I am a School Psychologist. I received my degree in school psychology at a Historical Black College (HBCU) called Howard University in 2007. I began my professional career as a School Psychologist in a charter school in Washington D.C. and later in nearby Laurel, Maryland. The schools I had chosen to work at served students and families from lower socio-economic statuses, as well as predominately Black communities. Like my other School Psychologist colleagues, I administered IQ tests and other processing batteries, completed behavior analysis and plans, work reports on student performance and achievement, attended IEP meetings, etc. It wasn’t until I moved to California in 2014 and accepted a position as a School Psychologist that I first learned of the landmark lawsuit referred to as Larry P vs. Riles (1979).
For those that are unaware of this case or it’s significance, the Larry P v. Riles (1979) court case is a landmark lawsuit that changed special education for Black students across California and banned the administration of standardized intelligence quotient (IQ) tests for the placement of Black students in special education. The case represented a class action lawsuit of Black parents in San Francisco who challenged the over-representation of Blacks students in special education classes and programs based on standardized assessment. During the court case, the basis of the argument in opposition to IQ tests and standardized assessment for Black students were that the tests were biased, founded in Eurocentric “White supremacist” culture and were overall discriminatory. The court case concluded with a permanent ban on IQ testing of Black students within California and the ban continues to this day. California is the only state with such a ban. Therefore, you can understand my initial shock and confusion when I learned that as a school psychologist in California, I would not be allowed to utilize the familiar assessments I had previously learned in Washington D.C and Maryland.
I’ve since lived in California for the last 5 years and during that time, I’ve had numerous debates on the validity of this law and its purported ability to reduce over-representation of Black students in special education. The California Association of School Psychologists (CASP) wants the ban lifted and notes that their reasoning is that the ban has not been effective in curbing the overrepresentation of black students in special education. As a School Psychologist and now Director of Special Education, I don’t need to see the hard numbers to know through observation that this law has not been effective in reducing the disproportionality of African-American students in special education, but simply banned the use of assessment tools, that while imperfect provide valuable information about an individuals' overall cognitive learning profile. It is my belief that the issue is less on the assessment batteries themselves, but instead the interpretation of the results by the individuals administering the assessment.
While I understand you may not want to take my professional judgement and beliefs as truth, let me share some relevant data. Both nationally and locally within California, disproportionality of Black students continues - but now specifically, disabilities are more related to perceived challenging behaviors. According to a KQED article, A Landmark Lawsuit Aimed to Fix Special Ed for California’s Black Students. It Didn’t, Lee Romney shared, “But data released in 2016 show that Black students nationwide are still being placed disproportionately in special education—particularly in categories like ‘emotional disturbance,’ which are tied to behavior.” The author further shares, “Many black families find themselves navigating the system because nearly one in three black students in San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) is in special education—compared to one in eight non-black students, district data shows.” The data suggests that disproportionality for Black student in special education is still rampant and reform is still needed to address the issue.
Given our current place in history, the year 2020 has been filled with uncertainty due to the worldwide pandemic of COVID-19 and the social-political cry to action due to recent undeniable viral videos of the on-going pervasive crimes against black bodies, people, and minds. However, I wonder if now is the time to review this law, its utility, and take action to lift the ban. I wonder if now is the time to re-think and re-examine our educational practices, policies and procedures to truly create an equitable educational system for all students, but specifically those disenfranchised by the system. My vote is to lift the Larry P ban and instead focus on full inclusion efforts, new special education eligibility definitions and criteria’s such as Patterns of Strengths and Weaknesses model (PSW), and overall improvement of educational programs for teachers, school psychologists, and other related service providers that don’t just infuse “cultural competency,” but dismantle implicit bias and racism. The call to action is now!
Seneca has been proud to partner with Oakland Emiliano Zapata Street Academy for over a decade. This small Oakland school has had an explicitly social justice-oriented mission since its inception. As they state on their website, “Street Academy exists to resist race, class and other inequalities in our public schools, in our society and in our world.”
It’s timely to highlight Street Academy at this moment, in which we’re all called to reflect on how deeply we’re truly living the values we claim, particularly the values of equity and justice, both on the individual level and as parts of our organizations and systems.
Last weekend, Director of School Partnerships Toshia Mears sent to our All-In Leadership Team an article titled Your Black Colleagues May Look OK - Chances Are They’re Not. I really needed to see this article. I wish I hadn’t needed it so badly, but I definitely did.
