Will We Finally Tap The Learning Expertise That Is Present in Oft-Overlooked Communities?

May 11, 2021 12:00:00 AM


Talk of an education “recovery” to address student “learning loss” is here, often with a focus on expanded summer learning programs, high-dose tutoring and expanded after-care programming.

These supports are needed and stand to help students most affected by the last year. But they are not enough to create the excellent, equitable and culturally affirming schools that families and students want. Parents and families, forced to do more than ever last year, have diverse interests, aspirations and needs for their children. They want a wide and dynamic array of schools, and educators and policymakers must respond accordingly.

The good news is that public charter schools have made progress to meet demand: Nearly 70% of charter schools approved between 2013 - 2018 had a special focus, such as STEM, inquiry-based or dual-language models. The high proportion of different kinds of school models is not just happening in a few states. It's true across the 19 states and the District of Columbia studied, where nearly two-thirds of all charter schools are located

While the trend of delivering a wide range of different kinds of excellent schools should continue, the next challenge is ensuring that we intentionally tap into the expertise present in communities, especially communities that are too often overlooked and undervalued, to create and sustain schools and models that work for students. After all, some of America’s best innovations came from such communities.

By way of example, Black communities have a long history of bringing innovation to American society. Charles Drew and the blood bank, Garret Morgan and the traffic light, and co-creator Mark Dean and IBM’s personal computer are a few examples that have changed modern life. 

Examples abound in education too. Consider Rosenwald schools, the brainchild of Booker T. Washington, which educated more than 700,000 Black children throughout the American south in the 1920s and 1930s in small-schoolhouse models. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), too, created post-secondary pathways and access to high-wage careers, including doctors, lawyers, legislators, and more for Black Americans.

Today Black, brown, Indigenous and other leaders of color continue to bring educational breakthroughs to our schools: whether that’s establishing community-wide children’s zoneslaunching schools during a global health pandemic, continuing a legacy of high quality and high achievement, schools committed to preserving native language, or launching an online Black culture curriculum

This work, called innovation, freedom, autonomy, or from skeptics, “privatization,” is the belief that [pullquote]communities know what is best for their children and their local contexts and can create schools that educate and liberate young people and support the needs of their communities well.[/pullquote]

Transformative educational ideas and approaches don’t just live in high-tuition private schools, nor should it live only in charter schools (though charter schooling, in particular, is ripe to develop such models). All communities, and all types of schools, can do this work, and those who run our systems and structures must place an emphasis on looking for transformation from often-overlooked communities.

Coming out of COVID-19, there will be new ways of organizing learning that we haven’t seen yet. [pullquote position="right"]With an unprecedented influx of new federal resources, decision-makers would be wise to create spaces where new schools and models can emerge and be sustainably supported.[/pullquote]

We need to also prioritize leaders of color and those with strong ties to communities. Bringing new ways of learning and ensuring that communities are part of decision-making begins with looking at who is part of the conversation. 

Particularly in lieu of the recent visibility of systemic racism, more Black, brown, Indigenous and other leaders of color are rightly positioned to create and build schools that educate not only Black and brown students, but also multi-ethnic communities with new aspirations and demands for quality, equitable schooling.  

America has the opportunity to harness the genius, creativity, and innovation that has always existed in communities too often overlooked and undervalued, particularly global majority communities, into the heart of American schooling.

The question is, will our systems and structures welcome us?

Naomi N. Shelton

Naomi N. Shelton is the chief executive officer of the  National Charter Collaborative (NCC), a nonprofit organization focused on increasing the diversity and performance of the nation’s charter school sector by supporting the success of single-site schools led by leaders of color. NCC’s network includes more than 450 charter school leaders of color representing 25 states and the District of Columbia. Prior to joining NCC, Shelton was the first director of Community Engagement at the  KIPP Foundation, the nonprofit support organization that facilitates the exchange of insights and ideas both within the KIPP network and with partners including other public schools, non-profit organizations, and institutions of higher learning. Shelton’s appreciation for education leaders of color deepened during her time as the inaugural director of  K-12 Advocacy for UNCF (United Negro College Fund), the nation's largest and most effective minority education organization. At UNCF, she led national and local engagement efforts focused on messaging and research to ensure more African-American stakeholders are involved and informed to best advocate for Black student college and career readiness. With cross-functional expertise, Shelton has provided operational support, project and crisis management and public relations counsel to private, public and non-profit organizations. Notably, Shelton spent several years working in Washington, DC’s Executive Office of the Mayor and the Office of the Secretary of the District during the administration of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. Preceding her experience with the Government of the District of Columbia, Shelton served as both co-campaign manager and press secretary during a 2004 congressional campaign for the first African American woman to run for office in Mississippi’s Second District. Shelton began her career as an integral team member with  Xenophon Strategies, Inc., a boutique public relations and crisis communications firm. A long-standing resident of Washington, DC, Shelton currently serves as a volunteer member and secretary of the DC Public Charter School Board, appointed by Mayor Muriel Bowser in 2017. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, MS and resides in the Southwest Waterfront neighborhood of the District.

The Feed


  • What's an IEP and How to Ensure Your Child's Needs Are Met?

    Ed Post Staff

    If you have a child with disabilities, you’re not alone: According to the latest data, over 7 million American schoolchildren — 14% of all students ages 3-21 — are classified as eligible for special...

  • Seeking Justice for Black and Brown Children? Focus on the Social Determinants of Health

    Laura Waters

    The fight for educational equity has never been just about schools. The real North Star for this work is providing opportunities for each child to thrive into adulthood. This means that our advocacy...

  • Why Math Identity Matters

    Lane Wright

    The story you tell yourself about your own math ability tends to become true. This isn’t some Oprah aphorism about attracting what you want from the universe. Well, I guess it kind of is, but...