Keith Catone is executive director of the Center for Youth & Community Leadership in Education at Roger Williams University and an education ambassador for the Partnership for the Future of Learning.
Rhode Island is eligible to receive more than $415 million for public schools from the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. This has many legislators and the education community asking how to avoid creating unsustainable programs in schools.
While this is a good question, it overshadows a bigger one: How can we use the funds to develop sustainable processes that will shift our culture and education practices? Right now, we have an immense opportunity to change schooling for the better. We cannot choose to keep schools the same, and just have more of it.
This influx of federal funds offers us opportunities for engagement, research and planning to build better equitable public systems that are specific to the needs of those using them.
Over a year ago, author and educator Bettina Love said to an audience of teachers, “We cannot go back to the way things were.” We know that the way our school systems were functioning previous to the pandemic were underserving high-needs populations and students of color, so we need to fundamentally change how our education systems work.
We need to invest ESSER funds into systemic changes that will make our schools anti-racist, student- and family-centered, partnership-oriented, and democratically accountable no matter the program. These are the “enabling conditions” outlined in the Rhode Island Department of Education Learning, Equity & Accelerated Pathways (LEAP) Task Force Report.
This means schools should shift toward a deep commitment to partnership and engagement with youth and families, prioritizing their needs and wants in their schools and investing in their ideas and leadership. While many schools already have community meetings for general input and feedback, a more public-facing process catering to the most-impacted folks for solutions and ideas will result in the most meaningful programs and practices.
These funds do not need to be spent immediately. In fact, we have at least three years to use them. So let’s not rush, and instead use them wisely. RIDE can lay out expectations and guidance around the forms of stakeholder engagement that are most effective to nurture the “enabling conditions” named in the LEAP Task Force recommendations.
Investing in the leadership of community members to generate ideas is a powerful way to reshape education to be more equitable and effective. Supporting districts to take a leap of faith and follow a less-traveled path means doubling down on equity during a time when equity-based education has been selected as the container for ongoing culture wars.
Programs do not bring systemic change, don’t always produce results, and can be difficult to sustain over time without ongoing funding, but processes and structures get at the heart of systemic change. Processes are cyclical, renewable and can be self-sustaining.
We need to focus on investing in new processes and structures, reimagining the way we do school, or we will squander the federal funding and the opportunity sitting before us.