One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Originally published in Greater Park Hill News

Feb 4th, 2019

By Erin Pier

Equity in education. If you’re a frequent reader of the Greater Park Hills News, or follow any of the Park Hill Neighborhood social media pages, you may have seen this term pop up recently. But what is equity in education? Why is equity in education a buzzword in our neighborhood? And more importantly, why should this term matter to you?

To begin, it’s best to define equity, and to clarify what it is not. Equity is not equality. Simply put, equality means the same for all, while equity means the quality of being fair or just. The graphic at right illustrates the difference.

An adult woman’s bike isn’t terribly practical for a small child, a tall man, or a person with a physical impairment. Providing these people who have different needs with the same bike may be equal, but it isn’t exactly fair. When we look at equity, we consider the individual needs of the bike riders, and ensure that the bike they are provided with is something that they can actually ride.

By this same logic, education is not a “one size fits all” construct. Consider the educational needs of a student in the rural South and how they might vary from those of a student growing up in urban New York City. From transportation to family access to resources, these students have different needs. Take into account ethnicity, native language, parent education levels, socio-economic status, disabilities, family support systems, etc., and it becomes obvious that all American students are not served by providing “the same” supports. And yet, current education policies continue to enforce the same expectations, provide similar resources, and measure outcomes by the same framework, with insufficient consideration given to students’ dramatically different needs.

This graphic, created by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, depicts equality and equity as it relates to health and promoting fair and just opportunity for all. The concept can similarly be applied to education.

In Park Hill, these issues of inequity are vividly apparent. Six elementary schools claim the Greater Park Hill neighborhood as home: Hallett Academy, Smith Elementary, Stedman Elementary, Park Hill Elementary, Odyssey School and Roots Elementary (though Roots is set to close at the end of this academic year). Park Hill Elementary enrolls the largest student body, with 692 K-5 students for the 2018/19 school year. Hallett has 160 students, Smith has 293, Stedman has 236, Odyssey has 156, and Roots 182.

What is striking is the difference in socio-economic status of the students that each of these neighborhood schools serve. Within Park Hill Elementary’s 692 students, 14 percent qualify for Free or Reduced Priced Lunch (a common measure of poverty). By comparison 90 percent of Hallett’s students qualify for FRL, along with 91 percent at Smith, 62 percent at Stedman, 29 percent at Odyssey, and 80 percent at Roots.

While people experiencing poverty care deeply about their children’s education, and children from poverty are equally capable of learning, there is a great deal of research showing that to equitably educate all kids we need to provide more resources for those who have less at home.

From the increased need for physical and mental health support, to access to fewer material resources (in-home computers, tutors, etc), the needs of students experiencing poverty are not equal to their wealthier peers. While the state and district attempt to create equity by providing additional funding to schools based on FRL numbers, PTA fundraising in more affluent schools can often outpace those attempts at equity.

In 2017, the Center for American Progress released a report regarding parental contributions to school finances. Using IRS filings, they determined that the nation’s 50 richest Parent-Teacher Associations raised and spent $43 million on what were already the nation’s most affluent schools. These funds are then used to supply already robust schools with more field trips, new technology, art and music instructors, librarians, and new supplies. In less affluent schools that often operate without PTAs, funding for these programs or resources likely comes from schools’ overall budgets, if at all.

Last year, the Park Hill Elementary PTA was able to raise over $250,000, an amazing feat made possible through hard work and a dedicated parent community, but also directly related to the financial wellbeing of the community. Stedman’s PTA brought in approximately $60,000, while Smith and Hallett’s parent communities were still developing their PTAs. (Parent fundraising data for Odyssey and Roots was not available). Our neighborhood schools with the most financial need received more money from the district but, when taking into account PTA fundraising, actually ended up with less money overall than those with less need.

These inequities have led to the development of Park Hill Neighbors for Equity in Education (PHNEE), a group of engaged parents and community members working to ensure that all students attending our neighborhood’s elementary schools receive a quality education. The more we can work together as a community to increase awareness of these inequities, the better able we will be to close the gaps and ensure that all children in Greater Park Hill have equitable opportunities to learn and grow.