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‘The system is broken,’ not the kids. Fixing the LENS on low-income students of color with disabilities

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Rupen Fofaria spent about a year embedded with the cohort of groups that form LENS-NC, or Learning for Equity: A Network of Solutions. Rupen participated both as a journalist and as a thought partner.

What is “normal”? And do our assumptions about what’s normal affect how we view students who don’t fit our definition? 

A small mountain of research tells us yes, they do.1 It also tells us that systems built without regard to cultural differences or neurodiversity will harm kids who live at the intersection of race, low income, and learning differences. The assumptions create and feed implicit bias — and lead to bad outcomes for Black and Brown kids, making it less likely they are identified as gifted, less likely they’re given advanced coursework, and more likely they’ll be disciplined at school.

When these students have learning differences, the trends are even worse.

A cohort of nine organizations was created a year-and-a-half ago to focus on solutions for these students and their families. The group is setting out now to activate its shared learning experience:

If there must be a “normal,” let it be normal to welcome families into the education process, and normal to prioritize belonging and personal empowerment for students. 

“We are in this work because we care,” said Stephanie Walker of MDC, the organization tapped to facilitate projects and collaborations for the group of nine. “We’re in this work because it makes a difference in the lives of future generations. And we’re in this work because we are committed to being a part of a larger collective to make a difference.”

Illustration by Jaclyn Gilstrap of A Visual Approach

The LENS-NC journey

On an April afternoon in 2020, Learning for Equity: A Network of Solutions (LENS-NC) convened for the first time, just as the uncertainty of the pandemic was setting in. The members logged onto a Zoom platform that had just become a part of daily work life, entering as nine largely disconnected entities — most of them unfamiliar with the others.

What connects them all, though, is their call for equity and systems change. That’s why so many of the projects focus on examining implicit bias and challenging an establishment version of “normal.”

At the time, the group was still mostly a vision in the minds of the Oak Foundation, a philanthropy dedicated to helping the disadvantaged, and MDC, an organization created in 1967 out of former Gov. Terry Sanford’s North Carolina Fund.

The vision had been to convene in person and foster community — but, like the education system it hopes to innovate, the group quickly pivoted to virtual.

Even without the handshakes, hugs, and connection that come from human contact, this community — dedicated to ensuring that the most marginalized kids in schools find belonging — managed to find belonging with one another. 

“They didn’t just bring us all on a Zoom call,” said Danielle Allen, who works on research, policy, and strategy support for the State Board of Education. “They gave us opportunities to connect and really know each other. And what that did was to help us know each other’s work and know each other’s needs, and really know that we have a place in this work together.”

The LENS organizations work on individual projects and, collectively, explore high-impact strategies for creating systemic change to support Black and Brown students with learning differences.

They vary from small, local organizations to the State Board of Education. Some directly serve students and families, while others focus on law and policy. Among the members are educators, parents, lawyers, and doctors.

The LENS members’ projects vary. Some address something called “significant disproportionality” in Exceptional Children services. Several actively engage and empower students and families. Others address discipline disparity and the need for trauma-responsive healing work.

How LENS is shaping the work

Through a cohort approach, the LENS members say, they’ve benefited from connecting with other leaders, seeing things from multiple perspectives, and finding reassurance in shared responsibility and vision.

“Every time I get a chance to interact with the folks in the network, I think about things from a different angle,” said Kamille Bostick, director of programming at CREED. “It’s called LENS, and I don’t know if they did that on purpose, but for me it’s a lot of light bulbs going on and a lot of connections that I wouldn’t necessarily have made myself.”

For the State Board, which is partnering with a division of the Department of Public Instruction for its membership in LENS, participation has helped link state-level policy with the perspectives and needs at the community level.

“We’ve been pushing from the Board table this piece about community and partnership,” said Deanna Townsend-Smith, director of State Board operations and policy. “And that has been one of the major benefits of this piece with [LENS] … it just allows us to continue to expand partnerships, engage with the community — most often groups we wouldn’t necessarily engage with — to provide additional perspective and just to inform our work.”

Illustration by Jaclyn Gilstrap of A Visual Approach

Community organizations have benefited from hearing State Board perspectives during convenings. Groups that help parents navigate the special education process say the inclusion of Disability Rights NC, a legal nonprofit, provides them a much-needed resource. Even among the community groups, shared learning has enhanced their leadership skills, many say.

Above all, the group feels a sense of unity in purpose. James Ford is a member of the State Board of Education and co-founder of CREED, one of the nine LENS organizations.

Ford recalled an occasion when someone asked him whether he felt alone in the work. There was a time he would have said yes.

“But that is no longer the case,” he said. “And I think that our participation in the LENS-NC network is a tremendous part of that feeling. When I think about where we were a year-and-a-half ago, whether we felt connected to a broader community of folks in this space versus how I feel now — it is night and day. The shared learning, the resources, the connections. I feel as if we are part of something.”

The importance of the work

It’s a disservice to all students when a system perpetuates one idea of “normal” and discourages multiple perspectives, says Jason Marshall, a national education consultant who presented to LENS last October.

In a country founded under a racist Constitution and legal system, he said, the Black and Brown perspective was never normalized. Discriminatory laws retained the normality of white perspective, creating a false view of abnormality in the perspectives and experiences of people of color.

That’s partly to blame for the disproportionately negative outcomes Black and Brown students face today, he said. And attempted solutions too often are the result of deficit thinking, Marshall added — as if there’s something inherently wrong with those students and their families.

Illustration by Jaclyn Gilstrap of A Visual Approach

“The system is broken,” he said. “Not the student. Not the family.”

That’s the gravity of the LENS initiative’s work — finding ways to reach marginalized families stuck in a system they didn’t build. It contains echoes from a Langston Hughes poem, Let America Be America Again, a poem the LENS group read together and discussed in May.

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

The poem begins on a somber note, recalling both the revolutionary idea of freedom for all and the lie that America was the land of the free when it was built through the displacement of millions of Indigenous people and off the backs of millions of slaves.

Yet, the poet dreams:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

“And that’s the power — the power is in what’s represented throughout this poem: everyone,” MDC President John Simpkins said as he wrapped up discussion of Hughes’ words with the LENS cohort. “It’s not just Black people, it’s not just people of color, it is not just immigrants, it is everyone oriented in a way that’s going to build meaning, dignity, and community. And I appreciate everything that you all are doing to make that possible.”

Show 1 footnote
  1. See for example, Cheryl Staats, Understanding Implicit Bias: What Educators Should Know (American Educator, Winter 2015-2016); Cheryl Staats and Danya Contractor, Race and Discipline in Ohio Schools: What the Data Say (Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, 2014); Russell J. Skiba, Robert S. Michael, Abra Carroll Nardo, and Reece L. Paterson, The Color of Discipline: Sources of Racial and Gender Disproportionality in School Punishment (Urban Review, 2002); Carla R. Monroe, Why Are ‘Bad Boys’ Always Black? Causes of Disproportionality in School Discipline and Recommendations for Change (The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, 2005); Linda van den Bergh, Eddie Denessen, Lisette Hornstra, Marinus Voeten, and Rob W. Holland, The Implicit Prejudiced Attitudes of Teachers: Relations to Teacher Expectations and the Ethnic Achievement Gap (American Educational Research Journal, 2010)
Rupen Fofaria

Rupen Fofaria was the equity and learning differences reporter for EducationNC from 2018 through October 2023.