The Dawning of a New Day
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ (NAEP) latest report, Black students across the country were hit harder by the pandemic in terms of reading and math proficiency. In Detroit, scores continue to trail the nation and are lower than the first year the NAEP test was first administered here. Lower than that first year, in 2009, when Detroit ranked at the bottom among all school districts that predominantly serve Black and Hispanic/Latinx students and youth in low-income communities. This caused many across the city and within The Skillman Foundation to stand up and exclaim in earnest that something BIG must be done.
If those 2009 scores were a wakeup call, let these 2022 scores act as the sunrise itself, blanketing everything with light and announcing, finally, a new day.
Before we get to what our collective responsibility is to this new day, let’s unpack these scores. The decline in overall test scores is important, but not the only story. Context for data always matters. The timing of when the tests were administered is critical to understand. These assessments happened in January through March of this year when the COVID Omicron variant was raging, the Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) was operating remotely in a lockdown, and students were very disengaged.
Also important is to know that there are blips of progress within these numbers, where Detroit moved the needle in positive directions. Since 2009, efforts to strengthen education outcomes in Detroit plotted a slow upward path.
Data must be paired with stories that make meaning of the numbers. Critical to this point is acknowledging the range of storytellers whose perspectives and experiences are needed to understand the complexities. They explain the “whys” and to dream up the “what ifs.” To this end, data expertise and academic theories must be paired with and informed by lived experiences.
But let the sunrise fully come up, expanding beyond its spotlight on these latest test scores to illuminate the cyclical nature of the scores.
Why haven’t we made sustainable progress? How can this pandemic erase years of gains that were happening in spots?
At The Skillman Foundation, we have spent over 60 years centering young people’s needs and investing deeply in education. We can tell you that if you pour millions into literacy aids, afterschool and summer supports, educator professional development, college-going cultures, cultural pedagogy and more – you might see short-term gains for those who have all of these supports and an extra bit of luck on their side.
When any of these pieces are disturbed, that fragile ecosystem continues to fail the majority of kids within it.
This is why we’ve spent the past year at The Skillman Foundation listening intently to teachers, principals, out-of-schooltime providers, and especially, young people. And it is why we conducted a History Walk of major K-12 improvement efforts we’ve supported, lifting the context these efforts were situated within. Leveraging the art of Sankofa, the study of our past to understand our future, we dove into our past work to learn what we must keep doing and learn the lessons we need to move forward stronger.
The result is that as we begin to learn ways the pandemic has impacted our youngest visionaries, The Skillman Foundation is ready to rise to the occasion. We have heard from our grant partners that we must focus, refine, clarify, and not spread ourselves too thin.
We’ve since worked to narrow with guidance from the Detroit community. Young people designed with us. Brilliant adults who have spent their lives championing young people charted the course.
So what will The Skillman Foundation do?
We will bet on people while working to change inequitable systems.
We want Detroit youth to be designers of bold destinies. In service of this vision, we will keep our eyes trained keenly on people and on education systems. Our evolving strategic framework is focused on ground building with young people, educators, and neighbors in service of creating equitable education systems. Often policies are created without those impacted in the room. Our framework ensures we are always in community first so the coalition for policy and systems change is community rooted. It will also then include broad coalitions that want community-led systems change. We are builders and we welcome everyone. We believe building together builds stronger.
Investing in people and systems is also an organizational mantra. Our internal culture is now built around this, too. We are investing in our own people and focusing on shifting our own inequitable practices within the Foundation. Racial equity underpins everything we do. It is the engine to get us further, faster, on the road to equitable education systems. This also means we are restructuring our team and hiring new folks. Our structure allows for us to braid departments, share power, ground build, and proactively catalyze policy change. It allows our BIPOC Foundation to show up authentically and it creates transparency so our community can hold us accountable to what we say we will do.
We will continue to co-design.
When we conducted our Listening Tour, we promised people their words would impact our work. We also promised this wasn’t the only time they would hear from us. In 2023, we will return to share our evolving framework and ask for continued input. This isn’t a performative exercise. We will ONLY ask for input in places where input WILL define the outcome. And we will continue to listen, communicate, and co-design into the future.
We will be bold, clear, and thoughtful.
While this is what people universally urged of us, we know it means some of the work will no longer be funded or will be funded periodically. We also know this opens the door for new partners who we haven’t funded for a while, or ever. A saving grace is that we are not just grant makers—ultimately, we are in the influence business. Regardless of a funding relationship, we look to leverage our platforms and connections in ways that can be helpful to anyone advocating for Detroit kids.
We rise ready
Andre Perry from Brookings Institute famously says, “There’s nothing wrong with Black people that ending racism can’t solve.” I amend this to say, “There’s nothing wrong with our Black and Brown young people that investment, systems change, and their own ideas won’t solve.”
As the sun rises across Detroit, we rise ready. We see the brilliance of Detroit, of our young people, our educators, and our neighbors. We will always stand in the charged field between sectors and identities and call everyone in. We are following young people who are leading us somewhere new.
Rising with the dawn of this new day together,