Who’s in your basement?

by Debra Jennings

I went to public school in a large and segregated Northern city. The segregation was by race, and perhaps by ability, but the labels were not evident to me then.  As far as income and education, I would say that we were pretty well integrated.  Maybe the kids of black doctors and lawyers went to a different neighborhood elementary school, but we all came together in high school

I don’t remember going into the basement.

On the other hand, my children attended a school system that had ample racial and economic diversity. There were also lots of labels – gifted and talented, Title I Basic Skills, honors classes, advanced placement, regular classes, special ed.  These labels give us lots of opportunity to see who is in which group — and whether some are in the basement.

Sometimes the basement is a physical place in a building. More often, the basement is a place in the data, in that bottom quartile of student achievement test scores. It often includes students with high rates of disciplinary referrals, suspensions and expulsions.

What happens to the students in that data basement? If they are in special education, and many are, are they placed in classes with students in the “regular” program or are they relegated to the “low-achiever” track?  Do they have opportunities to take rigorous college prep courses (including algebra by grade 8) because there are lots of supports to help them succeed? Or are they kept in the basement?

Thanks to national test data, we know who is in our country’s basement.  But do you know who is in the basement in your schools?

Here in the northeast, basements are musty, dusty and damp.  We hate to go down there. We definitely don’t invite guests.  But to deal with what’s there and clear it out, we must bring together all the people that have stuff in our basements – school and district administrators, educators (not just special educators), support service providers, community leaders, and parents of students across the ability groups.  Each has to own up to what’s theirs, and commit to taking action to move it out.

As a leader of SPAN in New Jersey, a non-profit, parent-led information, training and advocacy organization, I work cooperatively with the state education agency. Together, we are working in school districts to bring those key stakeholders to the table. We gather, analyze, and share data that unveils some ugly evidence on what is, and what is not, happening for students. It is a difficult, uncomfortable and necessary dialogue.

For educators, inviting “guests” into the basement is tough.  For families and communities, especially of students left behind, the sadness, anger, blame and self-examination are profound. Working together, however, they become convinced that we can and will make things happen to change the trajectory.

In some districts, we start with capacity building to develop partnerships with parents, families, and community stakeholders. To participate fully, parents need support to become informed, contributing partners to those tough conversations.  Together, we identify and discuss the needs, concerns, aspirations and successes that affect the education and well being of students. To build a sense of urgency, we look at how to analyze and share the data with the entire community.

By working together, addressing the real challenges of inequitable opportunities becomes far more possible.  All begin to recognize the many strengths and resources that have come to the table, and share the goal of eliminating that mess in the basement. Because this work requires long-term diligence to prevent stuff from sneaking back into the basement, building local parent and community leadership and capacity will help sustain the change efforts beyond the short time that SPAN is able to provide direct support.

I challenge you: Take a look in the basement of your school!

Debra Jennings,  Director of the Center for Parent Information and Resources at SPAN; NAFSCE Board member