Tag Archives: opportunity gap

Researching the Reality of Remaking Learning

Lori Delale-O’Connor (Photo via www.cue.pitt.edu)

Lori Delale-O’Connor is learner and a teacher: a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and the Associate Director of Research and Development at its Center for Urban Education. She has spent years researching issues of urban education and racial equity. Delale-O’Connor spoke with Remake Learning about how educators can embed themselves within a community’s culture and partner with existing organizations for a more transformative impact.

While the conversation focused on these issues from the perspective of education, her suggestions are just as applicable for anyone planning or launching programs in urban communities.


What challenges do educators face when trying to help students in an urban environment?

One of the primary challenges is resource limitations—if your education funding is closely tied to your property taxes, you’re facing limits that your wealthier, suburban counterparts are not. Also, challenges associated with greater diversity, particularly if educators are not taught how to harness it as an asset. The majority—over 80%—of our teaching force is white, and our student population is increasingly diverse. Teachers aren’t necessarily taught how and why those differences matter, and how to best engage with students who don’t have the same socioeconomic backgrounds as them.


What key ingredients make a teacher more likely to succeed in an urban environment?

It matters that teachers understand how to engage with their students: from popular culture, to the ways they communicate at home, to the assets and elders in their community. These things take on particular value if the teacher is coming from a very different experience.

Part of this connects to teacher training: emphasizing it’s as important to know your students as your subject matter. This means courses focused on understanding student experiences, and, particularly for students of color, how they are impacted daily by systemic racism. And indeed, that the teacher may unwittingly be complicit in this—by engaging in white, middle-class norms in the classroom, by tone and behavior and how they get evaluated. And we see this happening not just to students, but to their families—particular ways of participating are valued: coming to the school, engaging in a particular type of meeting. Families may be unable to do that, or may support children in other ways.


How can educators identify different ways of engaging families?

Partly, it’s allowing families to answer how they support their child’s learning, rather than assuming there are only a few ways to do so. It’s also broadening opportunities, so engagement doesn’t just mean coming to the school. Try hosting some events at places families already feel comfortable—because, particularly for parents of color, they may have had negative experiences in schools, maybe even the same school that their child is attending now. It’s also making those engagements, when they’re expected, easier.

If you’re not seeing participation, the assumption shouldn’t be families don’t care, the question should be, “What are we doing that prevents them from coming?” Also, use your resources: for the parents that are coming, why are they coming, and what do they know about the ones that aren’t?


What are the “networks of trust” for families in urban environments, and how can educators tap into them?

Make connections with pastors or community organizations, and bring those folks in. Ask, “Are there things you want to do with our students? Are there things we can do as a school or a program to support you?”

Educators can also tap into other needs. I worked in the Boston public system, where we did the typical things like childcare and meals. But we had a lot of English language learners and one of our most effective ways of engaging parents was offering free classes. Another school had a health center. These provide a great opportunity for teachers to communicate with parents, and to establish their own networks of trust.


Some of these things seem to need the power of an entire school to implement them. What can an individual teacher do?

You always have the opportunity of getting to know students’ families, trying different modes of communication: what if instead of sending home a flier, I can get everybody’s number and send a text? Maybe I can get students’ addresses and do home visits—not because something’s wrong, but just to introduce myself. Or I can attend community events. Getting to know students’ families in a more holistic way also allows you not only to meet their needs, but to appreciate their experiences. If a child has been falling asleep in class, you may learn that they also have a job and it’s amazing they are managing both a job and school work.

Students can recognize when an educator isn’t as closely connected to their community. A definite first step could be incorporating project-based learning addressing a community issue. That’s a way for teachers to learn and to centralize students as experts. I believe Maxine Greene said, “We are all people in process.” We’re all learners, and we’re all teachers.


Humility seems like a central ingredient to success. How can educators balance this with projecting the authority necessary to be an effective leader?

It’s about getting away from the model of authority, recognizing there’s a shared power dynamic. And that is challenging, particularly in a classroom. It’s the vulnerability of being transparent: instead of building authority, building a relationship.


What should educators and program leaders consider when planning partnerships with veteran organizations?

The first step is never assuming that whatever you’re offering hasn’t been done before. Do your research. Figure out what other programs are operating successfully in the community and connect with them about how they built their program, how they engage with families.

Also, make sure there’s clear reciprocity. Likely, your program isn’t the first that’s approached them for help, and in some ways, it’s like asking, “Can I borrow your homework?” Examine what you can contribute that is valuable. Figure out what issues matter most to that community: housing, incarceration, access to food? It’s on you to see where your program can fit into the existing landscape, and to be open to adjusting that to meet the community’s needs.


What can Remake Learning do to contribute to this effort more productively?

Remake is this vast network, and it’s been touted in many positive and important ways. And because of that, it’s in a position to centralize issues of equity. It can really push people toward holding themselves and each other accountable: “When we say equity, what does that mean, and how does it appear in the work you do? If you’re doing a program in Oakland, is there a reason everyone is coming from Squirrel Hill and not the Hill District? And why is that?” Remake can say those words, and push program providers to think about them and measure them and address them. You can amplify the voices of people who are succeeding and support the people who are struggling. Remake can be part of the catalyst.

