Village of Wisdom Transforms Classrooms into Equitable Learning Spaces

Posted May 4, 2020, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Grandfather and young grandson

Children aren’t likely to thrive in classrooms and other learning environments that aren’t designed to support them. Village of Wisdom, a grantee of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, is building evidence that bringing cultural relevance to learning settings for children of color leads to better academic achievement and stronger relationships among teachers and parents.

In most states, there is a large gap between the percentage of students of color and the percentage of teachers of color. The American education system is built on white culture, says William Jackson, founder and leader of Village of Wisdom, based in Durham, North Carolina. By creating virtual tools and conducting research with parents, Village of Wisdom is striving to create equity and a sense of belonging wherever students learn.

“Programs designed by and for people of color are significantly underfunded. Yet these programs often are best positioned to gain trust in communities and address the structural barriers that can keep children of color from reaching their potential,” says Ayo Atterberry, a senior associate with Casey’s Evidence-Based Practice Group. “Village of Wisdom is demonstrating and documenting what is possible when parents, teachers and students work together to create a new context for learning.”

Shining a light on classroom discrimination

Launched in 2014, Village of Wisdom has served about 400 children and families in Durham and neighboring communities in Chapel Hill and Wake Forest. In addition to its in-person presence, the program has a social media network of thousands of parents of color, and its virtual tools have been used by more than 25 schools across North Carolina, Illinois, Colorado and Georgia. Casey’s funding includes technical assistance to help the organization hone its strategic direction.

“Casey has helped us refine our mission and focus only on what Village of Wisdom can uniquely do,” Jackson says. “We’re transitioning from a program that tried to prepare black students and parents for experiencing discrimination in the classroom into a program that’s transforming classrooms into spaces where they don’t experience discrimination at all.”

White teachers working with Village of Wisdom report that their relationships with black parents are better than they have been at any point in their careers, and early evidence suggests that in classrooms where teachers use Village of Wisdom's tools, black students are more engaged, have greater trust in their teachers and are more likely to persist through difficult learning challenges, Jackson says.

Establishing the measures for cultural affirmation

Using Village of Wisdom tools, black and brown parents and children are helping to establish the criteria for equitable, culturally relevant learning environments:

  • Culturally Affirming School Climate Survey. Builds on the prototypical school climate survey by adding questions that extract the racialized experiences of students of color to help gauge whether they are experiencing culturally affirming instruction and learning environments. Using these measures, education professionals can identify strategies to mitigate racial bias and discrimination in their schools, improving the well-being and engagement of students of color.
  • Black Genius Profile and Planning. Documents participants’ academic, emotional and cultural strengths — empowering black students to recognize their own genius and enabling teachers to better connect with them.
  • Conquering Racial Stress: Black Family Toolkit. Supports black parents and caregivers in helping their children cope with racially charged experiences. The workbook builds from section to section, ultimately strengthening familial relationships.

“We all benefit when we see each other and the genius that we bring to the table,” says Jackson. “Hopefully these tools and solutions can transform our education system into one that liberates black genius instead of oppressing it.”

Leveraging virtual tools in the face of COVID-19

Village of Wisdom’s virtual tools offer a remote curriculum that Jackson expects to become even more relevant in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The principal of one of (the schools we work with) explained that they need our work now more than ever,” says Jackson. “His teachers aren’t introducing any new material, and are instead focusing on Village of Wisdom’s core principles: strengthening foundational knowledge and building relationships.”

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