Tonsler Park is also a polling place. Each year on the first Tuesday in November, a steady stream of mostly Black voters files through its recreation center to cast ballots. In 2008 and 2012, the Tonsler precinct overwhelmingly voted to put in office the country’s first Black president. In 2016, 90.8 percent of the precinct voted against President Trump.
Nine months later, on Aug. 12, 2017, a white supremacist rally egged on by a president who saw “fine people on both sides” almost ended an annual backpack drive that was supposed to occur in the center of town. Despite the eruption of white supremacist violence, community members came together in Tonsler Park to keep the promise of education — the foundation of our democratic system — alive for local children. In an act of resilience and resistance, the annual backpack drive, a community system of support that reflects and seeks to put a bandage on one part of the deep racial inequities present within Charlottesville’s educational system, went forward. In the face of white supremacy, community members handed out backpacks filled with school supplies to optimistic children, the future voters of Tonsler Park.
Now we are in August 2020. The mostly Black and brown children who picked up backpacks three years ago have not been to school since March. Most will not attend school in person this fall either, at least for the first nine weeks. As with many other districts around the country, school leaders in Charlottesville and the surrounding counties know that with the novel coronavirus continuing to spike, there is no safe way to put children on buses and bring them into school buildings. This feels like the right and responsible decision to protect the health and well-being of the community.
There’s a deadly paradox here. This virus is amplifying racial inequities with a disproportionate impact on the Black and Latinx communities, locally as well as nationally. To limit in-person school is to honor the health of the Black and brown community. But without radical thinking and quick action, we risk perpetuating educational inequities. Within hours of the school boards’ votes, affluent parents were forming pods and trying frantically to hire babysitters to home school their kids. If we do not think outside the box, we know what the data will show a year from now. Months of stress, fear and isolation will leave our children in a state of trauma. Educational inequities and achievement gaps will increase exponentially. Black, brown, immigrant and refugee children will be disproportionately affected. School systems, governmental agencies, nonprofits and universities will struggle financially. The coronavirus crisis forces an opportunity to redress long-standing educational inequities.
Today more than ever, we need the 21st-century iteration of the systemic transformations for which Benjamin Tonsler worked. We need the community responsiveness of the Tonsler Park backpack drive, the creativity of citizens coming together to center the needs of those children whom current events threaten the most. Caring for and ensuring a high-quality educational experience must be the responsibility of the entire community, not just the overburdened public school systems. Schools cannot, and should not be asked to, solve a global pandemic whose devastating effects on this country are the fault of a president who is killing democracy and for whom almost no one in Tonsler park voted. Teachers cannot prevent droplets from spreading disease while simultaneously designing robust online or hybrid learning plans that keep children physically safe while ensuring academic engagement and attending to the nutritional, mental health, social and emotional needs that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, particularly in Black, Latinx and low-income communities.
By drawing broadly on the material and social capital available throughout our communities, we can allow schools to focus on what they do best: broadly educating all young people to develop the skills, social emotional competency, knowledge and abilities to contribute to their democratically informed communities. The pandemic should force a collective reimagining of what we want our education system to look like. For the sake of our children and the future of democracy, we must embrace the possibilities.
We can resist the temptation to double down on traditional modes of evaluation and to work instead toward shared aspirational outcomes. Can we redefine assessments, standards of learning and ways to deepen the curriculum for students? Can we imagine a local educational ecology that is culturally responsive and that meets the challenge of our diverse community? Can we move our youth through the trauma of the coronavirus toward a future that reflects our most aspirational aims?
With schools focused on education, communities need to start operating as systems of support for our children, akin to wraparound and cradle-to-career initiatives (a la Harlem Children’s Zone and Promise Neighborhoods models) or out-of-school-time systems (a la Boston and Beyond). Out-of-school programs should be looked to as integral partners with schools. Youth workers, who often have closer ties with communities than classroom teachers and school administrators, can serve as essential supports for teachers in identifying children’s needs and engaging them during a virtual school day. In some communities, including Charlottesville, after-school sites will serve as remote learning spaces, where small cohorts of kids can engage in their online learning and meet with youth workers. To supplement this, physical support youth workers could connect virtually with students in between their class meetings for academic and social emotional support. In addition to program spaces, parks could be used as remote learning and meal centers.
The Readiness Project has rightly pointed out that this moment in time presents an opportunity to change the odds for kids. We must turn those backpacks in Tonsler Park into more than just bandages. We must turn them into life rafts that contain not just colored pencils, notebooks or WiFi hot spots, but the support and capital of an entire community that has dedicated itself to making sure every one of its young people is given the promise of education, which is the foundation of our democracy and what Benjamin Tonsler worked for.