a day-and a half session on its Males of Color program—part of a pledge the districts signed in 2014 to expand initiatives to improve academic outcomes for boys of color. Sessions included updates on local initiatives and a discussion of laws and federal policies they should keep in mind to avoid running into legal challenges as they attempt to set up those programs.

The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, challenged the District of Columbia school system after it announced plans to set up Ron Brown College Preparatory High School, an all-boys high school. The school opened last fall. 

The council's efforts on boys of color got a boost from former President Barack Obama in 2014 when the White House launched the My Brother's Keeper program. District leaders said they did not expect Obama's departure from the White House to affect their emphasis on those initiatives.

Allegra "Happy" Haynes, the secretary of the Denver board of education and a deputy mayor, said Denver mayor's office and the school district had been working collaboratively on the programs, which are expected to continue regardless of who is in the White House.

But there is some concern about how much support those initiatives will get from the White House, she said.

"I am not sure that anybody knows what that is going to look like," she said.  "But it doesn't mean that we are not going to continue the work at the grassroots level in our communities."

Steve Gallon III, a Miami-Dade school board member and a former superintendent in Plainfield, N.J., said he was optimistic that the new administration will keep a focus on disadvantaged students given that data show males of color were frequently "trapped in underperforming schools."  

"Some of the campaign discourse that was proffered by President Trump actually spoke to efforts to engage underperforming, underserved communities, specifically in the black communities, which he felt were being deprived of the best opportunities for success," Gallon said. "Now, how that is implemented—it's something that we'll have to wait and see. But based on the campaign discourse, I would expect that increased attention will continue to be given to those in underserved communities, specifically those communities of color. ... As always, the devil is in the details."

U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Florida Democrat who started a mentoring and dropout prevention program that serves about 8,000 students annually while she was a Miami-Dade school board member, spoke to the group Saturday about the program's success, partnerships, and its expansion beyond Miami-Dade. Students in the program are matched with community mentors and receive college scholarships when they graduate from high school.

Some districts have included—and others are considering—mentoring programs as part of their pledge.

Wilson told the group that they must continue to use the bully pulpit to advocate for young males of color.

"You can't be scared because that's not a topic people feel comfortable with ...," she said later in an interview. "Those of us who have the common sense to know better, we have to use whatever bully pulpit we can—whether it's in the church, whether it's in the schoolhouse, or it's on the street corner, or just in the community or the neighborhood—to say these are our kids."

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson also addressed the group on Sunday. 

Leadership Change 

The council also selected its new batch of leaders.

Darienne Driver, the superintendent of Milwaukee's school district, was named the chair of the executive committee. Lawrence Feldman, a school board member from Miami-Dade, was named chair-elect. Eric Gordon, the CEO of the Cleveland school district, was named secretary treasurer.

All three will take their new positions on July 1.

Image: Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, addresses school board members and superintendents at the organization's annual policy conference. Courtesy Alex Jones.

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