The Arizona School Boards Association is hosting a conference called The Equity Event. Public education, community, policy leaders and school board members from Arizona and around the nation will talk about issues focusing on closing the achievement gaps in education. Tracey Benson, associate executive director for the Arizona School Boards Association, Paul Luna, president and CEO for Helios Education Foundation and Adriana Figueroa, director of Multicultural Community Engagement for Expect More Arizona talk about educational equity in Arizona.
José Cárdenas: Thank you for joining us. This week, the Arizona school boards association is hosting a conference in Phoenix called the equity event. It's a first of its kind event. The sessions will focus on education equity. Joining me to talk about striving towards educational equity in Arizona are: Tracey Benson, associate executive director for the Arizona School Boards Association. Paul Luna, president and CEO for the Helios Education Foundation. Adriana Figueroa, director of multicultural community engagement for Expect More Arizona. Thank you all for joining us on our show. Tracy, you guys are the prime sponsors, the school boards association. And I just want to make clear for our viewers that some of this event will have already taken place by the time the show airs Thursday. It kicks off when?
Tracey Benson: It kicks off Wednesday and it runs through Friday.
José Cárdenas: And Wednesday there's a particular focus on Native Americans?
Tracey Benson: There is. Our Wednesday pre-conference focuses on looking at Native American students and the factors that need to be in place in order for them to see improved outcomes and successes.
José Cárdenas: And when we talk about equity, we mean equity in what sense? Everything should be the same for everybody or what are you talking about?
Tracey Benson: When we're talking about educational equity, it's really not about everything being equal for everyone. The only thing that would be equal would be the high expectations that we have for all students. But it's looking in differences in opportunity and achievement among various student groups and making sure that we have the programs and the practices and the policies in place that make sure every student can rise to the occasion.
José Cárdenas: And Adriana I want to ask you, what's expect more Arizona's involvement in this? Before that just a little bit about Expect More Arizona.
Adriana Figueroa: We are a nonprofit. We work across the state of Arizona to give opportunity for student to have access to a quality education.
José Cárdenas: In this particular event, what will be the focus?
Adriana Figueroa: The work that we do focuses on working with parent and communities and helping them understand what are some of the opportunity that aren't in schools, what are some of the questions and what are some of the information that they need, so that their children have access to the opportunities?
José Cárdenas: So Paul, as I understand it, this event is appealing to a lot of groups and one of the communities is what the nonprofit community can do to address the issues. Helios is first and foremost. What do you expect to come out of this and what is the role of nonprofits?
Paul Luna: Well, I think from our perspective, we're very proud to partner with the Arizona school boards association to have such an important topic discussed in our state. When you think about the priorities of the state of Arizona and what will drive the future success of our state, it really comes down to education. And in the case of Arizona, when you recognize the changing demographics in our state, you have to understand that with the changing population of students, that equity is the key for education success. From Helios' perspective, we believe fundamentally that every student, regardless of where they're born, where they live, who their parents are, how much money they have, they should have access to a quality education, so this idea and concept of how do we as a state ensure that every student has that access to the quality education is really the most important aspect of education that we need to be focused on.
José Cárdenas: So Tracy, I take it we wouldn't be having this event in case we thought there was an equity gap. Can you give us a sense of how severe it is in Arizona and what the measures might be, rural versus urban and then inner city versus other kinds of schools in the state?
Tracey Benson: Well, we can look at equity in a variety of ways. One of them might be through an academic lens and we have data that shows us that certain student groups, native American student, Hispanic students, black students, aren't performing at the same levels as Caucasian peers. So that's one way we can look at it. We can also look at equity in terms of access and children who are attending schools in rural communities may not have access to some of the high-level math courses or foreign language or some of the high-level science courses that they need and that our expectations may be in more urban community so it's really about looking at all of those variables and saying what do we need to do to make sure that the student who need these opportunities in order to succeed at high levels have them.
José Cárdenas: So we have a special focus, at least the first day on native Americans. Adriana you're in charge of multicultural opportunities. What does that mean for a population as distinct as the native American population and are we talking about native Americans in the tribal schools or as they're attending schools in the Phoenix area?
Adriana Figueroa: I think it's both. I believe there's definitely a difference between the student who are attending school in the rural communities regardless of whether or not they are in the native American community, they're Latino students and if they're attending a school in metropolitan Phoenix, also poverty is one of those issues that impacts them heavily, 1 in 4 of our kids in Arizona are living in poverty and the quality of education they have access to differs differently.
José Cárdenas: What is it that school boards, that's a big part of your audience, right? What can school board members do about those kinds of issues? They seem to be pretty pervasive and broader, perhaps beyond the ability of a school board to deal with?
Adriana Figueroa: Absolutely. School boards to me are probably having the biggest impact in a community, when you talk about efforts in organizing. A school board member can determine what programs are available, how do they better distribute funds and they can better support educators beginning with the superintendents and then principals and then teachers having access to different programs.
