Nov 10, 2020 · 6 min read

This School is Preparing Kids for Social Justice Movements Today and Tomorrow

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For students at pilotED elementary, issues of identity are worked directly into the curriculum along with social-emotional learning. Photo courtesy of pilotED.
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Ahead of its time, pilotED launched an identity-based curriculum in 2014. Today, its students are being emotionally prepared for critical discussions on policing, justice and inequality.

As social justice protesters took to the streets across the country this year, many families struggled with how to talk to their kids about the movement. But some families have used the protests as an opportunity to begin discussions on race, justice and policing. This summer, Danielle Nimtz and her 7-year-old daughter Kianah traveled to downtown Indianapolis to witness one of the many  protests in response to recent deaths involving police and to offer support.

“We’re in an organic scenario where we can have these conversations and then discuss lightly the idea of police brutality and how you arrest somebody and how you physically handle another person,” Danielle says.

Jessica Haynes also used the Indianapolis protests as an opportunity to talk with her 7-year-old son, Porter.

“We just try to explain to him that Black and brown people are not treated the same way that white people are treated,” Jessica says. “We really want him to know that we feel and it’s one of our values that everyone should be equal.”

In addition to using real-world opportunities to talk about race and justice, both Danielle and Jessica have enrolled their children at pilotED, an identity-based public school that they believe will help foster and support these discussions. Kianah is currently a second grader and Porter is a first grader.

“I believe they’re doing everything they can to get kids to understand these issues that are in a way that they understand it,” Jessica says.

PilotED CEO and co-founder Jacob Allen agrees, while the conversation is different based on the students’ ages. For students who have been immersed in the identity-based approach for years, the payoff is already being seen.

“You have well-studied pragmatic kids who maybe two years ago didn’t have the emotional language or the content knowledge to understand what happened with this Black Lives Matter round two,” Jacob says. “Now they’re like, ‘No, no. These are the incarceration rates, these are issues of police brutality, this is what happens when you don’t have community police.’ They can say that, our older students can say that, and so if anything, when something like that happens, they’re more on the solutions-proposal side of things.”

At pilotED elementary school, social-emotional skills are applied across all classes. | Photo courtesy of pilotED.

For students at pilotED, issues of identity are worked directly into the curriculum along with social-emotional learning. For example, a history lesson about Plymouth Rock includes the traditional story of the gathering of Pilgrims and indigenous people. But it also includes what is left out of traditional history books. Teachers talk with students about who they identify with in the story. Do they see themselves as someone who is persecuted for their beliefs or as someone who experiences genocide? The lesson would wrap up with a discussion on emotions and questions such as “What would it feel like if that was your family, or if it was your friend?”

The identity and social-emotional skills are applied across all classes.

“It’s through this identity-based approach to make sure that kids can see themselves in the story, that they’re getting a dose of true reality and that they understand moving forward what it can mean for them and they can contextualize it,” Jacob explains.

It’s not just the students who are learning. Jacob says 50% of the work on identity is done by teachers and staff at the school, through understanding their internal biases and constantly having conversations around inequities.

“A really diverse curriculum with really strong stances on mental health and well-being falls flat when given to a teacher who doesn’t have the same understanding,” Jacob says.

Jacob co-founded pilotED as an afterschool program on Chicago’s South Side six years ago. The results for that first group of children were so profound – higher test scores and attendance rates but also improved confidence and a success mindset – that he set out to form a charter school based on the same principles.

The school was initially planned for Chicago and would have had a 98% African American student body. When the location moved to Indianapolis, Jacob says he was surprised by the diversity of it. The school’s current enrollment is 50% African American, 30% white and 20% Latinx.

“Why it’s a necessary program in our times is resonating with people,” Jacob says. “We have children of attorneys that drive on their way to their law offices and drop their kids here and at the same time we have kids who are homeless. I think that those kind of ends of the spectrum meeting every day in a space like this is something that is really powerful.”

Now, the goal is even greater than the pilotED campus in Indianapolis. Jacob and his team are working to develop and implement identity-based curriculum, and training for teachers to utilize that curriculum, for schools across the country. It’s an expansion Jason says everyone in the school is striving for.

“The people who are here are so hungry for kids in Nevada, kids in Florida, to see that glimmer of hope and not see it through a 4.0 GPA but to see it through a higher sense of self-esteem, of loving ones’ self and others.”

That’s precisely why Danielle enrolled Kianah, who is African American and white, at pilotED after she spent kindergarten at a less diverse school.

“They have this environment that is inclusive of anyone and everyone no matter where they came from or where they are going,” Danielle says.

For Jessica and Porter, who are white, the diversity of pilotED was also a selling point.

“One of the things that I really wanted for my kids was to be in the most diverse setting that they could be in,” Jessica says. “I just think it’s really important to have that exposure so it’s not something that is scary or different. It’s just something that is beautiful.”

For pilotED’s students, inclusion is a verb, not a noun. The school also teaches civic engagement and problem solving, making inclusion something Jacob hopes his some-day graduates will actively speak up for and work towards.

“The give and take relationship of acceptance and identity is moving. The needle has been moving year by year regardless of who’s in office,” Jacob says. “I think society is moving in that direction.”

His students will be prepared and right on time.

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