Monday Reading List: Seeing Students as Family, School Closures, and Scaling Back Civil Rights Investigations

(Note to Loyal Readers: due to both professional travel and family vacation plans, my posting during the second half of June will be sporadic. My apologies for the extent to which this causes severe lapses in your news and/or gif consumption.)

In honor of Father's Day, Sharif El-Mekki of Philly's 7th Ward reflects on the relationship he has with his students:

The reason why people describe schools as families is because of the deep relationships that must be present, nurtured and restored, and invested in in order for schools to function at the optimal levels. That is no different than our biological and/or chosen families. As a father or an educator, the required level of commitment means not only thinking about who is in front of you at the moment, but who is yet to come ... When faced with the incessantly tough decisions that principals are faced with, I am grateful that my North Star, and that of my leadership team, continues to be, not only what’s best for kids, but what would we want for our own kids.

Educators should consider El-Mekki's sentiments and reflect upon their own practices. If you're not capable of considering your students kin, and treating them as such, why not? I understand that some folks need to create emotional barriers at work, but that's not the only reason educators fail to see the students in front of them as peers of their own children.

Denisa Superville of Education Week looks at the community impact of school closings, through examining the effects of an Arkansas law:

Hughes elementary and secondary schools closed at the end of the 2014-15 school year, when the Arkansas education department mandated that the district consolidate with West Memphis because its average daily attendance had fallen below 350 students—a threshold set by a 2004 law known as Act 60. It requires districts that enroll fewer than 350 students for two consecutive years to consolidate or annex with another school system. Hughes' former schools are among the hundreds of schools nationwide that close for a variety of reasons. But research suggests that such closures sometimes have a disparate—and disruptive—effect on communities ... The university's analysis found that black students made up 33 percent of the enrollment in the schools that closed, compared with 20 percent of the enrollment in schools that had not been closed. And, while the consolidated districts had smaller minority populations overall, their students were more likely to be poor: 64 percent of students in consolidated districts qualified for free and reduced-price meals, according to the report. In nonconsolidated districts, 49 percent of students qualified for the reduced-price-meal program.

Officials tend to close schools for two reasons: financial stress, driven by enrollment, like the examples above; or performance. Whatever the cause, communities - for justifiable reasons, rooted in history - tend not to differentiate one cause from another. When a school closes, the community loses an important institution, and in vulnerable communities, the school carries outsized importance. However logical the closure decision seems to the "powers that be," good luck explaining that reasoning to the parents and children who just lost their community's central institution.

Finally today, Erica Green of The New York Times reports that the department of education will "scale back" Civil Rights investigations:

According to an internal memo issued by Candice E. Jackson, the acting head of the department’s office for civil rights, requirements that investigators broaden their inquiries to identify systemic issues and whole classes of victims will be scaled back. Also, regional offices will no longer be required to alert department officials in Washington of all highly sensitive complaints on issues such as the disproportionate disciplining of minority students and the mishandling of sexual assaults on college campuses. The new directives are the first steps taken under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to reshape her agency’s approach to civil rights enforcement, which was bolstered while President Barack Obama was in office. The efforts during Mr. Obama’s administration resulted in far-reaching investigations and resolutions that required schools and colleges to overhaul policies addressing a number of civil rights concerns.

The critical point here is that the department will not treat individual cases as potential evidence of systemic issues. Often, however, a single visible case of injustice is exactly what's needed to provide visibility into a problem that's been festering below the surface for years. To use an example from another context, police violence against people of color is terrible on its own. Those incidences of violence, however, also illustrate other quotidian injustices within the criminal justice system, like sentencing disparities, predatory ticketing practices, and the over-incarceration of Black men. Systemic problems are perpetuated by the explicit and implicit consent of actors within the system, and the federal government should be a bulwark against abuse. This is bad news, pure and simple.

Have a good week ...