Attention, parents: Students want to talk about equity, mental health

Allowed to question local school chiefs, students focus on mental health needs
Parents who couldn’t get into the Cherokee County School Board meeting because the building reached capacity chant “No CRT!” during the meeting Thursday night, May 20, 2021. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

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Parents who couldn’t get into the Cherokee County School Board meeting because the building reached capacity chant “No CRT!” during the meeting Thursday night, May 20, 2021. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

At an Atlanta panel Thursday on helping students cope with the pandemic, most of the time went to topics that are riling many suburban school districts — social and emotional learning, equity and social justice.

The three panelists, the leaders of the Atlanta, Clayton and DeKalb school systems, agreed that these issues are vital to making education relevant to young people again in the wake of COVID-19.

What made this virtual panel unique was that the sponsor, Learn4Life, allowed local students to question the school chiefs. The students did not ask about math classes or AP offerings, instead seeking answers on how schools were addressing mental health and equity. Learn4Life is a coalition of businesses, nonprofits, communities and eight metro school systems working to raise student achievement.

“One of our strategic goals is that students who need the resources, get the resources,” Clayton superintendent Morcease J. Beasley told the student questioners. “You can call it equity. You can call it whatever you want to call it. At the end of day, we are looking at our data and figuring out who needs what.”

To a question on improving mental health, APS superintendent Lisa Herring replied, “The onset of the pandemic has brought mental wellness, social and emotional learning and well-being to the forefront of everyone’s attention. Just like my colleagues, all of us have made that a priority. Traumatization has been real, not just within our community, but in our households. We’ve been intentional around addressing issues relative to behavioral and mental health supports.”

Along with hiring more nurses, psychologists, social workers and therapists, APS is using a screener to identify students who may be struggling. The goal, said Herring, is a sustaining culture focused on the mental wellness and support that everyone needs, from students to teachers.

DeKalb superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris applauded enabling student to ask the questions, saying children need opportunities “to lift up what is important them.” Education has to do better at “not just saying student voice matters but giving them a seat at the table,” she said.

Discussing student mental health needs and equity concerns would not be controversial in normal times. These are not normal times. A movement of largely white parents in suburban districts see social and emotional learning, equity and social justice as threats to their children and wokeness run amok.

As with a lot of the worst ideas in education, these notions have gained traction in Texas, where parents in the Carroll Independent School District are demanding schools, “Leave mental health and parenting to parents.” This is the same Texas district where the executive director of curriculum and instruction warned teachers last month to “make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust, that you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives.” Last week, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights opened three investigations into discrimination complaints in the north Texas district.

These parents, as was the case in Georgia, were swept up first with the manufactured hysteria over critical race theory but have branched out to attacks social and emotional learning, diversity and inclusion and social justice. (Many of them also opposed masks, suggesting they believe schools should not worry about the mental or physical health of students.)

These parent groups are not large, but they are loud. Cherokee parents ran off an administrator hired to oversee social and emotional learning and diversity, equity and inclusion before she even started. “Somehow, misinformation inaccurately translated diversity, equity and inclusion into bad words and the position that the district created and offered to me has turned into a platform for negativity, hate, and extremism,” said Cecilia Lewis, a Black educator from Maryland, in a June statement on why she was declining the Cherokee job.

Yet, even as parents deny inequities exist or that students of color face discrimination, students not only recognize it but want to fix it. “It is amazing how children can see wrong,” said Beasley of Clayton schools. “And as adults we have to humble ourselves and admit often times they are right because they are coming from such a pure place.”

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