Education Inequity Shown in the Lives of One Soccer Team

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Good morning, CharterFolk.

Excited about readership levels of Kyle Rosenkrans’s piece about Newark. I really liked his observations that unlikely political alliances and encouragement of charter school stakeholders to be involved in elections really matter. And regarding his comment on mudslinging, I actually agree with him. I don’t think we should be surfacing just any old criticism of traditional public schools. We should only be highlighting problems where we believe charter schools are modeling a path forward for all schools. This is why, in my opinion, it is critically important that we have a clear North Star and a set of policy proposals aligned with it, which is one of the things I have been attempting to broken record here at CharterFolk. I’ll return to how we discern between mudslinging and principled critique in upcoming posts.

Thanks again to Kyle for a really thought-provoking piece.

Given that all attention next week will be focused on the election, I’ll hold off on posts and will use time organizing content on the site.  The next time you’ll hear from me will be on Monday the 9th.  

On to today’s post.

Summary Update: Today I recount the story of my son’s soccer team, which shows as well as anything I know how educational inequity plays out in our society, imposing greater challenge upon kids from families who have not previously had the opportunity to attend college.

I thought today I would dive into a topic that has been a new obsession of mine – how educational inequity is made plain in the experience of the boys and families connected to my son’s soccer team.

Quentin is 15 years old.

From the earliest days, it was clear he was quite athletic, so much so that several friends suggested that I really needed to take a paternity test. When he was about six, a coach suggested we should take him to try out for club soccer. Truth be told, I didn’t even know what club soccer was. But he made the team, and they have turned out to be very good. The year before COVID, they won the state-championship for Northern California.

Several of the players on the team have been offered opportunities on various special teams, including joining professional youth programs connected to MLS teams and La Liga teams in Mexico. The boys on the team have become Quentin’s closest friends. Before COVID, we were having hordes of them sleep over on weekend nights. And families get together frequently. We’ve had all the families to our place for gatherings several times.

Through that process of getting to know everyone, something slowly dawned on me: this soccer team is an incredibly unique social unit. It consists of a mix of boys where about 60-70% would be first generation college attendees, and where 30-40% have parents who have completed college. As would not be difficult to guess, the kids who would be first-gen generally come from Latino families and other families of color, and the kids coming from families whose parents have college degrees are mostly white.

When the uniqueness of the social mix had finally sunk in, I was reminded of one of Larry Rosenstock’s mantras from High Tech High, which was that the prime determinant of whether a student goes to college is being in a friend group where it is presumed that all are going to college. In this case, the friend group is in a particularly strong collective position to attend college given that the boys’ soccer skills make them highly attractive to coaches. And, as Quentin reported to me, nearly all the boys were carrying at least 3.5 grade point averages.

It led me after a game last fall to ask Quentin whether he thought there was anything he could do to help ensure that all of his teammates would end up using their awesome soccer skills to go to college. His answer was quintessential teenager:

Well, if it matters so much to you, you could take the college tour you’re planning for me back east and turn it into a trip for the whole team.

Six months and a helluva a lot of frequent flyer miles later, seventeen boys, four fathers, and my wife Amy …

… boarded a plane for Boston.

Over the next nine days we saw 13 schools, some Ivy’s but mostly small NESCAC (New England Small College Athletic Conference) schools …

… Division 3 schools that care a lot about soccer.

Meeting coaches …

Talking to college admissions officers …

Getting a feel for college life …

Meeting with students who were first gen. The panel that Bates pulled off for us was amazing. (5 of the 10 students were from charter schools.)

Celebrating birthdays.

And having our share of adventures. Don’t even get me started on the bedbug incident in Middlebury.

Wrapping up in New York …

Catching a few sights ….

… before flying back home.

An incredible experience.

Of course, the point of the trip was not that anyone on the team needs to go all the way back east to go to college, but to underscore that if the boys use their soccer skills wisely and keep their grades up, they could probably find schools that are both great at soccer and great at giving kids a valuable education.

It seemed, coming back, that the trip was having its intended effect. Boys and parents were excited about possibilities.

Then the harsh reality set in, the harsh reality of learning more about where the kids were going to high school. No surprise, the kids whose parents have gone to college are enrolled in schools that are preparing them for college. Most attend private schools. Some like Quentin have moved out of central Sacramento to be in the attendance boundaries of decent public schools.

And the first-gen kids?

CharterFolk, it’s just so appalling. In Sacramento proper, several of the big high schools have selective admissions magnets on their campus. If you haven’t gotten into those magnets, which none on the team have, the campus then tracks you into other academies that set you on a course for jobs that do not require a college degree.

At the post trip pizza party, parents were already sharing other ideas: plans to change to charter schools and other options in the area; hopes to get into College Track, a support program for first gen kids in school districts like Sacramento Unified; and generally, a spirit of making sure that all the kids stay on course for college knowing that a positive peer and family effect could be one of the most important supports we could collectively offer.

Less than a month after we got home, COVID hit.

The experience of the soccer team reflects all the broader trends we are hearing about how COVID is having very different impact on education depending on your background.