It helped me realize how frozen I get when faced with horrific examples of the centuries of dehumanization and structural racism against Black people in America. Reckoning with the truth of the unearned privilege I receive as a white man; acknowledging how disconnected I’ve been from what’s been in the hearts and minds of my Black colleagues forever, and so acutely since the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery; feeling stuck in my white shame, not knowing what to do or say; freezing up.
I again saw myself reflected in this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle, in an article entitled Being a white ally of African Americans means more than just protesting: “Emmy Award-winning comedian and CNN host W. Kamau Bell of Berkeley said that ‘right now, a lot of white people are frozen by the (feeling), “I don’t know what to do, so I’ll do nothing.” That’s why black people get brutalized by police officers over and over again, because white people go, “That was so bad, I feel so bad.” But then a couple of weeks later (they say), “Back to my yoga classes,”’ Bell told Conan O’Brien on his TBS show last week.”
I recognize a pattern in me that has three steps:
Whether I’m in step one through step three of that pattern, I’m of no use to anyone. So, my commitment is to learn from the feelings of shame and embarrassment about my ignorance or inaction, but not to stay stuck in them.
Real change takes time and ongoing commitment. I don’t want to be heading back to the yoga class of white complacency W. Kamau Bell is talking about in a couple weeks. It’s easy to make statements or intentions for change and not follow through on them. So here are a few things I’m going to do in order to learn better and get stuck less:
1. Embed reminders into meeting spaces. Lindsey Fuller, Bay Area Regional Manager of Student Services at Aspire Public Schools, recently shared with me some prompts that their SEL team uses during the Equity Pause they hold in each of their meetings.
2. Continuing to educate myself. There are so many resources available. I need to stay active in exploring what’s out there and in engaging in dialogue about them. I’m currently reading My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem and am finding the content and the body-based mindfulness experiential activities very powerful. If anyone is interested in reading/discussing this as part of a book club, please reach out to me.
3. Practice Mindfulness. Dallas Fletcher delivered a powerful Ahimsa training about five years ago. He invited us to reflect on disproportionality in discipline data from Seneca schools and to reflect on how implicit bias plays a central role in that. He also taught that mindfulness practice has been proven effective in reducing implicit bias. I want to improve my ability to be present, especially in uncomfortable or challenging conversations. I don’t want to avoid/escape/dissociate. So I’m hoping a daily practice of sitting quietly and paying attention to my breath and body for at least a few minutes will help me stay present in the spaces my days take me through.
Over the last few months, while sheltering in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, service providers and those in the Education world are adapting whole new ways of teaching and supporting through distance learning.
During these unprecedented times, our students are experiencing a range of emotions, and the social-emotional component is more critical than ever. In providing remote support to our students and families, the Rosemary Elementary School team recognizes that our students miss their friends, teachers and feeling of being together and connected.
What with so much uncertainty, new routines, and schedules to adapt to (coupled with complex feelings), the team wanted to highlight the value of “Self-Compassion.”
The team at Rosemary (Samantha, Crystal and Matt) did a fantastic job of creating a personalized Powtoon video addressed to the Rosemary students - explaining the meaning and importance of Self-Compassion with some useful tips and ideas for practicing it at home. The goal of creating the online video is to encourage students to practice self-care and foster an overarching commitment to creating connectedness across physical distance.
This Self-Compassion Powtoon video was very well-received by the staff and students, and it was a treat to watch some of the kids who shared back how they have been practicing Self-Compassion at home. Enjoy!!
Hi All! Wow! We have all made it to the end of the school year! In reflection, I am both humbled by- and proud of the work we all have done, despite the challenges we faced – and to honor that I would like to highlight one of our newer partnerships.
I’m not sure if you know this, but we have expanded our Unconditional Education reach and have partnered with an amazing school in Marin City called Bayside MLK Jr. Academy. Bayside serves about 110 predominantly African American and Latinx students ranging in grades from TK – 8 and is the only public district school in the Sausalito Marin City School District. We are currently in our 2nd year of partnership and we are feeling so proud of what the school has been able to accomplish thus far 😊.
Bayside, a known landmark for Marin City, has faced many changes, systemic and educational oppressions, yet much like the community that surrounds it, they have shown great perseverance and strength in ensuring they always strive to meet the needs of their students and families.
