December 2, 2020

Black Leaders Give Their Take on Education in Current Times

Channel Powe, Denise TrimbleSmith, Larry Johnson, Erica Maxwell

Important issues like systemic racism and the lack of equity have been put on the back burner for far too long, and the COVID-19 pandemic has brought them to the forefront. We spoke with Black/African American education and community leaders about the issues students face and how the pandemic has affected society as a whole. Though there is a long road ahead for all of us, knowing what needs to be changed is the first step in the right direction.

Channel Powe is a Diversity, Equity, Governance & Inclusion consultant, Governing Board President of Balsz School District, and former President of the ASBA Black Caucus.

Denise TrimbleSmith is Coordinator of Fraternity and Sorority Life at Northern Arizona University and CEO of Courageous Conversations, LLC.

Larry Johnson is President of Phoenix College.

Erica Maxwell is Associate Superintendent of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion for Arizona Department of Education.

What are you and your education colleagues talking about now that was previously not discussed in education?  

Channel Powe: For starters, we are talking about meeting virtually, personal protective equipment, social distancing, following CDC guidelines, face masks, temperature checks, staggered classrooms, online vs. in-person learning, and becoming an Arizona Online Instruction school district to name a few. The pandemic has disrupted traditional teaching and learning and has forced districts to adapt with little concrete guidance from the federal or state level.

Denise TrimbleSmith: The problem is that there was not enough communication for so long. In our state of crisis, there was a lot of talking at and information sharing, but there was no communication. Even at an institution of higher learning, it felt like no one was asking any questions. And when you’re having a conversation with yourself, 99.99% of the time you’re right. And that’s where we fall into trouble.  

Larry Johnson: One of the topics that we are all struggling with is closing the digital divide. When COVID-19 hit, we sought out plans and strategies to provide our students with laptops, just like our colleagues at other institutions. But once students were connected into laptop loaner programs and now had a device, then they did not have access to WIFI or hotspots. We found that the students whom we serve were primarily from first-generation, underrepresented, economically disadvantaged communities. And now they were at a greater risk to not succeed, because they were trying to complete course work with no access to the internet. 

Erica Maxwell: The main issue is the digital divide. There are some districts that can provide students with equipment and devices to combat this, but there is also an issue with technological infrastructure in rural areas across Arizona. Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman’s Tech Task Force is looking at how other states are tackling the digital divide issue in order to help students across our state.

What have been the main challenges you or educators in your community have faced as a result of the pandemic?  

Channel Powe: Our pre-COVID challenges are now exacerbated, hitting our low-income, Black, Brown, Indigenous, and disabled communities the hardest. Speaking from a Title I school district perspective, implicit bias and funding inequities that have longed plagued our system are at an all time high.

Denise TrimbleSmith: What bothers me most about this situation is, why did it take all of this for us to get ourselves together? You cannot rationalize what has happened to us in 2020. I’ve had to have serious and courageous conversations with my daughters about both the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial unrest that our country is experiencing. But this had to happen, because it forces us as human beings to confront the issue and to be courageous.

Larry Johnson: We are taking our most vulnerable students — for example, first generation or economically disadvantaged — and we are now teaching them online. Many of those students originally attended a face-to-face campus because they needed hands-on support. So, the challenge has become, how do we provide tutoring? How do we conduct orientations about applying for financial aid? How do we engage these students with the services they have traditionally accessed on a physical campus?

Erica Maxwell: Schools had to plan for online instruction and a future with a variety of potential scenarios beyond that. With distance learning, schools are still grappling with how to ensure access to technology and online instruction, providing necessary special education services, and meeting the needs of working parents, simultaneously. These uncertainties are not only impacting my professional life, but as a parent and as a member of the black community, which has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, they impact me personally as well.

What has been the role of the pandemic in highlighting educational inequities for Black students?  

Channel Powe: The pandemic has intensified ongoing systemic educational inequities such as systemic racism; the need for more administrators and teachers of color, who are trauma responsive and share the lived experiences of their students; funding formula inequities; access to learning devices, broadband, and hotspots; school sanitation priorities; food insecurity; researched-based curriculum; increased need for janitors; increased need for bus drivers and routes; school safety; salary inequities; and new roles in districts to address the impacts of the pandemic. Our school district responded with racial equity resources on our webpage, culturally relevant curriculum, and approving a Resolution on the Commitment of Balsz Elementary School District Governing Board to Black Students and Black Lives.

Denise TrimbleSmith: When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, some students had to choose between going home to a very toxic environment or staying on campus to risk being exposed to the virus. Underrepresented students — primarily students of color or students who are only able to live and walk their authentic self at school — are already marginalized. This pandemic put their physical health at risk, and now they have to make decisions to support their mental health as well. 

Larry Johnson: This pandemic really amplified the need for us to think about how we serve our most vulnerable students, who may not have access to digital resources. Our communities of color have certainly been disproportionately impacted. If you look at the national data, it’s typically those students who lag behind other ethnic populations in terms of college readiness when graduating from high school, and readiness to transfer to a postsecondary education. There are noncognitive barriers that impact their success. We saw all of that amplified when we forced students to move into this online platform. 

Erica Maxwell: I am so grateful in so many ways that Superintendent Hoffman had the foresight and the commitment to create my position for a time such as this. In the best of times, we definitely had inequities in outcomes for students of color. Now with COVID-19, those inequities have been magnified, exacerbated, and combusted. We have to work internally as an agency and externally to address the continued inequities and outcomes for students of color, and students in urban, rural, and remote areas across the state.

