How We Can Honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Life

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. transformed the world by elevating the voices of the unheard.  He did this by lifting up the voices of people in the margins of society through his actions and unquestionable love for all human beings, especially people who are disfavored, poor, accused, and incarcerated.

We have a huge opportunity to authentically lift the voices of people who have historically been unheard in education, especially in the state of California.

Over the past decade, California has made transformative changes to the way schools are funded, through the Local Control Funding Formula.  School systems receive a supplemental & concentration grant based on the number of students they serve who are low income, Emergent Multilingual Students (English learners) or foster/homeless students.  School systems are required to build a Local Control Accountability Plan that describes how they plan to “increase and improve” services for students who meet this criteria.  A critical tenet of the LCAP is to involve Educational Partners in the decision making process on how to allocate funds and distribute resources to improve student achievement.  

School systems can honor Dr. King’s legacy by authentically engaging the voices of the unheard as they develop their budgets and LCAPs. 

This is easier said than done and will require a significant investment of time and energy to meaningfully elevate the voices of students who have historically been unheard and have had poor experiences within the school system.

Elevating the Voices of the Unheard

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. provided us with a model for how to elevate the voices of the unheard and people in the margins.  A great example of this can be found when King made the decision to intentionally live three days a week in one of Chicago’s poorest black communities called Lawndale.  This experience led King to concentrate efforts and attention to deteriorating, and educationally dysfunctional schools, dilapidated housing and lack of job opportunities.

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A couple of years ago Prince Marshall, an educational leader at Madera Unified, introduced me to a book titled “Street Data”.  I picked it up immediately and after reading through it had a clear framework to communicate what I always felt in my head about data.  Shane Safir and Jamila Dugan’s book offers a practical toolkit to support educational systems who are serious about truly elevating the voices of students in the margin and using the data to transform school systems.  Within the “Street Data” framework there are three levels of data, Satellite, Map and Street Data.  

  • Satellite data- “encompass broad-brush quantitative measures like test scores, attendance patterns, and graduation rates…”
  • Map data – “Map data includes literacy levels gathered through “running records,” where teachers listen to and code students reading aloud, rubric scores on common assessments…”
  • Street data – “takes us down to the ground to observe, listen to, and gather artifacts from the lived experiences of stakeholders.”

Educational systems tend to spend significant energy and resources collecting and analyzing satellite and even map data, however, less energy and attention has been given to meaningfully capturing and analyzing street data.  In order for school systems to truly understand what accounts for the results, we have to have solid street data, especially from the voices of the unheard.

Leveraging the California Dashboard to Elevate Student Voice

The state of California’s education system has shifted away from a traditional accountability system to a continuous improvement system.  The major differences include a new tiered system of support that school systems across the state “qualify” for based on their California Dashboard results.  

Madera Unified School District qualified for differentiated assistance due to poor student group results for African American students on multiple indicators on the California Dashboard prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.  This included 20% of African American students being suspended 1 or more times, this number was more than double the state average for African American students at 9%, which was already dramatically higher than the state average for all students at 3.5%. 

Rather than coming up with a silver bullet approach to addressing this problem, Superintendent Todd Lile and the Board of Education at Madera Unified made the decision to put significant resources into collecting targeted “street data” to understand what accounts for the results (see Madera Unified’s Equity Before Equality report).

Organizational leaders such as Dr. Rose Owens West with WestEd, Lindsay Fox, United Way CEO, Dr. Angie Barfield Program Specialist for the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools and Byron Watkins, Creative Director for Windsong Productions, all provided intentional time, resources and energy in supporting Madera Unified in efforts to meaningfully collect, analyze and elevate student voice.  We started to identify themes by collecting street data from African American students in the system.  The quote shared below from an African American student who participated in the listening sessions sums up the major themes: 

“There is nothing here for us.”

After learning this information Madera Unified decided to do deeper listening with an intense focus on elevating student voices at the margins.  This included capturing high quality video interviews and audio recordings of African American and English Learner student voices and holding conversations with leadership centered around what our students shared.

The Equity Transformation Cycle (ETC) described in the Street Data book includes four core values that are critical for transformative change in school systems. 

“Radical inclusion, Curiosity, Creativity, and Courage – and centers street-level data.  As you move through the cycle, you will learn to listen deeply to voices at the margins, uncover the root causes of inequities, reimagine your current approaches in partnership with key stakeholders, and move a change agenda with courage.”

By elevating student voice in a meaningful way, Madera Unified had the courage to develop and implement a custom course called the Student Champion Course.  Madera Unified leaders such as Karen DeOrian, Alyson Crafton and Prince Marshall worked with Dr. Owens West and her team from WestEd to bring students, teachers and support staff together to provide feedback on the content that would be developed and created for day one of the course.

The course is required to be completed by all Madera Unified employees, including teachers, bus drivers and district office staff.  The course signals the most significant investment to capacity building efforts for all employees across the district and centers around the theme of elevating student voice.  For example, during day 1 of the course, Madera Unified asked two students who recently graduated to provide keynote speeches to all employees.  Additionally, a number of student voice videos were used as a critical part of the curriculum.  

Excerpt from “Learners become Teachers” – Madera Tribune Article

“For years, we have worked to create a better, safer working space, and it has worked to an extent,” Lile said. “Now we must listen — have tough conversations — and make changes to insure we are paying attention to the areas where we might fall short because sometimes it takes our students to open our eyes to that.”

The latest results on the California Dashboard show that Madera Unified has dramatically lowered the African American suspension rate to 11%.  Moreover, the rate of all student suspensions has gone down to 4% at Madera Unified.  

This work along with other change ideas have been transformational in dramatically shifting the culture of Madera Unified.  More work needs to be done, but the foundation has been laid.

Madera Unified and other school systems across the state have used the Local Control Funding Formula and the California Dashboard to elevate the voices of students in the margins.  As we honor Dr. King’s life, I would like to encourage all educators, especially in the state of California to take advantage of the state’s system to elevate the voices of our students in the margin.  We need to lean into the discomfort and admit that we don’t have all the answers.  We need to go directly to the students and families who continue to have adverse experiences in our systems.  Use the California Dashboard results to determine where to spend more energy, resources and time in collecting and elevating student voice.  Madera Unified’s continued journey of elevating student voice provides a bright spot in the system on ways to authentically do this work to transform the educational system.

Let us honor Dr. Martin Luther King’s life by committing to listening to the voices of our students in the margins, our students who are poor, disenfranchised, foster youth and homeless.  Our students who have come from another country and are learning multiple languages.  These students have had poor experiences in our school system.

In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, “…I choose to identify with the underprivileged.  I choose to identify with the poor.  I choose to give my life for the hungry…This is the way I’m going.  If it means suffering a little bit, I’m going that way.  If it means sacrificing, I’m going that way.  If it means dying for them, I’m going that way, because I heard a voice say, ‘Do something for others.’”


Article originally published on LinkedIn by Babatunde Ilori, CEO of Parsec Education

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