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When it’s okay to give public education advocates the side-eye

At least one group cares for youth beyond the schoolhouse

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

How many times have you given the side-eye to the education advocate who screamed at the top of his lungs during the charter school rally but couldn’t muster up a mere tweet for Trayvon, Tamir or Michael?

He pushed the governor for school choice, but stayed silent on healthcare expansion. You know, the person who decreed “poverty doesn’t matter;” “you can’t fix poverty;” or my favorite, “maintain a laser-light focus on what goes on in a classroom.” Yeah, that person — continue to give him the side-eye.

Caring for children requires extending one’s concern beyond a classroom. New statistics in the New Orleans Youth Index 2015 back this. Released by The Data Center of New Orleans, the Youth Index is a statistical snapshot of the well-being of the city’s children and youth from birth to 24 years old. It is meant to “inform the development of strategies that can improve the academic, social, and behavioral outcomes.”

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Although the report focuses on New Orleans, all cities can learn why a rigid focus on school success along test scores can lose the forest for the trees. Kids don’t live in schools; they live in communities, and their wellness should be the target of change.

For instance, the data show that you simply can’t be a strong school advocate without advocating for healthcare reform. When it comes to immunizations, New Orleans at approximately 76 percent and Louisiana at about 80 percent both fall below the state’s target of 90 percent of all children having received their shots on schedule.

Infant mortality is also an important indicator of overall community wellness. The Youth Index reported that in 2013, the New Orleans infant mortality rate was 9.3 per 1,000 live births compared to 8.7 for Louisiana. Both of those rates were higher than the national rate of 6.0 per 1,000 live births in 2013.

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Poverty matters. Anyone who tells you otherwise simply is denying children opportunities for a better life. As the report states, poverty may be “the single greatest threat to children’s healthy brain development.” The stress of violence, neglect and economic hardship can “disrupt the development of brain architecture, leading to lifelong difficulties in learning, memory, and self-regulation.”

Poverty and education are correlates. Meaning, the two influence each other. The belief that you have to sequentially solve education to fix poverty or vice versa opens oneself up to exacerbating the other correlate. One must be mindful how one impacts the other.

With that said, in 2014, approximately 44 percent of New Orleans children under 18 were living in in poverty. Compare that to the state’s percentages of nearly 30 percent and 22 percent for the United States. Aggravating matters, the youth unemployment rate is higher in the Crescent city. In 2014, 20 percent of New Orleans young people age 16-24 were unemployed compared with approximately 17 percent in Louisiana and 15 percent in the United States.

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Again, poverty matters. If you really want children to succeed, you have to push to find work for their parents. In 2014, the proportion of children under 18 with at least one working parent in New Orleans was nearly 81 percent, while in Louisiana the rate was about 87 percent. The rate for the United States was approximately 90 percent. Who works in schools, hospitals, city government and other large agencies is vitally important to overall wellness. But when is the last time you heard a school talk about how many community members they hired en route to academic success?

Another measure of community wellness is the ability to keep students in school. In 2013, 87 percent of the suspensions in New Orleans were out-of-school suspensions compared with 39 percent in all other parishes in Louisiana. A school that suspends children may “help” the school academically, but it’s simply bad for the child and horrible for the community. This is the reason why advocates need robust measures to gauge if a school is helping a community meet its goals instead of a principal selfishly meeting hers.

School improvement isn’t the goal. Community wellness is. Schools are just a means to an end.

Advocating for education requires a robust agenda for children. This is why the Data Center has partnered with YouthShift — a movement of people who are committed to improving outcomes for children and youth in New Orleans — to release the Youth Index alongside YouthShift’s Call to Connection. YouthShifts’ members have “committed to working together and proposed ways their programs and organizations can ensure every young person in New Orleans thrives.” And the Call to Connection documents the data and the process employed to create a community vision for children and youth in New Orleans. It outlines an approach and concrete action steps to make this vision a reality.

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YouthShift was created on the values of collaboration, inclusiveness and data-driven improvement. YouthShift hopes to encourage organizations that work with or on behalf of youth to better coordinate their services; increase quality and awareness of available services for youth and their families; influence government and civic leaders to prioritize children, youth and their families, especially in policy and funding decisions; and inspire local and national funders to invest in quality local solutions towards the comprehensive needs of children and youth.

YouthShift is comprised of members who work with children beyond the schoolhouse. It’s expected that school leaders will join YouthShifts efforts to help build a better community. I’ve worked with the Data Center and YouthShift on this joint project, and I’m encouraged that people are making sure that academic success will be recast as a means and not an end. For too long, we’ve allowed the idea that love for school improvement is synonymous with a love for community or children for that matter. The question of ‘how are the children?’ is synonymous with ‘how is the community?” It’s long passed time we took roll call on who will advocate for community growth.

The call for community has been cast.

Andre Perry is the former founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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