José Cárdenas: So part of it is better deploying the assets that they do have.
Adriana Figueroa: Absolutely, they play a critical role in our community and in education.
José Cárdenas: We just had the budget passed. The governor says it was an increase in funding for K-12. Many people disagree with that. How do you give an encouraging message to school board members and the other people that will be attending, teachers and so forth that there is something they can do even though most of them would think these are tough times, you've got schools thinking of going on a four-day schedule.
Paul Luna: And I think the reality is it is tough times for education in Arizona and we have to look and talk about investment in Arizona. It's investment. Too often what we see in Arizona around funding of education is it's being looked at like it's an expense, and we believe strongly that education is an investment in the future and so we have to talk about that. But just as importantly, I think it is ensuring that we start to have this discussion and dialogue around the concept of equity and not just from a school perspective. We're talking about the importance of the school boards and the role that they play and it is critically important, but I think as much this conference is about ensuring that this dialogue around every student getting a quality education is a community discussion. It's about parents and families and communities and schools coming together with the understanding that we all have a vested interest to ensure that every student has an opportunity to succeed in education, and especially after high school. Some type of postsecondary education because an educated workforce will drive the future of the state of Arizona. It will drive our economy forward and so this issue of equity in education is one that is far beyond any one issue of just funding or any program or policy. It's about changing the culture that we value every student being successful.
José Cárdenas: And I know Helios is particularly concerned about the Latino population and we had the morris institute's report dropped and other things indicating that if that group doesn't do good, none of us do. How much of that is going to be addressed in this conference?
Paul Luna: I think talking about the reality of the demographics of our state and the changing demographics, when you recognize that right now in the K-12 education system, the majority of students are now kids of color. And it's not to suggest that we care about any one type of student than the other. We care about all student but we have to recognize that with the changing demographics of our student population, the needs and the challenges and the supports that they require to be successful are changing and evolving, as well. And so we have to come together as a community to discuss and understand how can we better support and prepare these students for educational success? And I think that's what we're trying to make sure we're having open, honest dialogue about and we're also starting to understand what are other doing? You know, we're going to have speakers that come in, the keynote speaker to kick off the conference is the superintendent for Miami-dade schools in Florida, a 2014 national superintendent of the year, primarily because of work that they've been able to do to close the achievement gap between students of color and non-ethnic students of color in the Miami-dade schools and the demographics there much like the state of Arizona are a future of what the entire country is going to look like from a demographic perspective. So we need to see and understand what they're doing in Miami to ensure academic success for their students and how do we apply that to the state of Arizona?
José Cárdenas: We talked about what's going to happen on Wednesday. What can attendees partake of on Thursday and Friday?
Tracey Benson: As Paul said, they'll hear from experts and people who have real experience in equity and have been leading the charge in their communities, people from around the country but also Arizona leaders who are making real progress in their school districts and in their communities in the area of equity. So it's really about promising practices and programs and putting those on display so school board members, school leaders and other community leaders can see exactly what they are and really talking about leadership strategies to say how do we go out in our community and talk about this equity issue? Make sure parents understand what it means and business leaders understand what it means, so that critical piece of leadership and how school boards do play into that. They're elected representatives of their communities so they're in a unique position to bridge that gap between those who are in their community, the public and the school system. So that's really what we're hoping to at the end of the day get out of this event, that is that communication that's going back and forth between those two groups and also, the other organizations within communities like Helios and Expect More Arizona that can be brought in as resources and in many cases leaders of that work.
José Cárdenas: So how do you get the parents to attend something like this? I would think most parents, especially if we're talking about some of the immigrant parents and others would be intimidated attending some of these meetings. What are you doing to get them there?
Adriana Figueroa: You would be amazed by giving parents a little bit of knowledge and getting them enough information opens up the doors. I have some parents getting engaged in elections. Parents are eager for more information. Parents want to know what is the power that they have as parents, and where do they fit? How they can make better choices for their students.
José Cárdenas: Paul, last question. Good start. Lots of information. What happens next?
Paul Luna: I think it's about understanding. Again, we talked about changing the culture, raising the awareness of the issue of equity and then beginning to take that into action because at the end of the day, if all we do is talk about this, then we're really not going to be impacting students. So the key is with better understanding, with an understanding of the best practices, what others have been doing that have proven successful in ensuring that students are succeeding, all students are succeeding, then we as Arizona through this everybody playing a role, need to then be able to move to action to ensure that we're delivering on that promise of a quality education for every student in Arizona.
José Cárdenas: Sounds like a great conference, thank you all so much for joining us on "Horizonte" to talk about it.
Tracey Benson: Thank you.
Tracey Benson:Associate Executive Director, Arizona School Boards Association; Paul Luna:President and CEO, Helios Education Foundation; Adriana Figueroa:Director of Multicultural Community Engagement, Expect More Arizona;