My friends and I have been reimaging education and solving all of the world’s problems for decades. No, really. In 1999, my husband LeRon and I invited about three dozen or so people from our various circles to break bread in our “new-to-us” home as a housewarming gift to ourselves. We continued that tradition every other month up until COVID-19 shut the world down in 2020. This bimonthly event was called Mind Blazn. In essence, this quasi-potluck, game night, B.Y.O.B., structured group discussion was a think tank with some of the most brilliant, creative, eclectic minds and unusual suspects in the city of Little Rock.
Even though we have not had any friends over in about 15 months, our den has still been a think tank (consisting of my immediate family of four) where the reimagining of education and solving the world’s problems are still front and center. Despite no one outside of my residence asking me (as an educator, parent or taxpayer) what I would do with the billions of dollars in federal funding coming down the pike to improve equity and education, listed below are five of the things I’d prioritize.
- As we think about making purchases for new curriculum or supplemental instructional resources, or hiring consultants and professional development facilitators, or making improvements to our facilities (from pest control to repairs to remodeling and everything in between), let’s develop a monitoring system to ensure that the annual spending goal percentages for accepted bids from minority-owned or small businesses is at least equal to the diversity within the demographics of the student population or community or whichever is greater.
- It has been well documented that more than half of all U.S. children have experienced some kind of abuse, neglect, violence or other challenging household circumstances. Arkansas, before COVID-19 and even now, continues to lead the nation in adverse childhood experiences. But trauma doesn’t just affect students; secondary trauma and compassion fatigue is also a real thing for teachers. If and when the waivers covering copays for tele/mental health services expire, in order to have the healthiest teaching and learning environment, funds should be allocated to continue to cover or reimburse copays for telehealth and face-to-face mental health services for students and educators. Alternatively, mental health visits should be treated similarly to wellness visits in terms of health insurance benefits wherein they are free and earn a discount on premium rates when documented.
- I believe that the arts are essential to how students learn and how teachers teach. You’d be hard-pressed to find an educator who does not believe that the arts can be therapeutic and help with discipline, and that art-related courses and electives are often where students are the happiest and where they transform and thrive. Therefore, renewed commitment and investment in the arts and art education are needed. The related arts programs such as drama, theatre, debate, communication, visual art, journalism and choral & music programs should be fully funded. Competition entry fees should be eliminated, as should all student costs associated with said programs. And while we’re at it, let’s restructure the school district salary schedule and compensate poetry/spoken word teachers at the same level as athletic coaches!
- According to the 2021 Kids Count Data Book, the 2019 pre-COVID-19 data shows 39% of Black children, 27% of Latino and Latina children, and 16% of white children in Arkansas live in poverty. How awesome would it be to offer free student passes for all children to local museums, cultural events, gyms and community centers so that place-based instruction, enrichment activities and physical learning could occur?
- For as long as I have been in education, I have heard the words “parental involvement” raised over and over. Parent-teacher conference days have also been tinkered with wherein educators are sometimes required to stay at work an extra three hours past their contract time to be more accommodating for working parents. For the first time in my career, I reached more parents this year via their home phone number than I did their work number. With COVID-19 shutdowns and virtual learning came a rethinking of what work looks like. Many employers offered remote or flexible work options. What if, moving forward, all employers were required by law to provide paid leave designated explicitly for school-related activities and conferences?
If I were like Kurtis Blow or Nas, “If I ruled the world,” and could turn my educational wishes into reality, the above-referenced items are where I would start. Soon every district in Arkansas will have to develop and post to their websites their plans for spending the federal money. And we’re not talking about a little chump change. Virtually every district and charter system in the state is receiving at least $1 million (or, in the case of the Little Rock School District, close to $99 million) of relief funds. So, whether we have a say or an outlet to share our dreams for Arkansas’s more than 470,000 students, somebody’s wish-list is about to come true.