Author Isaac Cardona is a fellow with the UnidosUS National Institute of Latino School Leaders. He is also a father, former principal, and runner in Portland, Oregon.
As the principal at Jason Lee Elementary in Portland, Oregon, every time I had a break from school, I’d run. Every fall break, winter break, and summer break, I’d run daily, and I’d use that time to think about all the things I’d want for our school, our students, and the families we serve. With our vision for our school community in mind, I’d reflect on where we were strong and where we could be better.
In early 2020, after four years as a school team, we had hit our stride – we were making school fun, growing our students academically, and engaging our families in ways that embraced and celebrated the rich diversity, languages, and history of our community. Last year, we worked on ensuring our nearly 400 students and their families were well-informed by engaging more than 2000 parents and guardians in events held during school days, evenings, and weekends, on and off campus.
Like a runner hitting their stride, we were full of momentum, but then COVID-19 struck, and it forced us to change course, and reimagine what school is and can be.
In the nearly 200 days since our school first shut its doors to students our city has faced many challenges. The pandemic has provoked a temporary quarantine and a longer-term change in lifestyle. Longstanding frustrations over police brutality prompted protests for Black Lives Matter. Climate change, a dry spell, and high winds sparked wildfires that displaced thousands of Oregonians and enveloped our city in smoke.
Throughout these events, I would run along the streets and trails of this beautiful Pacific Northwest city reflecting on what it would take to virtually rebuild our school climate and culture to adjust to a dramatically changing world. Portland is known for its mountain views and its evergreen landscape, as much as its boundless creativity and strong entrepreneurial spirit. The city feels full of life and possibility, but it hasn’t always been a place accessible to all. In fact, in many ways, Portland is a perfect microcosm for what’s going on across the United States.
For many years, sunset laws and discriminatory housing and land ownership practices made it hard for people of color to move here, earning Portland the label of the “Whitest City in America.” Today, the area is quickly growing and diversifying, especially among the school-age population. Portland Public Schools, the largest district in the state of Oregon has 50,000 K-12 students, and about 43% identify as students of color, with the largest subgroup being Latino. Census data also shows that Oregon is home to one of the fastest growing Latino populations in the United States, increasing by 72% in the past 20 years.
One of the communities where this diversity is most noted is in Madison South, a neighborhood on the district’s outskirts that houses my school, Jason Lee Elementary. Here, 63% of the students are children of color, and 28% are English learners (Els) representing some 15 different home languages.
As it has changed, Portland has earned a reputation for becoming one of America’s most progressive cities, but creating a truly welcoming space for our diverse students and families is an ongoing challenge. This historically white city has had over 100 consecutive nights of protests that have turned it into one of the epicenters of a movement seeking justice for people of color, suggesting that all kinds of members of our community want to see a shift toward greater social inclusion. We know we can do better.
And doing better for our students during the pandemic is a central focus for families, educators, and school administrators like myself. I’ve transitioned into a new role in the district as an Area Senior Director, and the work is larger in scale, but with the same focus on students and families. Each time I come back from my runs and get back online with principals, administrators, staff, and parents, I find they too are thinking and talking about how to best maintain and even grow our support for our student body while centering on the needs of the most vulnerable, including those who are BIPOC, ELs, low-income, or have disabilities.
Support to Help Meet Needs
In a brick and mortar building, our teachers, administrators, and counselors connect our students and their families to resources, supplies, and organizations that meet their specific needs. At our school, for example, the Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) provides students and families with legal support, interpretation and language services, employment and training, community development, and supporting our afterschool student programs.
In our distance learning environment, we’ve had to shift our focus to helping students and their families find stable housing, food, and technology, all of which have become more challenging due to the pandemic’s economic and logistical punch. As some districts have scaled back staffing, ours has invested in student supports, allocating additional staffing to all schools in the form of social workers, qualified mental health practitioners, and more school counselors.
As a district of 50,000, our lunch and breakfast hubs have given out more than one million meals to children from ages zero to 18, and we’re expanding our reach this fall. We’ve also worked to get every student that needs technology a computer and access to WiFi, as we know how essential this is to our comprehensive distance learning model.
