Community Gathers for Virtual Discussion on Equity in Action

On October 26, Bank Street College of Education hosted a discussion titled “Equity in Action” to explore the important role of racial justice in our work with children, adult learners, families, partners, and communities. The event is an annual salon that brings the community together to highlight a key aspect of Bank Street’s work and to inspire people in supporting that work philanthropically.

At the start of the virtual event, Kate Sussman, SFC ’85, GSE ’98, School for Children parent, and Parent Associate Trustee, spoke about Bank Street’s longstanding commitment to centering equity in its work across the Graduate School of Education, Children’s Programs, and many other programs. She highlighted how meaningful relationships and a sense of belonging and value have always been at the core of Bank Street’s approach to supporting children’s growth and development before introducing Shael Polakow-Suransky, GSE ’00, President, Bank Street College.

“Recent studies from neuroscience reveal that the different parts of the brain that control social, emotional, and cognitive processes work together and depend on one another when a child or an adult is learning, and that they are intertwined just like the strands of a rope,” said Polakow-Suransky as he discussed the power of supportive, responsive relationships in education. “Learning is already a delicate and interdependent dance, and when a child gets the message that they aren’t valued or that they are seen as a threat or seen as less likely to achieve, it corrodes those relationships and injects toxic stress into the learning experience.”

Polakow-Suransky added that improving access to high-quality education and building educational equity requires addressing the problems of racism and biases in classrooms and in the broader education system. He noted that Bank Street is working to create equitable school systems that are grounded in learner-centered, strengths-based practices through the institution’s practices, research, scholarly work, and partnerships with educators, schools, and systems.

Next, Tracy Fray-Oliver, Vice President, Bank Street Education Center, which works to disrupt inequity through system-level change to improve the educational experiences for all children and adults, and Mark Nagasawa, Director, Straus Center for Young Children & Families, which conducts practice-oriented, policy-relevant, and equity-focused research in early care and education, began a rich dialogue on centering equity and anti-racism in their work.

“While there have been lots of educational reform efforts and policies that are focused on attending to disparities, they often fail, and we suggest that they fail because they don’t consider what we know deeply at Bank Street, and that is the research and science behind how children learn and develop…and the ways in which racism impacts children’s learning experiences and school experiences,” said Fray-Oliver.

Fray-Oliver shared examples of how racism impacts children’s school experiences, such as biased academic expectations against Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students, a lack of supportive relationships and a sense of belonging in the classroom for students of color, and the development of  biases for all children. She emphasized that it is crucial for learning experiences to allow students to recognize diversity and promote empathy, as well as collaboration and curiosity about their identities and each other.

Additionally, Fray-Oliver referenced the Education Center’s ongoing work with Yonkers Public Schools focused on improving math learning experiences and outcomes for Black, Latinx, and students experiencing poverty by the end of eighth grade. 

“The work we do includes working closely with teachers, students, and families so that we’re centering their voices and getting their perspective on what needs to change if we want to see better outcomes. We do that while building the content knowledge and the capacity of teachers and educators. We want all of that work to be rooted in a really deep understanding of child development and content, but also with a deep understanding of the local context and what children are experiencing—particularly children whose voices are regularly ignored or marginalized around their learning experiences,” said Fray-Oliver.

Nagasawa followed up by citing several data points illustrating systemic deficiencies in education, including a well-known, but under acted upon, analysis that found Black preschool students are expelled at a disproportionately higher rate. He noted that the Straus Center works to translate such research into policy and practice to understand and address injustices in early childhood education.

For example, the Straus Center is currently conducting a study on racial disproportionalities in early childhood special education.

“We’re trying to pierce beneath the surface to seek understanding of why this is happening by analyzing existing policies and administrative data, observing school and systems-level practice, and interviewing educators and parents to understand their attitudes about race and disability, as well as their understandings of the system and how it operates versus how it ought to operate to draw some illustrations of why these phenomena happen,” said Nagasawa.

Sussman also asked Fray-Oliver and Nagasawa to speak about any intersections between their projects and opportunities to work together.

Reflecting again on Bank Street’s partnership with Yonkers, Nagasawa explained that some of their collaborative work has emerged out of conversations around the need to better document and understand information not always indicated in standardized tests and data.

He also discussed the Education Center’s early childhood math work happening in District 25 in Queens, adding, “The issue of math and early childhood is a long-standing equity issue both for adults and children…. Most early childhood educators, the majority, identify as women and, in New York City, at least a good two-thirds identify as people of color. But across the board, most folks in early childhood, myself included, don’t always identify as math people, and so this troubled relationship with the subject matter affects how we teach math. Our understanding of it shapes how we teach it and then that has an impact on kids’ understanding of math.”

The event concluded with a question-and-answer session moderated by Polakow-Suransky in which Fray-Oliver and Nagasawa further explored structural racism and shared more information on Bank Street’s work to create scalable change and support positive learning outcomes for all students.

View a recording of the discussion