Schools Should Engage Diverse Community Stakeholders to Promoting Equitable Allocation of Historic Funding to Reimagine Education
At a moment when school districts across the United States are responding to major challenges, collaboration with community stakeholders has never been more essential to achieving educational equity for marginalized and underserved student groups. For English Learners (ELs), who have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is critical to ensure they receive the support they need to close learning gaps. As such, engaging multilingual and diverse community stakeholders, including students, is essential to understanding how to best support pupils, given they are best positioned to identify their needs. The American Rescue Plan (ARP), signed into law by President Joe Biden in March 2021, affords diverse community stakeholders the opportunity to voice their thoughts and help shape how school districts invest funds to mitigate learning loss and address students’ academic, social, and mental health needs.
ARP allocates an historic $125 billion to schools to reimagine public education, support the most vulnerable students, and address the disparate impacts of the pandemic through Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds. To access these funds, states and school districts are required to develop and publicly share detailed plans that describe how they intend to use the money. In addition, the U.S. Department of Education requires school districts to engage community stakeholders to ensure that these new dollars are used to build a more inclusive and equitable system. The law instructs school districts to indicate with whom they met, describe the meetings that occurred for each group engaged, and indicate how the state education agency considered the public feedback in the development of school district plans. These stakeholder requirements and reporting provisions have created the conditions for students, families, and other community stakeholders from historically under-represented backgrounds to share their needs, express their top priorities, and influence ESSER spending decisions.
School districts have struggled to effectively engage multilingual community members. Based on interviews that the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) conducted in July 2021 with state-based education policy and immigrant advocacy organizations at a time when many school districts were developing their ESSER plans, efforts to engage groups representing ELs and immigrant families appeared to be poorly planned, executed, and advertised. Several of the organizations interviewed reported hearing about town halls and meetings intended to solicit public feedback through word of mouth or informal school district connections. One state distributed an online questionnaire with only a few weeks’ notice through the agency’s listserv. While that state’s process may not have been intended to exclude community members, the outreach strategy was not conducive to reaching immigrant, multilingual advocacy organizations not on the listserv. The need for strong, well-coordinated, and linguistically and culturally responsive community engagement has never been clearer. Disjointed efforts that lack extensive outreach and that do not address communication and language barriers risk further excluding multilingual and immigrant families.
Examples of Meaningful Engagement
Given the magnitude of this federal funding to address longstanding inequalities, it is critical that school districts increase their outreach efforts and address communication and language barriers. While school districts have completed development of their ESSER plans, the three-year rollout of the funding gives school districts the opportunity to continue the dialogue with key stakeholder audiences, including EL and immigrant families, to ensure the funds are spent in ways that meet the goals set under ARP. To that end, the need for strong, well-coordinated, and linguistically and culturally responsive community engagement has never been clearer. Furthermore, school districts that are struggling to effectively engage multilingual community members can learn from those that have already begun to meaningfully engage the EL community and multilingual audiences.
School districts already doing this work are strengthening their outreach in languages other than English, for example translating community feedback surveys and hosting virtual roundtables in different languages. The Atlanta Public Schools in Georgia, for example, translated into Spanish a survey to ensure that multilingual families could provide feedback. Survey questions asked community stakeholders to identify their top two to three most pressing concerns and requested input on how the school system should use ESSER funds to support students, staff, families, and schools. Approximately 925 respondents completed the survey, sharing more than 1,400 recommendations, strategies, comments, and ideas. The Atlanta school district plans to utilize this information to address the community’s top priorities, including tackling learning loss through evidence-based solutions, prioritizing equity, and hiring additional staff to address the academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs of students.
Similarly, Brentwood Union Free School District in New York state recorded and published videos in English and Spanish describing the purpose of the survey and provided technical guidance to fill it out. Respondents were asked to rate 40 ideas aligned to preliminary priorities including investments on infrastructure, social-emotional health, and academic support. As a result of these efforts, school district leaders have gained a better understanding of the needs of multilingual families.
Some school districts obtained feedback by inviting diverse stakeholders to join an advisory committee. The Minneapolis Public Schools, for example, convened an advisory committee composed of staff members, union representatives, students and families, and community partners to provide input on the school district’s ESSER spending plans. The Coalition of Asian American Leaders (CAAL), a leading nonprofit advocating for the needs of multilingual and immigrant students and families, was among those invited to join. CAAL and other advisory committee members identified several priority areas for funding including social, emotional, and mental health; academic programs to address learning disruption; safe and healthy buildings and facilities; a greater focus on transparency and accountability; equitable talent acquisition and maintenance; and community collaboration and partnership. School system administrators have used this information to develop a comprehensive list of potential investments to address student/family needs related to COVID-19 and promote educational equity.
A Rare Chance to Address Longstanding Inequities
The ESSER funds offer school districts the opportunity to solve longstanding inequalities in the provision of education to underserved students, including ELs, that have been further exacerbated by the pandemic. States and school districts would be wise to engage multilingual and diverse stakeholders to ensure their needs are reflected in implementation of district ESSER plans. Without the adequate representation of EL students and their champions, efforts to close academic gaps, address student wellbeing, and advance educational equity will be undermined.
As such, it remains imperative for school districts to expand their outreach beyond the standard engagement and to reach audiences in languages other than English, increase opportunities for multilingual families to meaningfully engage, and include diverse stakeholders in key conversations. Only then, can school districts’ ESSER plans address the needs of EL and other marginalized students.