The private schools were the fastest to pivot to online learning in the spring.

And they’re the ones returning to classroom instruction this fall …

… meaning the kids whose families had gone to college previously are getting one kind of education.

Meanwhile, our first-gen kids in Sacramento Unified schools are getting a completely different kind of education. They are attending schools whose unions and administration have been unable to come to even the most basic agreement about how remote learning should occur

And learning in person is essentially completely off the table for the foreseeable future.

This past weekend, the team travelled to Arizona for the first tournament it has participated in since February. The disparate experiences of the first gen kids and the kids whose parents have gone to college couldn’t have been more plain to see. One set of kids headed back to remote learning on Monday morning. The other set headed back to class.

This, CharterFolk, is the world we live in.

One soccer team. Two completely different experiences.

One set of experiences setting up kids for success.

The other not as much.

And having gotten to know the families as I have over the past near-decade together, I am fully confident, we will figure this out. Whatever we have to do in the micro to help the first-gen kids compensate for the clearly inferior learning opportunities being made available to them, somehow with good old fashioned love and affection for one another …

… working together, the parents of Sacramento United will get it done.

But for the longer term? In the bigger scheme of things? Helping millions of kids and families overcome the challenges of education inequity that are now so widespread throughout our entire country?

That, my friends, is the work of CharterFolk.

CharterFolk Chat #3 – Nina Rees on the Importance of Having a Clear North Star

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Today I’m delighted to be able to share our third CharterFolk Chat, this one with Nina Rees, CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Here is how I introduced Nina in the interview:

I am a very big fan of Nina Rees …. I was on the Board of the National Alliance for seven years …. Nina came into the organization at a key moment of vulnerability. There was a question about whether the Alliance should even exist as an organization. And I will let CharterFolk know that … Nina brought a gravitas, a smarts, a commitment, and a quiet resolve that answered that question in a matter of just a few months. And then, in the years after that, Nina assembled a team and built strength which has resulted in a number of very important wins for charter schools at a federal level. Also in the last … four years, Nina has … managed this balance of having a relationship with this administration, while at the same time letting the administration know on many occasions that what it was standing for are things counter to what many CharterFolk think acceptable. It has been a very difficult balance to strike, and I don’t know anyone who could have struck it as well as Nina has. So for all sorts of reasons, I have nothing but respect and affection for Nina Reese and total gratitude that you are here with us for our third CharterFolk chat.

Nina shared smart observations throughout the interview. I hope you will have a chance to listen to it in its entirety, but for those who would like to know where to dive in, I provide a summary of some of the highlights below:

  • At the 3:50 mark, Nina starts with the good news, providing the latest information about charter school enrollment and highlighting places like DC where charter school growth has resulted in public education improving for all students.
  • At the 8:00 point, Nina acknowledges the great blowback we are facing but she reminds us all that “the reason that things are getting tougher … is because we are having an impact.”
  • At the 10:45 mark, Nina agrees that discussions about racial justice happening in our country after the death of George Floyd will ultimately affect policy discussion about public education, but she shares her dismay that this has not happened already at the level of urgency she thinks appropriate.
  • At 14:45, Nina recounts her entry point to the work in the 1990’s and shares her belief that “the coalition that brought us to this place, will not take us to the next level.”
  • At the 20:00 mark, Nina describes how charter schools’ innovative nature has allowed us to pivot more quickly to do what kids and families need during the COVID crisis.
  • At the 27:00 point, Nina agrees with me that we need to be working to achieve a new narrative for charter schools, but rather than seeing a different policy agenda to be the key driver of the narrative, she sees the need for more robust communications channels. She also advises against any approach that would identify school districts as the enemy.
  • At 36:45, Nina observes that some advocacy and communications efforts will resonate more with policy makers than parents. For parents, she recommends that we continue to highlight that charter schools are able to make programs suited to the unique needs of individual students.
  • At 39:28, in response to my prod that the Alliance should become a membership organization in order to better anchor our national advocacy and political infrastructure, Nina shares that this is something the organization is currently considering, but she thinks it is not a good idea to make decisions about infrastructure before identifying the long-term goal toward which we are working.
  • At 41:40, Nina underscores how important it is for advocacy organizations to have C4s and PACs and to be building political infrastructure proactively so that we have it when the need arises.
  • At 45:20, Nina identifies one of the National Alliance’s biggest value-adds to be the information sharing and communication support the organization provides to state associations across the country.
  • At 49:15, Nina says she is “not a fan of pitting one sector against another, but I do think you need to articulate what you are trying to do, and to the extent that that vision is grander and better than what we have, people are going to start following you in that direction.”
  • It culminates with Nina at 50:10 underscoring how we have to be “clearer about our North Star and painting that image of what we are trying to achieve.”

Amen. I couldn’t agree more. Without a clear North Star, my sense is that our movement is in grave peril, and I am greatly heartened to know that Nina is doing all she can to help our movement define that overarching goal toward which we are all aspiring.

It’s yet another reason I thank Nina for her strong leadership of the Alliance. I also thank her for appearing with us here at CharterFolk.