A new initiative through the Oregon Community Foundation aims to narrow educational inequities for Black students statewide.
The Oregon Black Student Success Community Network was launched last month to support Black-led community organizations that are specifically working with children and youth to advance racial equity. It includes a partnership of 20 culturally-focused local organizations and is supported with funding from the Collins Foundation, the Gray Family Foundation, Meyer Memorial Trust, Miller Foundation and PGE Foundation.
OCF Program Officer Marcy Bradley told The Skanner the foundation’s approach was to prioritize “community-led problem-solving.”
“I think of how significant these organizations that do this work are to the community,” Bradley said. “When you (figure in) a couple of crises -- the fires, COVID, certainly our reckoning with racial justice that we’re experiencing -- you start recognizing how it compounds poverty, and that these vulnerable communities are very, very reliant on these organizations for the system not to collapse.”
Through the new initiative, OCF is awarding $75,000 each to Elevate Oregon and youth leadership program REAP, with a $150,000 grant to the Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center and Rosemary Anderson High School (POIC + RAHS).
“OCF and others are stepping up to push the envelope, and to in some ways tear up the old playbook, to really look at, what do the people need, and what organizations that serve them really need?” Joe McFerrin II, president and CEO of Rosemary Anderson High School and the Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center, told The Skanner. “As opposed to having initiatives that were drawn up, say, in a boardroom or a strategic planning process and then rolled out to the community.”
McFerrin praised OCF for helping fund POIC + RAHS’s “off the court” postsecondary support services.
“We offer tutoring, helping students sign up for financial aid, helping them navigate their schedule,” McFerrin said. “But we have found over the years that the best way to help students, a necessary way to help students, particularly struggling students, is to help them with their living situations. Where are they going to live?
"How are they going to find a space to study?
"Then time management. Problem solving. Helping them navigate those things, so that they can focus on their academic achievements, is something that this funding allows us to do.
“There’s not a lot of funders that fund this kind of post-secondary educational support, and so OCF has allowed us the flexibility to use those dollars for those kind of off-the-court issues that often plague our kids and prevent them from being successful.”
POIC + RAHS provide schooling and wraparound services to more than 600 students. According to RAHS Principal Mykia Richards, the alternative high school’s heavy focus on relationship-building with its students has been challenged by this year’s switch to distance learning.
“We know that students come to us with a lot of different trauma around academics and personal trauma, and so we really value the relationship, it’s super important to the work we do,” Richards told The Skanner. “And so with this pandemic happening, it’s really hard to virtually facilitate those relationships and know where students are, what is their mental state like? There's a lot of gaps that are there with this virtual learning. It has been difficult to engage a lot of our students.”
Pre-pandemic, RAHS focused on employing tutors and essentially “having more caring adults in the building,” Richards said.
“Students can have a variety of different perspectives and people to glean information from. I think that’s really helpful for our students, and it’s a really integral part of our model: having multiple caring adults at your fingertips.”
Staff members are each still responsible for checking in with 10 to 12 students in their cohort virtually, Richards said.
McFerrin is concerned that social distancing and sheltering-in-place efforts are making the populations his organizations serve even more isolated.
“In a lot of cases it can take years of working with families and students to really build the kind of trust that will allow them to feel comfortable sharing things that they wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing with others,” McFerrin told The Skanner.
In prioritizing the needs of students and their families, he said, you have to start with safety.
“If people don’t feel safe, it’s going to be very difficult to start to address some of their other areas of growth,” McFerrin said.
“For our organization, in partnership with many others, with the support of OCF and others, we work with children and families that tend to need support around safety. That could be safety from harm, or that can be safety from insecurity around food, shelter, clothing, and the basic needs. And then we can begin to talk about reading, writing, and arithmetic, job training, and personal development and growth.”
Working with OCF, which has partnered with 20 community-led organizations through the initiative to support POIC + RAHS and others, allows McFerrin and his staff to continue outreach efforts like check-ins and food and school supply delivery.
A recent home visit illustrates the intersectionality of needs some students are experiencing -- as well as the necessity of the face-to-face meetings community organizations often rely on. During a Chromebook drop-off, McFerrin and his staff discovered the parent of two siblings had experienced domestic violence. At the hospital, the parent tested positive for COVID-19, and had to work with the county to undergo quarantine, leaving two teenagers home alone.
“With face-to-face comes a level of trust, and willingness to open up, and creates an environment where students and participants feel a sense of support and safety,” McFerrin said. “We are currently trying to figure out how to do more home visits in a safe way, so that as we’re trying to figure out how to also provide some services and support, we create an environment and atmosphere where students and participants and family members can share in a safe way what they’re really up against.”
Even pre-pandemic, the digital divide put students of color at a disadvantage. The Oregon Statewide Broadband Assessment and Best Practices Study released in January found that 75,500, or nearly nine percent, of Oregon children under the age of 18 lacked either internet access or a computer in their homes. While school districts and nonprofits have stepped in by providing Chromebooks and in some cases wifi service, internet access remains inconsistent for many students.
Richards told The Skanner her school has a 50% engagement rate in virtual classrooms, up from 20% when the pandemic began.
“For about 20% of the students (not engaging), we know it is a digital issue, so they either lack the technology, or a big issue we’re seeing is they lack good wifi,” Richards said. “A lot of students, their services are being turned off because they can’t afford it, or the free services that were offered at the beginning of the pandemic, those are about to expire. For another probably 30%, I would say virtual interaction is just intimidating. They’re not confident in navigating a laptop.”
RAHS offers the option of packet work, where students can come by the school to pick up paper, rather than digital versions of their assignments.
“That has been kind of soothing and calming for students, a little less anxiety-ridden than the computer,” Richards said.
While some students are thriving with the increased autonomy and ability to move through lessons at their own pace, Richards said student surveys show a significant number of kids are feeling overwhelmed.
“I can’t imagine going from this to that so drastically for students who are still developing those independent skills,” Richard said. “It’s a lot of self-accountability:’ I have to wake myself up, I have to get online.’ A lot of adults haven’t mastered these skills.”
Richards hopes to put some of the grant money toward better technology and learning programs for her students, as well as toward more culturally inclusive textbooks and materials.
“Moving forward, having OCF at the table to be able to talk about the challenges of distance learning in a way that has a statewide reach, will put us in the best situation to share best practices and learn from each other,” McFerrin said.
“Because I don't think this is going away anytime soon,”
OCF will award 20 grants of $20,000 each to organizations selected to participate in the Oregon Black Student Success Network. For more information, visit https://oregoncf.org/grants-and-scholarships/grants/black-student-success-grants.