A New Vision of School

Tala Manassah on what we’re learning through our i3 Whole School Racial Equity Project, from our new Annual Report.

In late 2016, Morningside Center was awarded a federal Investing in Innovation (i3) grant to support a 4-year Whole School Racial Equity Project aimed at ending racial disparities in discipline and improving outcomes for students of color.

Our thesis: by interweaving social and emotional learning (SEL), restorative practices, and courageous conversations about race among adults, schools can address the underlying causes of disproportionate targeting of students of color for harsh discipline. Through the grant – and supporting funds from the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust, NY Community Trust, Trinity Wall Street, and Keith & Miller Foundation—we are developing, implementing, and testing this strategy for dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. 

More than two years on, we have completed Phase One of the project (development of the model in three NYC public schools) and Phase Two is well underway. In Phase Two, we are partnering with nine Brooklyn schools to implement our program. Researchers from Rutgers University are measuring the impact of our intervention relative to nine control schools as part of a gold-standard, randomized control trial study.

Below, Morningside Center Deputy Executive Director Tala Manassah, who directs the Whole School Racial Equity Project, reflects on some of the big ideas that have emerged so far from this bold effort.

i3 principals, researchers, and Tala Manassash

Tala Manassah (front, fourth from left) with nine i3 principals, superintendents’ liaisons, and research team. 

Through the i3 project we have been wrestling with one of the most urgent and pressing issues in education today: racial disproportionality in school discipline. Black and brown students are two to three times more likely than their white peers to be harshly punished for the same minor disciplinary infractions at school. This has a direct bearing on the racial achievement gap, on school pushout and, ultimately, on involvement in the criminal (in)justice system. We have developed an innovative model integrating social and emotional learning (SEL), restorative practices, and courageous conversations about race that we believe will make a ground-breaking intervention into this pernicious problem. 

The Whole School Racial Equity Project has provided us a richly resourced platform to ask and answer questions about what an equitable school looks like, and then to enact the strategies and interventions that move schools in that direction. While addressing the problem of racial disproportionality in school discipline, an undoubtedly huge undertaking, we have gained crucial insight into what is required to produce schools that co-power the sense of voice, sense of worth, and sense of purpose that young people need to thrive. 

And so today I believe we must go even further and ask ourselves: what does the liberatory school look like? The Whole School Racial Equity Project has illuminated some of the essential components. Here, I will outline three of them.

Reimagining Social & Emotional Learning

In the course of this incredible collective journey, we have realized that while tackling the noxious school-to-prison pipeline requires harnessing the transformative potential of social and emotional learning, SEL itself has a race problem. SEL has often been understood to be value-neutral, and yet social and emotional learning skills, in and of themselves, can either be used to promote a more equitable version of the world, or to reinforce a deeply inequitable version of the world. Many of the skills that are prioritized or emphasized in the field assume a white normative lens that simply is not the lived experience of many of our students.  

So the question becomes, how do we reformulate SEL so that it is culturally responsive and inclusive? How can we make sure that we are not only holding space for a white, middle-class, straight normative lens in our classrooms? SEL itself needs to be reexamined and redefined to solve this problem. 

For example, in our racist society, do we really want to argue that in a submissive/assertive/aggressive behavior continuum, assertiveness is always the ideal sweet-spot of behavior? That advice could lead to dangerous outcomes for a child of color in far too many scenarios. 

What about a student who comes from a cultural context where establishing eye contact with elders is considered a sign of disrespect? Do we want to tell that student that eye contact is always an important part of active listening? What implicit messages are we giving the young person about their cultural heritage by insisting on that? 

How about the value placed on “self management” or “managing feelings” in a traditional SEL definition? Do we really want to ask young people who are rightfully angry or resentful or sad about the world around them to “manage” those feelings? A culturally competent reimagining of SEL would suggest that the more effective approach would be: acknowledging those feelings as both legitimate and rational responses, allying with young people to support them in coping with present circumstances and building the skills they need to effectively self-advocate, and then working together to change the material conditions that produced the feelings in the first place. 

An equity and liberation minded version of SEL must encourage and equip young people to have an agile facility with a range of options, and the skills required to make the best choice they can to ensure their own survival and thriving in any given moment. An equity and liberation minded version of SEL honors and elevates different cultural norms, and seeks to explore those with curiosity, humility, and an asset-based perspective. 

Teachers need support to develop the ability to recognize, accept, embrace, and celebrate cultural difference – and they need the skills and cultural competence required to help our students navigate the complex code-switching and toggling that is required for success in our society.

Challenging Scarcity Mentality

One of our most urgent tasks as educators is to shift from a scarcity mentality to an abundance mentality. Scarcity mentality is a paradigm of the world that says that there are limited resources and we are in a zero-sum game to compete for them. This includes material things, but also things like recognition, credit, and power. We have an education system that is largely based on competition rather than cooperation, on a funding structure that benefits those who already have resources, thus creating a system that perpetuates inequality, and on a standard curriculum that amplifies the so-called status quo and thus renders a huge portion of our collective history and experience invisible. An abundance paradigm, on the other hand, proposes the opposite: there is enough to go around and that everyone benefits when justice, resources, visibility, and love are shared. 

Making a shift from a scarcity mentality to an abundance mentality is a serious challenge in the context of New York City public schools, which are routinely under-resourced. Children are coming with a lot of vulnerabilities that are produced by the inequities in society. Schools alone cannot make up for injustice that exists outside of school, but schools do have the capacity to have a tremendous impact on childrens’ lives. If we think about the school as its own ecosystem, we can and we must try to make it an abundant and healthy ecosystem for everybody in it, rather than a place that replicates systems of trauma and inequality. In order to do that, we must challenge the idea that our prospects are limited – that we can only aim so high or do so much. 

In a liberatory school, systems and structures are intentionally put in place to facilitate the shift to an abundance mentality. For example: adults have consistent opportunities to develop collaborative and collegial relationships with each other, families are welcomed as partners in the healthy and holistic stewardship of our young people, positive outcomes (no matter how seemingly small) are routinely made visible and celebrated, and perhaps most challenging given systemic pressures: challenges and failures are seen as opportunities for collective growth and learning rather than individual shame or blame. 


Freedom to Fail and Embrace Imperfection

One of the ways that conversations about race are silenced is through what Voltaire called the “best being the enemy of good.” If we wait for perfect conditions to tackle racism in schools, we have established a locked paradox through which the conversation and correlated action will never happen.

The liberatory school takes risks and makes mistakes as a part of a lived commitment to constant improvement. The liberatory school is guided by the ethos that every problem, if dealt with openly and creatively and with a warm heart, can be solved. Liberatory schools can take big risks and fail quickly and fix quickly. Liberatory schools that are informed by a restorative mindset take it as a given that human beings are both prone to mistakes and capable of magnificence. 

Therefore, the liberatory school recognizes that when adults 1) demonstrate the courage to name and face difficult issues 2) demonstrate a capacity for innovative risk-taking 3) demonstrate a willingness to openly acknowledge mistakes 4) demonstrate the flexibility to find alternative potential solutions and 5) demonstrate that this process can yield positive forward motion for all, we are modeling the kind of world we want our young people to intimately know is possible. By actively engaging student voices in this culture, we have the potential to create a world in which young people become adults who have the experience and expertise to take these principles far beyond the school doors and toward being the architects of a world that is more participatory, equitable, just, and joyful for all. 


Read the rest of the 2018 Annual Report