*To read more about the history of Marin City, check out this article Marin City: The Rebirth of a Community.
As Bayside’s mission is to bring together and align essential resources to support students and their families in a safe, healthy and culturally relevant environment (by balancing and focusing on social emotional, creative, physical, and academic skills to ensure that our students have all the tools they need to be successful throughout their lives), it’s no wonder they sought out an Unconditional Education partnership with us.
Our partnership consists of supporting them through the role of our UE Coach, Kelsey Corrales, and it has been invigorating to support their work and witness the many positive changes that they have created. To highlight a few of those changes, I’d like to share that they have:
Thank you to the 150+ staff and family members who came out to celebrate the end of the 2019-2020 school year! Our “Drive Through BBQ” provided space to mark this milestone by being in community (safely) with each other and demonstrating our ongoing commitment to racial justice in education and beyond. Thank you for showing up today and every day. #UnconditionalEducation #BlackLivesMatter
Name: Kelsey Corrales
Position: Unconditional Education Coach
What led you to your current position? After working as a classroom teacher, I realized that one of my favorite things about the position was the unique ability to create meaningful relationships with each student and to build a safe learning environment and close-knit classroom community. It seemed like stepping into the UE Coach role was a natural transition, as I could help to build these same things, just on a larger scale!
Fun Fact: I used to sing and would perform the National Anthem at local sporting events!
What does your average day look like? In the morning and at the end of the day, I facilitate CICO with a number of students. I also facilitate monthly and weekly meetings and spend a whole lot of time in classrooms. Sometimes I accompany classes on field trips, or I step in when teachers are absent. This year, I spent a lot of time getting to know staff and collaborating with community organizations that serve our students. Often, the school principal will ask me to do projects or run meetings, which keeps me on my toes!
Why do you do this work? It's funny because I told myself I would never be an educator like so many of my family members. However, no matter where I was or what job I had, I always made time to serve youth in some capacity. So, here I am, and I really enjoy what I do!
Working in the school setting allows me to have consistent time with each student. I love to celebrate the small successes, which means that I get to celebrate most days! How cool is that?! That's why I do this meaningful work!
Name: Todd Parker
Position: Unconditional Education Coach
What led you to your current position? Was looking for something, anything, that offered me interaction with young people with challenging personalities.
Quote: Everyone thinks they're GREAT with relationships, until they're not.
What does your average day look like? Prying myself from bed, drinking a cup of coffee like it's needed, listening to my personality playlist and eyeballing my many, many "to-do" lists. Eliminating at least one task from that list is a real accomplishment for me, especially within this current, virtual lifestyle.
Why do you do this work? Early enough in my career, I realized what made me successful connecting with young people. At its core, it was replicating the approach from the adults that resonated with me when I was younger. And with the hopes of making a real impact, to the students and adults around me, I choose to give my genuine self to others just like someone did for me.
Name: Aurielle Zeitler
Position: Clinical Intervention Specialist
What led you to your current position? I was contemplating pursuing an MSW for over ten years before finally taking the leap. I think that my work as a Therapeutic Musician at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, where I performed music for the patients in waiting rooms, labs and in their hospital rooms, was the final impetus to fully jump into work with children and youth. I ended up interning with Los Angeles Unified School District School Mental Health for two years during my grad program, and I really fell in love with school-based work. After graduating last year and relocating to Oakland, I ended up landing my dream job with Seneca at a small alternative high school called Street Academy – a wonderfully creative and open place where I can dig further into mindfulness practices, restorative justice, art therapy and whatever else I can dream up. It has been a great place to cut my teeth as a new clinician and I am looking forward to a second year there!
Fun Fact: I am a collector of vintage analog synthesizers from the 1980’s. Playing them is my favorite way to practice self-care and meditation and I hope to find a way to incorporate them into my work someday. I have big plans…
What does your average day look like? I usually arrive around 8:30am, taking some time to greet the early bird students and staff. If there is time, I’ll take a moment to water the plants in my office, set up my aromatherapy diffuser, flip on my water fountain, and make the space cozy and inviting for the day. Then, I will see clients for sessions and connect with collateral when possible. My office is right in the middle of our tiny campus, so I often have drop-ins and visits from students either coming by for a snack or for some individual rehabilitation, so I’m generally pretty busy until the minute I leave around 4:30. Time really flies.