Activating Agents of Change

In 2014, President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) initiative challenged communities to address the opportunity gap between young men of color and their peers. In Pittsburgh, government officials and community leaders formed the local MBK Committee to respond to the President’s call to action and created a plan to do just that. The result of their efforts was the Pittsburgh-Allegheny County My Brother’s Keeper Playbook, which outlined local steps that could be taken to achieve the six goals for MBK established by the White House.

To put the MBK Playbook into action, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto issued a call-to-action of their own to improve the quality of out-of-school digital learning programs for young men of color in the region.

With support from The Heinz Endowments, this next phase of My Brother’s Keeper in Pittsburgh began in the fall of 2016 when The Sprout Fund commissioned UrbanKind Institute (UKI), a Pittsburgh consultancy, to host a series of community conversations between young men of color and the adult program providers who serve them.

UKI recently released a report summarizing the input provided by youth participants and program providers. The report also details recommendations for program providers, funders, and policymakers working to close the opportunity gap for young people of color in Pittsburgh. In the coming weeks, The Sprout Fund will issue a Request for Proposals offering grants totaling $100,000 to support ideas for implementing the recommendations of the report.

In the meantime, we caught up with UrbanKind executive director Dr. Jamil Bey to learn more about the process.

Jamil Bey/UrbanKind Institute

Jamil Bey/UrbanKind Institute

Remake Learning: What did the young men have to say during the community conversations?

Jamil Bey: In the first phase we just wanted to hear from the young men and have the service providers listen to what they had to say. We asked them what they find worthwhile in the afterschool programs they participate in. Do programs meet their expectations and needs? What don’t the adults who are designing these programs get? They all had a response to that question!

I bet. What did do they see as missing in programming?

They said adults don’t quite understand that the space is more important than the content. They will participate in a program if they’re safe, nurtured, and respected—that’s what drives their participation.

We were dealing with the tech space, asking how programs are using technology and how they prepare students for careers. Those programs hardly ever have adults whom the young men see as supportive of their emotional needs. The people designing these programs are not always the best people to implement them.

Can you say more about who those “best people” are? What would a supportive adult or program look like?

They want mentorship from adults they can relate to, adults who consider their needs as individuals important. Often these young men are coming in with a lot of stressors, and they need a chance to vent or work through something. A supportive program would give them that space and opportunity.

“They will participate in a program if they’re safe, nurtured, and respected—that’s what drives their participation.”

Is there a tension between meeting program goals and what the young men say they need?

Yes. A kid can get a certain number of digital badges, but maybe he ends up in trouble because he isn’t nurtured or supported elsewhere. These young men would say, “Nobody’s ever showed me how to tie a tie or change a car tire.” They need long-term mentors, not adults there for a six-month engagement because of a grant. We need to think more holistically about putting the child as a whole at the center of our quality metrics.

Why is it important to have conversations about education and community change led by young people of color?

Too often, policies and decisions are made without including insight from the people who are most directly impacted. Our process makes sure those voices are included and lifted up. Service providers appreciate this. It’s too easy to become arrogant in your expertise without critically reflecting on how it’s received.

How did you get youth ready to assume these facilitator roles?

We identified 10 participants willing to facilitate conversations with adults in the next phase. They spent six hours in a Saturday facilitation training with us. Then they led the conversations with service providers, asking how they develop programs and whether they include youth input.

We were also interested in activating the next generation of doers in the neighborhood. They’ve now been empowered to call foul. Young people often think they don’t have much power, and think their issues are isolated. They found out there are young men across the county with the same stories as them. Now they have the facilitation and organizing skills to take on those issues.

My Brother’s Keeper was launched by President Obama. As a new administration assumes office, why is it important to continue to have discussions about community change led by young people of color?

I don’t know if we can frame it in the context of the new president because it’s been quite a while that legislators and public education have had a hostile relationship. We haven’t seen any policies that are really going to transform how we prepare young people. The election didn’t make this more meaningful. What’s meaningful is we now have young people questioning their roles and becoming agents of change rather than recipients of change. Our process is a bottom-up approach to reform—really from the bottom, from the young people.

“This is a bottom-up approach to reform—from the young people.”

What are the main barriers that prevent programs from meeting students’ needs?

Often the people who can reach the kids are not the people who have the skills we want to teach young people. Or the people who have the digital skills are not the people who can connect with young people. We need to find a way to bridge that gap. Grant cycles and funding came up a lot in these conversations. We need to be thinking about how we can connect these kids to opportunities in the long-term, over the next two or three years.

I’m excited and hopeful that similar conversations are going on in all of the foundations. Everyone is recognizing these gaps, and we’re asking good, critical questions. It’s not that funding in the out-of-school tech space doesn’t work—it’s how can it work?

Read UKI’s full report from theMy Brother’s Keeper Community & Stakeholder Planning Process: Recommendations to Improve Access and Quality of Out of School Programs.

In February, The Sprout Fund will issue a special funding opportunity offering a total of $100,000 in grants to support ideas for implementing the recommendations of the report.

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