More than 90 percent of the 2,000 students at Indio High School, in Indio, Calif., are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
And when the coronavirus pandemic hit, those students, some of whom live in rural areas or whose parents work on the farms in the region’s agriculture sector, had to make high-stakes decisions that many of their peers from higher-income families nationwide didn’t have to.
There’s the student whose mother died during the pandemic, prompting the young girl to take over her mother’s housecleaning service.
There’s the student whose internet was so slow that only one person in his household could be online at a time, so he decided that he’d already had his turn and prioritized his younger siblings’ education.
“Those are the stories that really propelled my actions this year, even more so—to be more committed and on top of my efforts to push more services and for equity,” said Derrick Lawson, Indio High School’s principal, who was named this month as Advocacy Champion of the Year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
The association gives out the award to a current or former principal or assistant principal whose volunteer activities help advance its policy priorities.
For Lawson, a 27-year principal in the Desert Sands Unified School District in the Coachella Valley region, from which he also graduated, broadband access for students and families—especially those in rural environments—has been a focus of his advocacy work this past year.
The extent of his students’ technological challenges came into sharp view when Lawson and other school staff started home visits last September after nearly a quarter of students failed to show up or check in for their classes on Zoom or Google Classroom.
It’s a cause that’s also championed by superintendents and others who work in public education after witnessing the sharp socioeconomic and geographic disparities in internet access amid the pandemic.
Lawson’s advice for advocates in this area: “Don’t make it political; don’t make it partisan. Broadband is the electricity of the 21st century. We need everyone to have access.”
And so it was heartening for Lawson when the Federal Communications Commission announced the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program this month, which would provide up to a $50 monthly discount toward broadband service for low-income families or those who suffered significant income loss because of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are also provisions to help families buy laptops and other devices.
“I’ve been fighting for [expanded broadband access] all year because of my kids,” said Lawson, who has been principal at his high school for five years.
Raising a voice for equity and access
Lawson has always been outspoken about his students’ needs—especially ensuring that students from low-income families have access to nutritious meals. Indio High School was the district’s largest food delivery site during the pandemic, distributing about 1,900 meals daily.
In addition to expanded food and internet access, Lawson’s volunteer advocacy this year has centered on increasing Title II funding to districts and states so that principals could get training and other supports to lead remote or hybrid schools. And going forward, Lawson expects to continue pushing for assistance to help teachers and students with their social and emotional health.
Students have experienced a health crisis, economic crisis—which he calls a food crisis—and a social crisis in the span of a year, Lawson said.
In a normal year, Lawson would head to Capitol Hill to press federal legislators or to Sacramento, the California state capital, to discuss school leadership priorities.
Don’t make it political; don’t make it partisan. Broadband is the electricity of the 21st Century. We need everyone to have access.
But social distancing and other pandemic-related safety measures made some of that difficult this year. While he met safely with local lawmakers when they were in their districts this year, the bulk of his efforts migrated online and to the telephone.
He urged other principals to contact their representatives during coordinated social media campaigns on Twitter, by telephone, and by mail. With other state coordinators, he helped to craft the specific language principals should use when they reached out to lawmakers. Lawson also participated in online meetings with legislators to discuss his and fellow school leaders’ priorities amid the pandemic. And he and school staff members also shared their pandemic experiences with national media.
Over the years, Lawson has cultivated relationships with some lawmakers and their education staffers. They sometimes call on him and ask how a proposal or policy would play out in schools and he’s called to explain why a proposal was a good or not-so-great idea, he said.
Sometimes legislators were amenable to his suggestions and input; other times, they’d say their conference was not in favor of it, he said.
Principals may struggle with their role as advocates
Principals, who often do not enjoy the same level of job security as teachers, are sometimes hesitant to step into the public advocacy role and may see it as getting involved in politics.
Lawson views it differently.
“It’s about the kids I represent,” he said. “These are the kids I work for. These are the families I work for, and I am trying to help.”
Principals shouldn’t think they’re veering out of their lanes when they advocate, Lawson said. Most legislators want to know how schools work, what makes sound education policy, and how proposals that come before them in state capitals and on Capitol Hill will unfold in schools, he said.
“I am not a policymaker,” he said. “We have legislators who are policymakers. But as I tell principals, we have to have a seat at the table. … If we don’t speak up and say, ‘This is how this policy translates,’ or ‘This is how it will work in a school system,’ then we are the guilty party because we’ve sat back and said nothing.”
Coverage of principals and school leadership is supported in part by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/programs/education-economic. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.