By Michael Piccirillo, Ed.D, CASDA Executive Director
I hope this message finds you physically and emotionally well. Fifty-three years ago, for the first of many times to come, I felt the butterflies in my stomach associated with the anticipation of the first day of school. I was entering kindergarten. My mother walked me, her fifth and youngest child to the corner of Menahan St. and St. Nicklaus Ave. in Queens, where the crossing guard waited to safely usher me across the busy street to Public School 81. As she let me go out into the world for the first time by myself, my mother gave my hand a squeeze and told me everything would be alright. Her gesture was one of comfort, and the tiny bit of extra pressure from her hand left an indelible impact on me. Like all mothers, my mom understood her child’s need for reassurance, that everything would be alright in the face of great uncertainty. In these uncertain times, we have to hold each other's hands and give a little squeeze of reassurance. So on behalf of CASDA, I would like you to know we are here to support you and to reassure you that by working together we can meet the challenges brought on by the uncertainty of these times.
CASDA begins its 71st year like your schools and communities, attempting to navigate an unfamiliar path. We recognize an imperative of our work is to engage meaningfully with existing partners and to seek new partnerships. However, taking the traditional route to addressing the unique challenges being faced in every school community today will be insufficient and may exacerbate the ongoing systemic inequities that have been magnified by the current crisis. Collectively, we need to recognize the capacities of our educational communities to meet the challenges they face. Technical fixes alone won’t work. Today’s challenges will require community-based solutions.
Over the past few months I have had the opportunity to explore the research behind the idea of community co-design. According to the Family Leadership Design Collaborative, co-design involves diverse stakeholders coming together “in order to collectively identify issues or problems of practice and to design solutions.” In fact, there is ample research supporting the multiple benefits to schools, families and communities who collaborate as equal partners. These benefits, including creating more equitable classrooms, schools and communities, are systemic and sustainable.
In the policy memo, “Recasting Families and Communities as Co-Designers of Education in Tumultuous Times” (2019), the authors encourage schools and communities to capitalize on this moment when systemic inequities have been magnified and to embrace a justice-based approach to family engagement. Specifically, this approach directly involves parents and families, especially from nondominant parts of the community, in taking leadership roles in the transformation of schools and educational systems (p.7). As Ishamaru (2014) states, “By rewriting the rules of engagement, parents, families, and community members can contribute critical resources to enable districts and schools to educate all students more equitably” (p.188). In the hybrid educational models currently being deployed, the role of parents and communities has evolved out of necessity. To educate our students, parents can no longer be passive partners, they must now be engaged in the education of their children every day. To feed, shelter and supply children with needed resources, communities play an even greater role in the education process, especially in the lives of marginalized students and families.
Consider this: “Recasting families and communities in educational change is ultimately about leadership. Equitable collaborations ask us - both formal leaders and families and communities - to lead change and realize more just schools in ways that fundamentally depart from the ways we are acummstoned to interacting” (Ishamaru, 2020, p.140). The reality is, school districts, parents, students and communities have already been forced into very different roles out of necessity. This may be the opportunity to truly reimagine educational systems.
I realize school districts are facing enormous financial and organizational challenges. Families are facing similar challenges and disruptions. I encourage you not to retreat into the safety of the vestiges of our past in hopes that “everything will go back to normal.” What normal? Who’s normal? Instead, this can be the moment to grasp an opportunity to work together and forge a more equitable system of education through authentic collaboration like co-design. These are times of great uncertainty, but one thing I am certain of is CASDA will continue to work collaboratively to support all school districts, members and non-members, in the Capital Region and beyond to create equitable, systemic, sustainable solutions for all students, families and school communities.
Finally, I will end by sharing this quote from Brene Brown: “We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”