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Educators, students, and parents turn out to improve lives

October 18, 2023 Category: FeatureFeaturedLong

While some Philadelphians stayed in bed the morning after the Phillies’ Oct. 12 victory, students, educators, parents and other advocates for children arrived at The Big Thing 2.0, ready to talk about the future of education.

Children First hosted 125 people at WHYY’s headquarters Friday for The Big Thing 2.0, its second summit on improving children’s education and lives. The Philadelphia-based organization, which advocates for children by developing state and district initiatives, focused on the need to expand access to career technical education (CTE) high school programs, promote children’s mental health, hire more teachers of color and create cultural sensitivity in the classroom.

“The Big Thing” conference began last year when child advocates came together and asked themselves what the next action is “that can make substantial and transformative change for children,” according to Amy Kobeta, Children First’s communications director. They concluded that better mental health services, career pathways, and diversity and cultural sensitivity among teachers are needed.

The Next Action

This year, participants spent five hours in workshops where youth and professionals speak about their experiences with these three issues.

A panel of three, comprised of 6th grade social studies teacher in the Norristown School District, Thaddaeus Peay who spoke about the importance of students having teachers who represent them. Rhymier McKellar, a student at George Washington High School, advocated for mental health, and Lehigh Career Technical Institute Senior Jessica Dutan talked about how studying on a career track in high school has helped her.

Pa. House Representative Peter Schweyer, who is on the Majority House Education Committee, addressed the crowd speaking about his support for Career Technical Education schools. He also spoke about his support for legislation to improve facilities and remove cost barriers to teacher certification.

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Dr. Donna-Marie Cole-Malott spoke about the importance of not only hiring teachers of color so that students of color feel more represented in the classroom, but also creating an environment where teachers of color want to stay because it is culturally relevant.

Keynote speaker, Alex Briscoe, who is the Principal of California’s Children Trust, which reformed his state’s health insurance to increase access to mental health care, talked about how Pennsylvania can work to do the same with Medicaid.

The conference then split into three workshops, each focusing on one of the main issues: the need for more Career Technical Education programs, diversity in the teaching workforce, and a focus on mental health. Afterward, everyone convened in the auditorium to present their proposed solutions.

photo by Valerie Dowret for Generocity

Solutions: Greater CTE Inclusion and Access 

Solutions to career technical were to continue researching ways to expand and support Career Technical Education, it was reported at the closing exercise of the event.

Dutan shared that she believes there should be more Career Technical Education schools around Pennsylvania and there should be represented on of them on the panel.

Chris Frey, teacher and Community Hosted Internship Coordinator at North Penn High School, said it is difficult to find teachers to teach at CTE schools.

“So the staffing is an issue at some of those schools. So they have kids that want to do things, but the state is strict on how many students you can have,” Frey added.

Solutions: Partnerships for Youth Mental Health

One mental health workshop participant presented solutions such as equitable access to mental health care, new funding opportunities, addressing local gun violence and breaking down silos in the children’s education sector. She added that community-based organizations could provide mental health services in different ways than schools can.

On the panel, McKellar stressed the importance of focusing on mental health and shared his own struggles with mental health. He helped other teens with their struggles by providing emotional support.

“Mental health, is primarily the foundation of our education system and needs to be prioritized for,” said Kassandra Tran, 17, a student in the North Penn School District.

Alana Hardison, a prevention specialist at No Longer Bound, came to the conference hoping to start a legislative initiative for equitable care for children, she said.

“I’m a parent as well as I go into the schools and I see the children every day and as adults, we’re all dealing with a lot but then we seem to forget that the children are also dealing with it and feel what we’re feeling,” Hardison added.

Solutions: Increase in Teacher Diversity

Solutions to the lack of diversity among teachers include asking students to imagine themselves as teachers, to expose students to teachers who are like them, especially young Black men.

“When students see black male teachers, especially African American students, literally they light up. ‘Cause when they see me they see their dad, they see their uncle, they see their brother, they see you relate to me in a way where there’s no wall between us,” Peay said on the panel.

Peay is a Norristown School District alum who chose to teach in his community. He connects with his students about similar experiences he has had in life.

“I can tell them that I’ve walked these hallways, I’ve literally sat where you sat I understand what you’re going through,” Peay said. “I can tell them, me too. I totally, I totally understand where you’re coming from because I went through the same thing. And it wasn’t easy? No. But did I persevere? Yes and you can too.”

There are 94% white teachers in Pennsylvania while the student population is 40% students of color, Cole-Malott said during her speech.

It’s important to make sure teaching environments are culturally relevant and that the field meets Black teachers’ needs as many are leaving teaching jobs, Cole-Malott added.

In the last two decades, 1,200 Black teachers have left Philadelphia schools, and black teachers in Allegheny County have also left their jobs.

“What do those black teachers need that they’re not getting within these districts,” Cole-Malott asked.

As co-director of the Pennsylvania Educator Diversity Consortium, Cole-Malott works alongside colleagues to teach higher education institutions in Pennsylvania to create and sustain culturally-informed education.

Donna Cooper, executive director of Children First, pointed out that there are people in the state who are working to eliminate this program.

Neli Sepulveda, The Big Thing Action Plan Director at Children First, said part of the work at the event wasn’t only to “lifting, bringing attention to the need for more diversity in our in our educator workforce,” but also “also trying to kind of quiet those emerging voices that you know, are spewing hate against cultural sensitivity and why we need you know, teachers of color and classrooms,” she said.

Ciara, a future surgeon and current North Penn School District high school student who attended the workshop on teacher diversity and cultural sensitivity, said she hopes to make her career field more accessible for Black women like her.

“I want to see more representation of people like me not only in education but in the work field. I want to be a surgeon so it’d be nice to see more females and more Black females in that specific field,” Ciara, 17, added.

Priyanka Reyes-Kaura, K-12 Education Policy Director at Children First, explained the cost of inadequate education is invaluable.

“When we talk about an inadequate education, we’re talking about failing a whole generation of students, a whole generation of children and not allowing them to achieve the highest heights that they could reach,” Reyes-Kaura added.

What’s Next?

As they left the conference, one participant, who preferred to remain anonymous, said she thought it was good that a range of diverse voices were able to come together and talk about the issues from their different perspectives.

“How do I feel leaving an event like this? A sense of coming out of a space where you have folks that are willing to explore the issues are willing to get to the bottom of what it would take for us to make real long term significant change,” the participant said.



What do you think should next? What solutions do you have around CTE, Teacher Diversity, and Youth Mental Health?

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