By Hans Moore, Senior Staff Attorney
On November 8, 2017, at 5:30 a.m., I woke up knowing that a very busy day lay ahead for me. What I didn’t imagine, was that over the next 12 hours I would witness and be deeply inspired by an organized community of extraordinary public advocates. 8:30 a.m. I arrive in Sacramento along with parent and student activists who traveled from all over California, many who drove through the night over 10 hours for the opportunity to speak for 3 minutes. They, like me, were there to urge the State Board of Education to improve the way school districts assess and report on the progress of our state’s public schools. The lobby of the State Department of Education building hummed with activity as parents and students edited, rewrote, and rehearsed their brief but meaningful messages that boiled down to this:
School climate is the heart of LCFF!
The hours ticked by and parents and students continued to prepare in the cavernous lobby while pundits and policy wonks praised their studies, metrics used, data observed, and the bright future of California’s education system to the State Board of Ed. But none spoke of school climate or the importance of incorporating student and parent voices into the stream of conversation for creating solutions to improve better schools.
1:00 p.m. Finally, the moment arrived for parents and students to address the State Board. The buzzing slowed and like a veteran marching band they lined up for their opportunity to participate in democracy. Many wore t-shirts supporting their organizations or stood in silent solidarity with their beliefs printed on signs held close to their chests and above their heads that read “School Climate is the Heart of LCFF”.
A Spanish speaking group of parents from Santa Ana spoke first. With the impromptu interpreter help of Public Advocates’ Rigel Massaro, the parents passionately and eloquently testified to the importance of adequately measuring school climate and of the necessity of including parent and student voices to meaningfully fix the shortcomings of their schools. Parents from all over California, from different districts, whose children are educated under different conditions, carried forward the same message to the podium.
The student testimonies that followed were compelling narratives conveyed with strong oratory skills that would be difficult to find among any of the best attorneys. Students’ personal stories were intimate each unique and equally powerful. Chills spread through my head and neck, down my spine with every story shared – I felt appreciative of my fortune of witnessing democracy in action in display by the young people’s words, energy, and resolve to be heard. Students were clear that school climate best reflects their lived experiences, and that it is an essential tool in measuring a school’s actual success.
By ignoring students’ perceptions of school safety and connectedness, failing to understand alternatives to harsh disciplinary practices like restorative justice programs, or to otherwise meaningfully engage students to assess their school’s learning environment, any actions taken will undoubtedly be ineffective. Currently, school districts must only report whether they “Met” or did not meet the minimal requirement to survey students every other year, without meaningful analysis or reporting to students of survey results.
The importance of school climate can’t be understated. Ample research shows that when students feel safe, valued, cared for, respected, and engaged, learning increases. The benefits of a well measured healthy school environment extends beyond academic achievements into students’ human development by fostering positive social and emotional growth.
3 p.m. I rush to the Sacramento train station to begin the two-hour journey to JFK High School in Richmond. Eager to support West Contra Costa Unified School District parents during the evening’s meeting about their district’s school spending plan, I quickly made my way into the school library where I immediately recognized dozens of student and parent faces from the State Board of Education meeting. They, like me, had trekked from Sacramento to Richmond to be a part of their local democracy. Community organizers worked with parents and students to deliver powerful messages demanding inclusion and transparency in the district’s LCAP spending decisions.
November 8th, the marathon day of education advocacy, ended at 9:30 p.m. with parents and students lingering after the meeting recounting the day’s excitement and personal successes. A sense of empowerment, joy, fatigue, and resolve to continue to demand acknowledgment was palpable in their voices. The long day ended the only way it could have, with a group of advocates holding hands and collectively celebrating their individual struggle.