Make schools a catalyst for change

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Now that students are returning to face-to-face classes, schools have the opportunity to reinvent the way they prepare young people for the complex world that awaits them after high school graduation. My proposal: turn schools upside down and create civil rights organizations that use education as a catalyst for positive social change.

After earning a master’s degree in education at Stanford and another in public policy at Harvard, I founded a charter public school in Texas that challenges assumptions about how to deliver education to the most underserved population. of our country: black and brown youth. The El Paso Leadership Academy, with an enrollment of thirty people and a student body of over 200, teaches students in grades six to eight. We are opening our first high school this fall.

Our goal from the start was not to run a school. Instead, we decided to form a civil rights organization.

We integrate honest conversations about racial equity and systemic racism into all of our programs.

It sounds like a radical idea because it is. Our critics predicted that our bold pedagogical approach would distract students from the core academic curriculum. Instead, the opposite has happened.

In 2018 and 2019, the academy ranked first and second in academic achievement in the state of Texas, respectively, even though our student body is 64% English learners, or more than six. times the national average. Students often come to us three or four years behind their grade level in math and English and are mostly up to date within two or three years.

How do we do this? First, we reject the traditional model of education, which is historically rooted in the subjugation and assimilation of people of color.

We integrate honest conversations about racial equity and systemic racism into all of our programs. If students understand how their families have been targeted by predatory subprime loan lenders, discriminated against in real estate and business loans, and exploited by an economic system rigged against them, you better believe that they will take their math lessons at home. serious.

From eighth grade, our students learn to be responsible news consumers. We are studying the use of propaganda, news for entertainment and responsible sourcing. The goal is to empower young people to transform the world by understanding our history. When lessons are relevant to people’s lives, they stick.

We are committed to rethinking every element of the school’s design and structure. Class schedules, bus routes, and calendars are usually created to serve adults. As educators we need to focus on the needs of our children as we create new role models.

Part of the civil rights approach is to understand that education is a family and community affair. We need to create a culture where the doors are open to families and community members who want to know more.

To some, it feels like adding hundreds of hours of work and bottomless chests. In fact, the opposite is true. While developing workshops for parents means extra work, it also translates into greater commitment from volunteers and donors.

At a community event on campus, two El Paso residents in attendance asked why our basketball court wasn’t a tarmac with regulatory lines and limits. Unfortunately, it was a luxury that our school could not afford. However, after learning about our innovative approach to education, they came to support our students.

These guests owned a construction company and volunteered to upgrade our courts. Inspired by this, a second local business launched and purchased our basketball team uniforms and new equipment.

Educators across the United States are also adopting curricula that integrate social justice issues into learning. It is a wonderful first step which deserves to be applauded. But these efforts are currently under furious attack from political conservatives, with more than a dozen states passing legislation to limit the teaching of ideas related to critical race theory.

This is not the right way to go, as our experience with the El Paso Leadership Academy shows. To best serve black and brown students, who fail in our current education system, we need to fundamentally transform the way we think about school.

Omar Yanar

Omar Yanar is the founder of the El Paso Leadership Academy and speaks regularly about education reform to educators and policy makers.

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August 10, 2021

9:49 am


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