Thorne Ladd is executive director of KairosPDX, a Portland non-profit focused on equitable education in Oregon. She is also the mother of two school-aged children.
We, as a collective, have a tendency to talk about children being “our future.” And yet, we act with them as an afterthought. If ever there was a moment for our actions to speak louder than words, it is now.
Faced with a global health pandemic coupled with a racial justice re-awakening, we are at a critical juncture unlike anything we’ve ever seen in our lifetimes. And in this space, there is phenomenal opportunity for crafting a society for children that we all can be proud of. Such progress will require a level of selflessness that we rarely see, even when it comes to the needs of children. Fundamentally, it will literally require people to care about other peoples’ children as much as our own. It will mean paying attention to education even if you’re without child or your children are grown. Are we as a society capable of this?
If history is any indicator, we are not.
It’s interesting. The word “progressive” is a derivative of “progress” which means “forward movement toward a destination.” Portland has often, with pride, taken on this title.
But is this moniker truly applicable when we see little to no progress in providing equal educational opportunities to nearly half of the children in the Pre-K-higher education continuum? When we have an achievement gap that has persisted for over 50 years? When our drop-out rates are some of the highest in the nation? When black and brown children are disproportionately disciplined for subjective offenses as early as kindergarten? And if we’re confusing “progressive” with “liberal,” shouldn’t a liberal educational agenda be inclusive of all children thriving?
What burden of responsibility do we bear as taxpayers, continuously writing checks that – as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said- are coming back marked “insufficient funds”? Why aren’t we outraged? Why have we grown complacent with our continuous investment in a broken system and not push it to change – not only for “our kids” but all kids? Education has been touted as the bedrock of our democracy but this bedrock has only fortified the ground of a select few for far too long. Putting a sign in our yard that reads “Black Lives Matter” while doing nothing to improve a system that is decimating the lives of Black children is, in my opinion, unacceptable. Black lives can’t possibly matter to those for whom Black children don’t. The quip of children being our future runs hollow when we, as a community, allow there to be 38 shootings in a single month in Portland – with teenage boys accounting for several of those injured – and do nothing. Or when we know that the brain develops most rapidly between ages 0-6 but don’t ensure every child has access to preschool. Or when we say higher education is the gateway to the middle class but don’t support our community colleges.
And so, today, I’m writing for a call to action. An admonition to act as though children truly are our future. To re-imagine what it means to live in a society that centers the child and blow the status quo out of the water. Let’s insist that our investments yield results for not a minority, but the majority of children in the system. That means black and brown children, poor children, children with special needs—ensuring that all are actually cashing their checks and yielding returns.
The COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to exacerbate existing inequities we see in education. We can’t allow this to happen. How to act?
1. COVID-19 is spreading locally primarily because of social gatherings. Limit them so we can open schools to provide physically-distant learning for our youngest kids. In-person learning is developmentally appropriate for them.
2. Wear your masks. The science says this is critical.
3. Look at what cities like Oakland are doing with their “Virtual Learning Hubs” to ensure not only privileged students get “learning pods” but low-income students also don’t fall behind. This is the moral thing to do and it’s not putting the onus on families to figure it out.
4. Policies and initiatives are on the table that can actually bring about fundamental and lasting change such as: Reimagine Oregon’s Policy Framework and the Racial Justice in Education Paving the Way Roadmap. Support them.
5. Several culturally-specific organizations are doing work to support historically marginalized children. Fund them.
6. The November ballot will include measures created by community and centered around our children and equity such as: Creation of a Center for Black Excellence that will be part of the Portland Public Schools bond, and the Preschool for All initiative. Vote for them.
Let’s collectively make this the moment that the narrative changes. Let us wrap our hands around this moment and movement to hold our children up and honor their legacy and worth. Can we listen to the neuroscience and give them all the care and connection they desperately need? Can we center their humanity as a collective and breathe hope into the possibility that they are the leaders of tomorrow and through them our future is brighter? This is our chance. Let’s hold all of our children tight and chart a clear way forward with their destiny being our priority – finally allowing our actions to speak louder than words.