May is graduation season, and with some last-minute changes in protocols, stands were full and seats were filled with friends and family members (in person) to witness their loved ones accepting their diplomas. That, in and of itself, was worthy of celebrating. I had the opportunity to attend five graduations and experience the ways each school created something meaningful for their students. The graduation ceremonies provided time to reflect on the unique identities of Jeffco schools, and dive more deeply into how we provide the learning environments that work best for students while simultaneously engendering a culture of unity and community.
Throughout Jeffco Public Schools are models of learning and school types that build on the educational needs of a variety of students. While one model of learning and/or school type may not fit every student, all students should have access to a high-quality education, whether through neighborhood, charter, or option schools. The potential pitfall across all models of learning and school types is the notion that one is inherently a better choice, universally and without regard to the student or the student’s circumstances, than others. This is the root of my reflection.
If you’ve had the chance to hear Superintendent Dorland speak, you’ve probably heard her refer to a “just right balance” between school autonomy and district system-ness. As a state and district steeped in local control and school choice principles, finding the just right balance can be challenging. This is particularly true when we think about the access our students and families have to schools. Language is a powerful tool, and the way we talk about and implicitly rank our schools trickles down to the students themselves. How do we support the learning and social-emotional needs of students, and celebrate the unique value of each school, without creating the perception of winners and losers depending upon which school they attend?
Research tells us that students benefit in numerous ways from learning among other students who don’t look like or come from the same circumstances as them. This is not difference based solely on race or ethnicity, it also includes difference based on socioeconomics and other identities. Kids benefit from being exposed to and normalizing interactions with other students and with staff members who are representative of the community at large, representative of the workforce and society into which they will eventually enter. Jeffco’s neighborhood schools are increasingly segregated based on who can afford to live where. Jeffco’s option and charter schools are influenced by who is accepted to attend and who has access to transportation to and from the school. All of this contributes to widening the chasm between students who could mutually benefit in profound ways from learning and growing together. It also contributes to deficit thinking about certain schools and certain students.
I don’t have concrete answers to the questions I pose. I’m hopeful that we, as a community, will continue to grapple with these ideas and with the educational experiences we want all of our students to have. Efforts at the national level may provide some guidance, such as coordinated efforts across the Departments of Education, Housing, and Transportation to address widening opportunity gaps among students and their access to a high-quality and inclusive education. In addition, we can learn from best practices implemented by other school districts that have created policies and practices specific to socioeconomic integration of schools. Difference and exposure to difference is a critical educational component and life lesson we can and should be providing to our students.