Fostering school communities where every member thrives requires an unrelenting focus. The time has long passed for us to reimage schools and center humanity as the primary driver for effective teaching and learning to take root. Dr. Dawn DeCosta is one such educational leader who exemplifies this focus. She is the principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy in Harlem, New York City, and a member of New Teacher Center’s Equity Commission. Dr. DeCosta is a household name among the 216 primarily Black and Latinx students who attend Thurgood Marshall Academy. Especially over the last 20 months. The pandemic. Social and racial movements toward equality. Shifts to virtual learning, then to Covid-19 restrictions for in-person school. Students, educators, school staff, and families living in this context continue to find Thurgood Marshall Academy showing up as it always does: “We are the village that raises the child.” In the maelstrom, they are sustained by centering the humanity of their whole school community. Dr. DeCosta maintains an unwavering commitment to steep her school in a student- and equity-centered ecosystem.
“Human connection is the secret,” said Dr. DeCosta. “When a real, sincere effort is made to address the needs of students, families, educator development, and more, alongside a strengths- and assets-based approach, we can achieve so much.” She’s quick to point out that we’re usually starting from a feeling that failure is imminent. Small shifts in framing are a quick way to begin, especially when everyone in the building is on board with a shared vision of equity as an experience. It’s even more important now. Students see and feel gaps and loss around them at every turn due to the pandemic and more. “We just make sure our students don’t feel like someone thinks they’re broken and we’re trying to fix them. We want to find out what you know, what you love, and build holistic and instructional support for each student — each person — based on who they are.”
“We must build a strong sense of community and connection that celebrates value and strengths.”
Dr. DeCosta and her team pour time and strategy into humanizing the operating conditions for every school member. They don’t speed past the deep work required to create a student and equity-centered teaching and learning community for students, teachers, and families. As the 2021-2022 school year unfolds — compounding complications from the previous one — Thurgood Marshall Academy is working hard to know how the people who make up their community are doing. This focus is an act of humanity and restoration that will produce positive impacts long after the pandemic has gone. This is equity in action. By acknowledging and understanding how their community is doing, especially when under immense pressure and stress, they provide a model for recovery that is woefully underemphasized. It’s slow and iterative work. There’s no promise of immediate gains on standardized test scores, but it will inarguably improve the life outcomes of all members of this unique school community. By prioritizing meaning-making as a reflective process, we build investment, restore that which has been diminished over time, offer a balance of voice and experience, and help school communities to flourish. In the clamor for learning acceleration strategies, centering humanity should rank at the top of the list.
Unfortunately, such an approach is rarely considered a top-level strategy. Such work is often halted by significant barriers: structural inflexibility, resource scarcity, operational complexity, and more. For systems, “equity-lite products” can seem like a shiny panacea compared to a process-oriented approach. We continue to pin our hopes for equity on technical and out-of-the-box solutions. They’re straightforward and easier to grasp; we can put them on timelines and create management plans that check boxes. The only problem is they don’t work. Not now. Not for the long haul.
“It’s a complicated situation,” said Dr. DeCosta. “Too often, we’re doing things just to be doing them because this is what we do. Equity work requires trust. It requires knowledge-building. We can’t push aside what’s inherently good for children because the system can’t support it or actively works against it. Instead, we must build a strong sense of community and connection that celebrates value and strengths.”
Systems-level operating conditions and pressures often don’t allow that to happen. They work on enforcement models, leaving little space for each school to elevate its context and differences. It’s a design flaw that prizes efficiency, homogeneity, and compliance. To be clear, we can’t and shouldn’t abandon system-wide processes and policies altogether. Many structures are critical requirements for the safety and care of students. But other systems are primarily compliance-based, presenting irreconcilable tensions between meeting the diverse needs of students (and educators) and satisfying mandates. Localizing and framing structures better to support each school’s unique circumstances, assets, and challenges will help seed equity plans and achieve greater outcomes over the long term.
When listening to Dr. DeCosta, it’s clear that community and connection form a sturdy school spine. The people who bring vibrancy to the hallways and learning spaces of Thurgood Marshall Academy answer the question — Why do you want to work in this school? — with a purposeful commitment to the community inside and surrounding the building. It sets the stage for an authentic culture of being and practice. “We believe our students can learn,” said Dr. DeCosta. “Our people dig deep into our experiences and perceptions to all build an equitable environment that gets our students knowing they can create, problem solve, think critically, and learn.”
It begs an obvious question. Why aren’t we learning from and amplifying evidence-supported approaches like Dr. DeCosta and others? NTC’s Equity Commission set out to dissect the problem of why equity efforts fail to achieve the impact they have the potential to produce. More so, we created a space to deeply and fully share experiences and models that demonstrate what we might do better and differently. Each commissioner is either leading exemplary efforts, studying what works, or has deep personal experiences that inform where we need to go to find sustainable success. And what we’re realizing is that examples surround us. Despite systemic and environmental conditions that make things difficult, thriving models and research-based practices are still happening and working and changing the status quo for school communities. While we see them, for many, they’re hidden from view or treated as outliers, unscalable and unworkable. Impossible. The Equity Commission is working toward what we lack: cohesion and clarity — a model map of how to arrive at a common destination. To put a bright light on what we know works and put it into practice by creating a community-oriented model that allows for co-creation, collaboration, and development.