Why do you do this work? I do this work because during a very vulnerable and difficult time in my own life, a social worker was there to support me and help me navigate my way through. Because of that impact of that experience, I feel compelled to give back in whatever tiny way I can, and help others on their journey towards empowerment, self-compassion, and a sense of hopefulness. I also appreciate that this work continually challenges me beyond my comfort zone, keeping me constantly in a state of growing and learning. Sometimes I wonder if I learn more from my clients than they learn from me, and I’m alright with that!
This week was my turn to contribute to the UE blog, and it has been a challenge to think about what to write given all that is going on in the world. So, I will just write from the heart and I will not go silent in this time, where it is important to use our voices and ability to speak and act on the injustices that continue to happen within black communities.
I have so many thoughts and feelings related to how black lives continue to be mistreated, and I feel that there are no words that can describe the pain, rage and exhaustion that black communities may feel as we continue to see injustice, inequity, and violence towards black youth and adults.
In the past few days, I have seen a lot content going around with tools and tips on how to address racial issues within our organizations and personal lives. I am grateful for those tools, BUT, as the image shows below, until you fix the heart, there will be no real change.
Recently I conducted a series of interviews for my grad school project called Diversity, Inclusion and Authenticity: How to make a Lasting impact for Organizational Change. One of the key findings of this project suggested that it requires for leaders and individuals to "do the work" within themselves first before attempting to implement change in policy or any initiative towards creating a more diverse and inclusive environment. From what I learned from the experiences of others and my own, I agree that change starts with reflection on our own hearts, mindsets and cultural framework. I believe that without our own self-reflection, any effort of change will not be sustainable to make a true impact. As we work on our own hearts, and start to make internal transformation, we will become effective in making transformative changes within our systems and communities to protect BLACK LIVES.
Real, sustainable, and authentic change requires COMMITMENT, HEART and ACTION. Heart will give us the courage and the stamina to walk the walk when this journey to create change gets tough. Are you ready to do the work? Are you committed? Are you ready to take action? Because BLACK LIVES MATTER!
I stand in solidarity with you.
During this period of prolonged school closures, we are all adapting to new realities of daily life in our own ways. We each have our own coping skills, routines (intentional or not), patterns that make up the rhythms of life. Without the physically, socially, and emotionally immersive experience of school and work, we add up new webs of behaviors, creating a new/abnormal sense of daily life that for most of us is completely novel.
And yet, there are myriad ways we collectively engage in routine, in social dynamics, in group narratives. And for young people everywhere, this social distancing has not eliminated the need to experiment and build a sense of identity. Adolescents and teens everywhere are still engaged in the process of differentiating their unique selves from their families, as they also spend more time at home with them and participate in family roles more regularly than before. I realized recently in a session with a client how much of a role mass media is playing in that process for youth right now.
While young people can’t meet together at school or in the community to participate in these exploratory behaviors with their peers, they are finding other spaces and creative mechanisms for continuing these critical developmental experiences. Whether it’s through video games, TV series, movies, music, manga, or other reading material, teens are using immersive virtual experiences to explore their concepts of self. I’ve spent a lot of time recently in sessions with young people engaging in a reflective process about what media they are consuming in order to support this. When a young person is telling me about a TV show they are watching, they are not simply relating a passive escapist activity, they are curating which aspects of the plot, characters, literary and artistic devices, and themes to share. They are piecing together parts of the deeper narratives, cultural and social values, and shared identity points with characters that they relate to and feel significant to them. This curational process of reflecting may look very different from being immersed in a group of peers, but the building of a sense of self continues. Initially I struggled to understand and recognize the significance of this in a therapeutic process, but as social distancing and remote services continue, I am seeing this with more clarity.
Witnessing a young person engage in that reflective process, learning which characters they relate to, admire, strive to be like, and feel an aversion to is all social-emotional learning. Who ever said there is nothing to be learned about ourselves from learning about vampires? Maybe it’s enriching to imagine ourselves outside the scope of standard human experiences, maybe it’s possible young people exploring their identities in this way will have extra creative thinking skills that will allow them to shape the future in ways we can’t even imagine. There’s no way for us to fully understand the range of impacts of this moment on young people’s social-emotional development. We already know many of the negative and disparate impacts on our communities across socioeconomic and racial lines. There is no living precedent for the suffering of this moment in time that we are collectively immersed in; we can acknowledge the incredible resilience of young people that is emerging through that suffering.
School Programs Continuum