How do high schools and postsecondary institutions help current graduating students prepare for what comes next during a recession?  

Denise TrimbleSmith: We need to let students know that we don’t have all the answers. Yes, we are the “adults,” and, yes, we are supposed to have this all together. We don’t. I think that more than anything this is a life lesson that can never be forgotten. Our students are going to discover that they are just as resilient as the people that they call mentors or people they look up to. We’re all in this together. Coronavirus is affecting us all in some way, no matter how old we are or how long we’ve been in this game.

Larry Johnson: It is imperative that we as higher education leaders have a close relationship with industry partners. We must know job market projections so we can begin to modify our curriculum. We have to provide the students who are in the pipeline to commit to this academic year with the competencies and training they will need to be prepared for the new workforce. And I do believe that there is going to be a new workforce.  

Erica Maxwell: Getting students college and career ready is still the focus, and that includes providing dual skills to prepare them for income instability that may be a result of the COVID-19. Career exploration is really important so that students can be thinking, “Okay, what does the future look like? What skills will I need? What jobs and what careers will be available for me?”

How do you think a recession and unemployment will affect adult education? 

Channel Powe: I’m worried that students will opt to quit school to take care of siblings or work multiple jobs in order to take care of their family’s basic living needs. This will have a negative ripple effect on our local economy and could pose a potential barrier to adult educational opportunities. Experts predict that homelessness in Arizona will increase by 29%. 

Denise TrimbleSmith: This recession is  going to force folks to gain new skill sets in order to open the door to more opportunities. Folks are being laid off, and, while the increase in unemployment insurance helps, they want to go back to work. The pandemic has ultimately given us an opportunity to be more courageous to go back to school, to go get that certificate, or to start a new business. 

Larry Johnson: Typically, when there’s an economic downturn, we see more adults return to school for retooling. They come back to school because they’ve lost a job, they need to obtain a new skill, or maybe because they just want to build upon some of the competencies they’ve already gained from their current career. I believe our adult students will be looking for ways to build upon their current skills or look to another industry that may be in demand. So I would venture to say that we will begin to see an increase in our adult student population because many of the jobs that they’ve worked over the past 15 to 20 years may be phased out in the digital age.

Erica Maxwell: There might be a shift in career paths, and the need to complete a GED or postsecondary education certifications and/or coursework may become greater due to the projection of the types jobs that are going to be available or in demand.

Who is inspiring you in this challenging time and why?  

Channel Powe: I’m inspired by my faith because I know that systemic change is possible. Both my son and my grandson are at the center of my heart and inspire me to strategically align my work and my purpose around gaps for the community. Balsz students also inspire me because they “have the juice” to thrive in our society. It’s our job as a system to bring out the very best in them, academically and beyond. Lastly, I’m inspired by how far our governing board has come out for the advancement of our students, like hiring our new superintendent, Dr. Arleen Kennedy.

Denise TrimbleSmith: My kids are inspiring me. My kids are showing me resilience and they’re showing me that, together, nothing is impossible. That, with our faith and our hard work, we can persevere. But we have to talk about it, we have to communicate, and we have to share in each other’s victories.

Larry Johnson: The students are inspiring me because they are so resilient. We grappled with the fact that we would not be able to provide our students with an in-person graduation ceremony. We decided that we would do an all-day, drive-up “car-mencement” instead. Over 300 students showed up with their kids, with their families, with huge groups in multiple vehicles. Those students would not let a pandemic stop them from celebrating their moment.

Erica Maxwell: My kids inspire me. I’m grateful because I have kids in the school system, and I’m in a position where I get to see it. I don’t just go to work and talk about it and say, “This is what we need to do.” I see it.

What do you think will be the best way for Arizona to achieve our 60 percent postsecondary attainment goal, given our new reality?  

Channel PoweI take pause in answering such a broad question because of the immense complexities. We need to start with holding ourselves accountable at every level of government. This means we need to stop staring at the data and do something bold! School districts should adopt the community school model within our local districts. The education funding formula needs to be overhauled to include equity weights with a 10:1 counselor ratio. There should be major investments in a 21st century livable wage, affordable housing, free public transportation, access to free childcare, free community college, paid internships, and ongoing outreach to families living below the poverty wage.

Denise TrimbleSmith: We can’t lose sight of our goal. 60 percent is not just a number. It represents people. So we cannot be dismayed, discouraged, or deterred. We need to, like brother John Lewis, make good trouble. The pandemic and racial unrest is bringing about the necessity to make good trouble. We needed to shake some things up in order to show ourselves as a strong community that can together overcome these horrific situations for the better.

Larry Johnson: We need to have more courageous conversations in Arizona. We often refer to the various metrics and dashboards to build individual strategy, but we need to begin to disaggregate that data to take on larger work. We need the state to come together regularly throughout the year to review the data and then give charge to the various organizations to act. K-12, nonprofits, postsecondary, workforce—they all have to take on a piece of the pie.

Erica Maxwell: Well it’s definitely going to be a collaboration. We need to support students to make sure that they have the resources to pursue certifications and college degrees. Everyone in society, in this state, will benefit from us meeting our 60 percent postsecondary attainment goal. I have to want the same quality of education, not just for my kids, not just for my youth, but for all students in Arizona. We have to have that mindset and think about our role in it.