Equity & Diversity

Ferguson Commission: Schools Must Prioritize Whole-Child Issues, Equity

By Evie Blad — September 14, 2015 5 min read
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Missouri should address systemic racial inequity and poverty by focusing on the “whole-child” needs of students in schools, rethinking education policies, and overhauling the state’s system for handling unaccredited school districts, the Ferguson Commission recommended in a report released Monday.

The independent group was assembled by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon last November to conduct a “thorough, wide-ranging and unflinching study of the social and economic conditions that impede progress, equality and safety in the St. Louis region.” Its creation followed unrest after unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white Ferguson, Mo., police officer and a grand jury’s subsequent decision not to indict the officer.

The 198-page report covers a variety of recommendations for the justice system, social programs, and community organizations. A major pillar of those recommendations covers the needs of children, particularly those living in poverty and those attending subpar schools.

“Our region’s youth present our greatest opportunity to impact positive and lasting change, in this and future generations,” says the report, which often reads more like a conversation than a policy document. “These signature calls to action speak to the needs of children and youth. In the area of child well-being, the calls to action address supporting the whole child, ending hunger for children and families, reforming school discipline, and leveraging the influence of schools to improve childhood health. In the area of education infrastructure reform, the calls to action address early childhood education, education innovation, and school accreditation.”

Among the report’s largest child-centered recommendations is a call for the state to redesign its school accreditation process so that it is simple, equitable, and transparent. Under a 1993 law, students in unaccredited Missouri districts can transfer into accredited school systems at the cost of the unaccredited district.

This system only exacerbates problems and further strains struggling schools, the commission wrote. For example, the St. Louis-area Riverview Gardens and Normandy districts, both unaccredited, paid up to $20,000 in tuition per year per child in 2014, more than $9 million total between the two districts, to educate students attending schools in other districts, the report says. (Michael Brown had graduated from the unaccredited Normandy district just a few months before he was killed.)

“While students who transfer to new schools often find themselves in a better educational environment, many also find themselves taking long, early-morning bus rides to get there,” the report says. “Those students who stay in unaccredited schools find themselves in a school where budgets are tighter, and where some of the most motivated students—including students who have served as leaders, tutors, and behavior models for success—have left the district. And while these accreditation and transfer laws add considerable strain to both the districts that lose accreditation and the districts who receive transferring students, they fail to fix the schools that have lost accreditation or to address the core issues that led to losing accreditation. They simply send motivated students, and money, away.”

The commission also called for the creation of an “Education Design and Financing Task Force” to explore the current state of education in the St. Louis region and to propose changes that could support equity for all students and the development of “an Innovative Education Hub,” which “would serve as a developmental laboratory where teachers, education leaders, parents, community leaders, youth, colleges and universities, non-profits, entrepreneurs, business leaders,and philanthropists could experiment, collaborate, and innovate.” That hub would develop strategies for issues like classroom management, teaching, school culture, and education technology, the report says.

Whole-Child Issues

The commission also called on the state and its school systems to support non-academic facets of children’s lives. Among its recommendations:

  • Missouri should address hunger by replacing its telephone enrollment system for public benefits, making it easier to enroll families in SNAP and WIC.
  • Schools should establish school-based health centers to address mental, behavioral, and physical health issues and to help promote enrollment in programs like Medicaid for low-income students.
  • Schools should rework discipline to avoid disproportionate suspensions and expulsions of black students. The most recent federal data available, from the 2011-12 school year, show that the state has one of the largest discipline gaps in the country—14.3 percent of black elementary school students were suspended that year, compared to 1.8 percent of white students. The report recommends schools improve equity in this area by “providing cultural responsiveness and anti-bias training for teachers and school staff, reforming the policies and practices that disproportionately impact black students, tracking and monitoring school discipline data to identify disparities in school discipline, and working to align school discipline policies with positive youth development and restorative justice frameworks.”
  • Missouri should expand access to early-childhood education. From 2011 to 2013, 64 percent of Missouri children below 200 percent of the federal poverty level were not enrolled in preschool, the report says, compared to 48 percent of children at or above 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

Photo: Youths walk past a mural depicting peace in Ferguson on a vacant building up the street from the city’s police department on Nov. 23, in Ferguson, Mo. --David Goldman/AP

Further reading on equity:

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.