Over the past months, we as a society have been forced to reckon with the deep-rooted systemic inequities laid bare by COVID-19 and recent protests against racial injustice. These conversations may be difficult, but they inspire our work and reinforce the necessity of reimagining education for our youth -- because equitable schools and classrooms are the foundation of equitable societies and a strong democracy.

Right now, educators are being asked to make urgent decisions about budgets, resources, and even distributing basic needs to young people and their families. While they are not strangers to the demand of accomplishing more with substantially less, this time is very different. Amidst this uncertainty, it is critical for education donors to hear from students and support initiatives that prioritize what they actually need.

Since its inception, the education system has been designed so that the flow of knowledge goes downstream, but never up. In order to unlock the full potential of every student, we need to reimagine our outdated school system that doesn't meet the needs of our children, our communities or our democracy. The bedrock of every democracy is well-educated and powerful young people. However, our schools were never designed to empower students of color or help educators break the cycle of institutional racism.

We need to redesign our schools for the 21st century so that they work for all students, not just a few. When students, especially students of color or Indigenous, disabled or homeless students, are left out of conversations on what schools, classrooms, and curriculum should look like, they lack the support they need to develop their own intellectual curiosity and an understanding of their own and others’ cultural histories. Some students might even be made to feel like they don’t belong or aren’t being heard.

We as a society celebrate the voices of young people when they speak on issues that impact them, from climate change to gun violence prevention. But why not education? Why is a system that is created for young people so reluctant to listen to them? Underestimating the contributions of young people who are actively engaged with their education is often driven by racism and classism. It does not reflect the values of a true equitable learning environment.

Listening to young people is just the first step — when it comes to making students full partners in designing their own learning environments, educators should embrace humility and give youth the actual power to change the system from the inside.

The BELE Framework: Transforming Learning Outcomes

In order to build equitable learning environments that supports each and every student -- meeting their unique and personal needs while giving them a seat at the table -- we have created the BELE (Building Equitable Learning Environments) Framework as a guide for bringing about systemic change.

We can only be healthy and strong as a nation when every educational institution is a place where all children can learn, develop, and thrive. The evidence and research are abundantly clear. Both confirm two things: 1) A young person’s academic, social and emotional development are inextricably linked, and 2) the quality of a child’s learning environment, their experiences, and access to opportunity determines their developmental and academic outcomes.

Equity is a process and an outcome. How you engage in the process is as important as changes you decide to make, and this is where getting input from students can help

Equitable learning environments should be designed so that every student experiences:

  • An engaging, intellectually rigorous learning environment
  • Physical, emotional, and psychological safety
  • Meaningful and relevant work and classroom discourse
  • Their cultural, spiritual, and/or ethnic values and practices acknowledged, honored, and respected
  • Feeling seen, respected, and cared for by adults and peers
  • Opportunities to set and meet goals, and to learn and recover from failure

Equitable learning environments should result in the following student outcomes:

  • Intellectual curiosity and strong academic skills
  • A sense of agency and optimism for the future
  • Self-love, self-acceptance, and pride in one’s multiple identities
  • Understanding of one’s own and others’ cultural histories and contributions
  • Empathy for and meaningful connections with others

What’s Next?: There is more potential to reimagine our learning environments in this moment than any other in recent memory. However, accompanying this great possibility is the urgency created by our circumstances.

As funders and donors, you have the opportunity to uplift organizations that are putting student voices front and center, whether they’re empowering students to speak up and organize or giving schools and districts the extra capacity they need to integrate student perspectives into their work. How we allocate resources has always been indicative of our values, and in this moment we can choose to prioritize the holistic wellbeing of our students by putting resources behind the proven strategies that we know will make a difference.

The collective effort of BELE Network partners and collaborators is one way of approaching this work from a national level, but just as important is the contribution you make at a local level. Towards determining where you can make an impact, the BELE Framework can be an invaluable resource for identifying organizations doing good work with an equity focus. Additionally, this interactive map displays the work being done by BELE partners in communities across the country, and the Communities for Just Schools Fund has a plethora of actionable ways to support local efforts advocating for education justice and equity.


Original contribution by The BELE Network, which is dedicated to reimagining our inequitable school system that has failed too many for too long, and is committed to transforming our classrooms into learning environments that nurture the intellectual, emotional and cultural growth of all students — especially students of color.

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