TechBoston Academy inspires activism with help from NWEA grant

TechBoston Academy inspires political activism with help from NWEA grant - TLG-IMG-03052020How do you provide a meaningful learning experience to underserved students outside their everyday surroundings? One that inspires personal reflection and political activism?

Casey Andrews, English teacher at TechBoston Academy, found a way. And in a twist of fate, she has the Boston Health Department to thank for leading her to the funds to help sustain her program.

The inspiration

Two years ago, the Equal Justice Initiative opened the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Located in Montgomery, Alabama, the memorial recognizes the thousands of victims of lynchings in the US.

“There aren’t many opportunities in this country that help people think about the past critically and raise issues to the surface,” says Casey. “When I heard about the museum and the memorial, I thought they were amazing. They connected to a lot of the core things that I teach in senior year. So, I wondered if we could bring some of the students there to experience it.”

I work at a school where the students are predominantly of color and almost 100% low income. I feel it’s our responsibility to make sure these students have access to as many opportunities as their wealthier, whiter peers.”

In the past, the school had offered other trips, but cost and grade requirements made them inaccessible to most students. TechBoston Academy serves predominantly low-income students of color, about half of whom are English language learners and a fifth of whom qualify for special education support. “There were at least 115 seniors out of a class size of 130 who weren’t able to go anywhere,” explains Casey.

Casey wanted to lower the barrier to entry for students, making the trip to Montgomery a free opportunity—one that only required students to keep their grades above failing and help fundraise for expenses.

“Part of doing this trip comes from the site’s importance; it’s a special place,” says Casey. “There’s another layer, though. I work at a school where the students are predominantly of color and almost 100% low income. I feel it’s our responsibility to make sure these students have access to as many opportunities as their wealthier, whiter peers in other areas who are going on numerous school trips. Creating these opportunities is part of my work as an equitable educator.”

Finding the funds

In its first year, Casey funded her program, Personal Is Political Senior Trip, through a grant and student fundraising activities, including selling snacks, politically themed T-shirts, and school-themed sweatshirts.

If we hadn’t found the NWEA grant, I don’t know what we would have done this year.”

Midyear, the health department told the school they could no longer sell snacks. That put a lot of stress on the team to find other options for fundraising. It also left Casey determined to find a heftier grant that would alleviate the stress of covering expenses the second year.

“If we hadn’t found the NWEA grant, I don’t know what we would have done this year,” says Casey. “Getting the grant has also been a way for me to manage my own capacity. It’s a huge thing to know that in September I have the funds needed to make the trip happen eight months later.”

The $10,000 grant through the Educators for Equity Grant Program is helping Casey cover the majority of the costs for the 12 students going on the five-day trip this year. Casey also received support from the nonprofit arm of the mayor’s office in Boston, so the trip is nearly 100% funded.

Creating purpose

For Casey, the trip to Montgomery is about more than studying civil rights. “It’s really about thinking about our context and what’s happening currently in our society,” she says. “It’s about trying to understand the forces that are shaping that, using the museum and the memorial as tools toward that understanding.”

Casey has two chaperones accompany her on the trip, one of which is in a guidance role. “We want to make sure we have a lot of support for the students, because it is an emotional kind of trip,” she says.

Within five minutes of being at the site the first year, every single young person was engaged in the trip the rest of the time.”

And while the team spends time creating a curriculum ahead of time, they have found that a lot of the learning unfolds naturally. “Within five minutes of being at the site the first year, every single young person was engaged in the trip the rest of the time,” she reflects. “We didn’t really have to do anything or tell them anything to make that happen.”

Casey encourages students to think about how they will take their experiences into their lives and their community moving forward. “We talk a lot about what it means to be a person in the world where something like mass incarceration is causing so much suffering and inequity,” she says. “We get them to think about what it means to live a life where you pursue activism around that.”

When students return from the trip, they are expected to share their experiences with the community, whether through artwork or another kind of presentation. And that’s culminated in a learning experience for the community at large.

Community impact

On their plane ride back to Boston from the trip last year, some of the students met the city’s mayor. This chance encounter opened the door for them to present their experience to him—with a Boston slant.

Casey explains, “One of the really cool things they have at the museum in Montgomery is a map of the city’s downtown area. Every site associated with slavery or lynching is marked.” The map inspired Casey’s students to create a similar display, identifying sites, street names, and place names associated with people who supported segregation and slavery or owned enslaved people. The team presented this to Mayor Walsh, along with suggestions for new street and place names.

When students return from the trip, they are expected to share their experiences with the community, whether through artwork or another kind of presentation.”

“I don’t know if the city will change any of the names, but it was an important way of inviting our community into thinking about our current spaces.”

Advice for other educators

Tweet: #edequity in action: A student trip inspires change with help from an NWEA grant #edchat https://nwea.us/39t5JH4Casey has guidance for other educators who want to expose their students to new opportunities but may not have the capacity or institutional support:

  • “Start by considering what opportunities students don’t have access to and how to make space for them. Over my teaching career, these experiences have looked different. It doesn’t always mean we have to be going on a trip. This trip in particular was inspired by the place, not by the idea of traveling somewhere.”
  • “It’s important to know your students and get a sense of what they would actually be interested in engaging with. I knew students were really politically engaged and motivated. I knew they were thinking about white supremacy. I knew they were thinking of themes of history and how they connected to our present day. So I had a sense that some students would be excited about this trip; I just didn’t know how many.”
  • “Understand what kind of scaffolding you’ll need to provide for students to enter the experience. I had to think about how to make this an emotionally safe space, how to provide support and self-care time, and how to talk to students about their experiences. We did meditation and grounding exercises. This wouldn’t have been the case with a different group of students who didn’t have the same lived experiences.”

You could be awarded a grant to help improve equity at your school, too. Apply for an Educators for Equity grant by June 1.

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