As a school district leader, I am compelled to bring relevance to tough issues that impact the lives of our children. I am truly excited to attend Adam Foss’ discussion around privilege and opportunity and its connection to the reform of the American justice system. There is much work to do in this arena, and the time for action is past due. In that vein, I believe the foundation of justice reform begins with a fundamental review of how we shape experiences for young people. Education is the great equalizer and the best vehicle in driving students toward their passions. When done right, these passions then lead students to a life where they can thrive---and not just survive. This fundamental understanding requires a mind-set that will allow us to both question the current system and evaluate what needs to be redesigned. This is the bond that could link education reform and justice system reform together.
The Cedar Rapids Community School District is being very bold in the quest to ensure every student is properly situated to realize their passions. We believe that we must provide an environment where each student can learn and excel at high levels while exploring their passions and dreams. Over the last 20 years, our community and the students we serve have changed dramatically. We are more racially, socioeconomically, and linguistically diverse in Cedar Rapids Community Schools than ever before. Over 48 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Over 800 students in grades K-12 are from more than 45 countries speaking over 60 different languages. Thirty-three percent of our students are members of minority groups. This is great news, because our diversity is a source of strength and pride that we believe is essential to realize our vision — Every Learner: Future Ready.
We believe diversity is a source of strength, we currently have significant achievement and opportunity gaps and inequities that persist in our system across lines of racial, linguistic, and socioeconomic difference. Our equity imperative is to eliminate the predictability of success and failure that is predetermined by race, ethnicity, family economics, language, and disabilities.
When I think of justice system reform, I continue to draw on the same parallels that are driving school reform. One such example is how we are using exclusionary practices to respond to student misbehavior. Student behavior is a form of communication. It requires intentional ways to meet student needs. This is driving us to become a system based on restorative practices to eliminate the predictability of failure and reduce exclusionary responses that have disproportionately affected students in underserved populations. A laserlike focus on harms and consequent needs of victims, the community and the offender is the result. Restoration addresses obligations resulting from those harms. This applies to the offenders’ and the communities’ they live. Through a very inclusive and collaborative processes, we seek to “make it right” with those that are harmed. School Suspension can still an effective strategy for short term responses, but the biggest leverage is in repairing community when harm is done.
Criminal justice reform, like education reform, should take on this underlying mind-set, practice, and simply “how we do business.” We are choosing to recognize how communication across cultural norms and experiences can make positive impacts on student measures. This journey has landed on the recognition that culture is not static. Rather, it is dynamic and ever-changing. We acknowledge that in most educational systems, the norms, values, and beliefs are usually shaped by a few cultural groups. I think there is power in acknowledging how unbalanced this power is in society. Oftentimes, this imbalance leads to unintended consequences when a monocultural lens is used to shape policy, practices, and behaviors. The ways in which school leaders manage and respond to issues of diversity are essential to promote the systemic change needed to best meet the needs of our changing student population. The same can be true in the redesign of the American justice system.
Now, we can’t be naive and believe we are going to spread the balance of power among hundreds of different groups. But we can take small steps. I am reminded that we should value the changing demographics happening in our city. Leaders must have the ability to be bold and embrace the challenges of moving the mind-set dial for the doubters within systems.
It is too important for families, and we risk losing many essentials that could benefit us in the long term. By embracing these rich diverse ideas and experiences, schools will contain fresh ideas that are valuable. We must also acknowledge there are other ways to experience the world. The responsibility to teach our young children about the power of cultural diversity is on the elders and adults. If not, we risk our children growing up in a world that does not take advantage of cultural differences. Even more, they would not even know. But as momma told me, “Now that we know better, we must do better.”
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• Dr. Carlos C. Grant is executive director of middle level education with the Cedar Rapids Community School District.