“When a real, sincere effort is made to address the needs of students, families, educator development, and more, alongside a strengths- and assets-based approach, we can achieve so much.”
The commission is starting from here: let’s amplify and scale processes that liberate educators to dive deep into the equity challenge at hand. It’s a tonal quality and process-based approach that allows school communities to take a model equity practice, tap into their collective lived experiences and wisdom, and make it work for them.
The gulf between our understanding of why equity efforts fail and the depth of pain for marginalized people is getting wider each day. If we look to systems-level data alone as our means of knowing, we’ll never understand the humanity hidden underneath it. However, we see a clear connector when we look at shining examples of effective and sustained equity efforts already underway. Stories. They’re the richest, ground-truthed data we have at our disposal. Stories bring a well-roundedness to clinical examination and push us to prioritize the human experience in teaching and learning. It’s the heart center of Thurgood Marshall Academy’s community-directed model. Storytelling is the most human thing we do.
Two members of our soon-to-launch Student Advisory Group, an extension and student-led space of our Equity Commission, believe that equitably elevating learners’ gifts starts here. “Think about what matters and appreciate all the different ways kids might be showing up,” said Rose, a high-school student in California. “When teachers focus on who I am and understand me, they engage my classmates and me in different ways…we get to learn in ways that bring out the best of each of us.” Jade, a friend and peer of Rose, agrees. “Teachers that are compassionate and take the time to hear my story are the ones that make learning easier. They’re able to step in and give the help kids need, especially when students can’t or don’t know how to ask for it. They go beyond the lesson plan.”
Dr. DeCosta, Rose, and Jade drive a key point: start by treating students like human beings. This means privileging the process over a product. Yes, the last 20 months have left all of us drained, tired, and unhappy. Even more so for our underserved communities. As we work to restore — not accelerate — students and educators, we must find a way to endure beyond this moment. To avoid this understandable temptation, Atyani Howard, New Teacher Center’s CPO and leader of the Equity Commission, suggests that we ask the following question: What will be true today, tomorrow, and next year that amplifies equity for my school community? Leading from the answer to these questions will inevitably produce a more impactful approach to achieving student, and equity-centered learning environments like Dr. DaCosta has facilitated.
Our Equity Commission is taking this journey. Initially, we thought we’d use the commission to strengthen and validate our equity- and student-centered instructional ideas. However, we intentionally decided to lead with members’ experiences and stories as a collective touchstone. This approach dramatically shifted our landing point. It magnified the abundance of our commissioners’ expertise and examples, steeped and framed in the humanity of their personal journeys. The result? A transformational exchange of ideas, models, and truth that never would’ve surfaced if our approach didn’t amplify the richness of each person.
Ultimately, we have a moral imperative to achieve lasting equity by putting in the kind of unrelenting effort required to shape learning as a profoundly human experience.
So, while it may seem like equity efforts can’t thrive, the Equity Commission is working to identify and amplify the incredible work happening in classrooms and schools nationwide. We’re just not holding them up as possibilities of what might be — we’re peering deeper into what it means to achieve exceptions to the norm. Our commission members see many places where hope, humanity, patience, and imagination are the rule. Amazingly, these models are happening within compliance-based and technocratic systems that often stifle such innovation. Yes, much needs to change to make the enabling conditions far more favorable for student-centered approaches to proliferate. But advancements can be made right here and now despite systemic obstacles. We need to stop limiting our idea of what’s possible. Good examples lead us to better outcomes. We believe that sustaining attention on these approaches will enable the deep, slow, and focused work to change the enormity of what most students experience every day.
Let’s stop pretending that the solution isn’t already out there. Let’s look at bright examples, like Dr. DeCosta’s school and others, and put them in the spotlight. “Our school is very much a co-created vision,” said Dr. DeCosta. “We amplify the ideas and voices of all our stakeholders: students, teachers, and families. It’s very collaborative. And that’s how I think that we’ve been successful, and why we have everybody on board with where we’re going in terms of equity.”
Equity is possible. It’s just not a quick fix.
The Equity Commission’s journey has not been simple. We’ve leaned into the delicate examination necessary to understand and fully disrupt inequity. Our exploration calls us to identify and amplify the exemplar practices happening in cities and communities across the country. Our charge is to unearth more of these examples and turn them into bright beacons for others to model and make their own. Ultimately, we have a moral imperative to achieve lasting equity by putting in the kind of unrelenting effort required to shape learning as a profoundly human experience.
Millions of students across this country deserve access to learning environments that empower them to live lives of their choosing. High school student and NTC Equity Commission member, Alejandra Meza, aptly articulates our end goal, “I define student empowerment as feeling comfortable with taking the initiative. My mom told me early on that you define your self worth and that you need to know how good you are so you can be comfortable in your own skin. I need to be comfortable in my brown skin.” NTC’s goal is to support school communities to eradicate disparities in the long-term academic and social trajectories systemically associated with social advantage and disadvantage. Our students can’t afford to wait any longer.
→ See a list of our Equity Commission members
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