Listen to community voices as we redesign California public schools

DeShae Johnson in Fresno worries about finishing her senior year, taking Advanced Placement tests, and completing scholarship applications for college while taking care of her younger siblings so her mother can continue to work as a janitor.

Daniela Hernandez, a youth leader on the eastside of Los Angeles, couldn’t get her employer, a food retailer, to provide protective equipment even as shelter-in-place orders began. She won the right to wear gloves, but ultimately decided to quit her job to prevent exposing vulnerable family members to the coronavirus.

Lidia Cruz is a mother of three young children living in Sacramento. With schools closed and limited resources, she worries how to keep food on the table and get pencils and workbooks so her children can learn from home.

Each of these women’s stories resonate with thousands of Californians whose lives also have been upended by the coronavirus pandemic.

As education and youth advocates working in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Fresno, we see first-hand how our

students and families are navigating the new reality when confronted with impossible circumstances.

The challenges created by the pandemic lay bare what we always have known: First, working-class families and students of color are one small crisis away from a dire situation, while living and learning in communities with fewer resources than upper-income communities.

Secondly, if we are to truly achieve equity in our schools and communities, the voices of the most-affected students and parents are necessary to create policies that meet student needs.

That is why the California Partnership for the Future of Learning, a statewide alliance of community organizing and advocacy groups, directly asked students and families from low-income communities of color how they are experiencing this viral disruption to life and schooling.

By contacting 20 grassroots organizations and 600 students and families from more than 20 school districts across the state, we identified these top needs:

  • Engage students, parents and educators in finding solutions for our schools and communities.
  • Support mental health care and building positive relationships for students.
  • Address uncertainty faced by students, especially high school juniors and seniors.
  • Create equitable learning environments at home and school.
  • Recognize the importance of schools as a safety net.

While the needs are many, we found strength in our communities to generate solutions:

In Fresno, mutual aid networks are continuing to grow so that neighbors can pull together to meet basic needs and share resources, technology and information.

At InnerCity Struggle in East Los Angeles, staff are making sure every student leader has a Wi-Fi hotspot and computer, and support to learn how to use them.

In Sacramento, parent volunteers show up every day to prepare and distribute meals to tens of thousands of youth.

Yet, a more comprehensive response is needed. Big, bold, community-driven approaches are overdue to reverse decades of underinvestment and to direct funds toward the most critical needs of students, especially with the coming storm of budget cuts to schools.

For example, students, families and educators have long advocated for community schools, which integrate academics, health and social services, youth and community development and engagement, with the goal of improved student learning, stronger families and healthier communities.

The pandemic shows us how critical strong school networks and communities are. With $1.6 billion in federal relief funds for education on the way, the state must provide clear guidance and incentives for districts to implement community schools.

And come November, we have an opportunity to support the Schools and Communities First initiative to invest in public schools and vital services.

The pandemic underscores how vital the voices Johnson, Hernandez and Cruz are in designing solutions to meet the moment. As we move into the next era of California public schools, we know that the future of learning must be co-designed by the students, families and educators, who are experts on the needs of their communities. Only by focusing on their perspectives will we get on the path to success.


Maria Ortega is the lead organizer in Fresno with Californians for Justice, a statewide organization powered by youth that fights for the healthy, just, and vibrant schools our communities need. Laura Zavala is the director of policy and campaign development at InnerCity Struggle, which works to build stronger schools, grow civic engagement and prevent displacement for a stronger and more powerful Eastside Los Angeles. Tere Onofre is the director of organizing at SacACT and a member of PICO California.