If we are to raise a healthy, focused, and well-educated generation, we must provide them with social and emotional supports to face increasing levels of stress and anxiety, especially in this distance learning environment. We also have to equip educators with the tools and time to make online learning successful.
Access to Interpretation and Ways to Be Involved
Our community has always shared space together, and it’s been important for us to continue doing so even at a distance. Instead of hosting separate events for our parent, guardian, and community meetings in various languages, as we did in the springtime, we wanted all parents and guardians to be able to be in the same virtual “room,” to see the faces of other caregivers, and to be seen as a part of our community. To make this happen, we began providing interpretation on the video conferences, so parents could ask questions in their native language in real time, and to hear the questions and answers of others.
Meanwhile, the district created resources and videos in all of our six supported languages, including Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, and Somali, for parents and guardians to access information on online platforms, meal sites, and ways to connect about technology. We also have a multilingual technology hotline which runs from 7 am to 9 pm to accommodate parent schedules. To help parents navigate all of the various resources, we’ve created a menu of supports that they can find at our schools across the district.
Building Community and Celebrating Our Students’ Heritage
Each fall at our Back to School Community BBQ, we give out school supplies and food in a space where teachers, families, and students can get to know each other. And this year, our district is engaged in a “soft start” which allows parents, students, and teachers to hold socially distanced family visits in their yards, at local parks, or online via Google Meets or Zoom.
At our school, we spend time thinking about ways to increase parent and family engagement. We host large events at school such as our Lunar New Year celebration, or Tet as it is known in Vietnam, Día De Los Niños, and Black Brilliance. These are planned by staff members, our SUN school, and in collaboration with families, students, and community members.
We created a family room where parents can convene any time. We invite local dads, grandpas, uncles, brothers, neighbors, and friends to volunteer in classes– helping to create artwork for our cultural celebrations, like Black Brilliance, reading to students, helping at recess, and just being a positive presence on campus. They join evening events where they share pizza, dessert, and play games with their students and other members of our community. This provides a more welcoming environment for all.
We’re constantly thinking of ways to get better, so we leverage our families and community in brainstorming sessions, hoping to find more ways to celebrate our students. We are gaining ideas for how to navigate the social, emotional, safety, and distance learning needs of our students through UnidosUS’s Back-to-School Resources page.
Broadening the Scope of These Efforts
I’m proud of all that we’ve been able to accomplish by engaging our faculty, staff, students, parents, and the larger community. It makes me hopeful that together we can create a truly progressive and inclusive Portland. I’m also confident that schools and the communities they serve can take similar measures across the country. But we must work together by sharing ideas and best practices, and pushing elected leaders to enact legislation that furthers these efforts, especially at the federal level.
For example, passing comprehensive legislation like the HEROES Act would go a long way in helping the unemployed, protecting public health, feeding the hungry, and keeping residents in their homes. The pandemic has affected the livelihoods of families across the country, and we know we can’t expect our students to learn the way they need to when they’re dealing with these stressors.
Increasing funds for Title I and Title III (SEC. 3102. [20 U.S.C. 6812])schools would help us meet the increasing needs of students who are low-income or ELs. Nationally, about 2% of Title I funds are used for parent engagement, but having seen such tremendous outcomes, we allocate about 10% to support the great work mentioned previously. We’ve seen increased attendance and academic outcomes, achieving the highest growth rating possible on our state report card this past year. Our parent survey results surpass the national and district averages in every category, and our focus on healthy relationships and behaviors earned us recognition as the 2019 Oregon recipient of the School Wellness Award.
In the Final Stretch of 2020
2020 has been a difficult year, but this is the year for change. You don’t have to be a runner to take time to reflect on how to make our education system more sound, and support our families and students during these unprecedented days. And while it might help to go out into the neighborhoods to engage communities, you can also do this by engaging your own circles, checking in with your friends, neighbors, parents and teachers, and seeing how they’re doing. The most important thing is that we all listen and find ways to support those impacted by concerns such as COVID-19, natural disasters, and America’s uncomfortable legacy of inequality and racism.
However you reach out to the community, just remember that in this election year, those who are running for political positions impact our lives at the federal, state, and local level, so the most important thing you pican do is vote with all students in mind.