When Marta Barriga was told by school administrators that her toddler son was being expelled, she was stunned. Barriga said that was the first time she even learned about her 3-year-old’s “aggressive” behavior toward teachers and other students. His behavior supposedly changed, after he returned from winter break and his favorite teaching assistant was no longer there. 

“There’s a lot of guilt and shame and sadness,” Barriga said, as she opened up during a Zoom meeting May 22 to a virtual room packed with parents, educators, researchers and community residents. Her voice wavering, Barriga said she wasn’t sure why her son was acting this way and felt helpless when the school turned her family away. 

“We need to speak up,” Barriga said, her eyes tearing. “We need to help. I don’t know how, but we need to share these stories. “I can’t even blame the program. It’s a matter of resources.” 

Barriga, a member of the bilingual parent advisory committee at Oak Park Elementary School District 97, was one of a few guests who spoke at a panel during the Collaboration for Early Childhood’s inaugural equity summit. The free event aimed to bring people from Oak Park together to discuss what equity means and what it looks like inside the classroom.

As Barriga shared her story, she thought about the struggle to find the right doctor to evaluate her son and to find a new preschool program. Barriga recalled reaching out to developmental specialists and scrambling to make sure those providers were covered by her insurance while juggling her day job. Barriga said she considered herself lucky because she had the financial resources and often leaned on her group of mom friends for emotional support and advice. 

“I can’t give up on my child,” she said. “If he has a sensory disorder, he needs to get the help that he needs because he’s 4 now. What happens when he’s in first grade and [he’s] not able to read or write or stay put?” 

During the panel, Sarai Coba-Rodriguez, an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, also spoke in-depth about her research project, which centered on school expulsion. 

Thousands of preschoolers between 3 and 4 years old are being expelled from school across the nation for what can be seen as normal developmental behavior, including biting, throwing toys or excessive crying, Coba-Rodriguez said. She shared further that students of color are also more likely to face expulsion than their white counterparts. 

Being expelled is “detrimental” for parents and caregivers, as well as students, Coba-Rodriguez said. The entire family loses access to a network of support systems. 

Coba-Rodriguez also noted several factors come into play here when school officials do decide to suspend or expel a student. One example is that educators may have implicit bias. Teachers may not be equipped with the right skills to help handle their students’ behavior. Schools may also not have enough funding to support mental health and social-emotional resources, she said. 

Coba-Rodriguez shared that most of the research on expulsion is written from the perspective of teachers, directors or state policies, but her investigation is founded on families’ experiences.  Coba-Rodriguez and her research partner, Kate Zinsser, are taking a look at what happens to families after their children are thrown out of school and their journey to find new academic opportunities. This is about “access, affordability and quality,” Coba-Rodriguez said. 

Other panelists such as Beronica Puhr of the Oak Park Public Library shared what equity looks like among her staff and the children they serve. Puhr, who manages the library’s middle school services, said she and her colleagues have worked to help families facilitate issues of racism and biases. Some staff members are also trained to hold peace circles, a model used in discussions that often address conflicts, needs and healing for participants. 

“What the young adults are seeing, even as young as 7 years old, 6 years old, the [biases] that started out early [have] seeped into them from their families or even within their school system,” Puhr said. “They are aware of it, and they want to say something about it.” 

As the two-and-a-half-hour event came to a close, keynote speaker Gina Harris offered some of her thoughts. Harris, who is on the Oak Park and River Forest High School board and works at Percy Julian Middle School as a climate and culture coach, shared her screen with the audience and pointed to a slide that depicted many messages and sayings on equity. 

“Anti-racism is a process of unlearning, co-learning, engaging and enacting,” said Harris, as she read one of the messages aloud. 

The only way to end the conversation was to stop talking about action and taking that step – whatever it may be – to further the mission. 

“We are the system. We are it,” she said. “We make it up, and every single thing we do needs to be addressing it. What on an individual basis are you going to do? Whatever board, community, group you ascribe to, [what] are you going to do? How do we support the collaboration and do what we all say we are about?” 

Keynote speaker withdrew, unhappy with police participation

Chief Reynolds also chose to step back from event

The initial plan for the Collaboration for Early Childhood’s first Equity Summit was for it to run for roughly four hours, but a disagreement among speakers cut the event in half. John Borrero, the collaboration’s executive director, said the dissonance that transpired days ahead of the May 22 event served as a tough reminder for all participants that the conversation around equity can be hard.  

One of the original panels sought to explore the importance of equity in early childhood settings and invited community leaders such as Oak Park Police Chief LaDon Reynolds to be part of the discussion. 

Borrero said his organization had learned about the department’s initiatives on equity, especially for young children, and one of the goals for the summit was to bring different people to the table. 

The presence of a police department representative, however, did not sit well with keynote speaker, Akiea “Ki” Gross, founder of Woke Kindergarten. Gross, whose organization hosts anti-racism read alouds and educates youth and families on liberation, felt unsafe with Oak Park police as part of the program and pulled out of the event, Borrero said. Other panelists, including the police department, decided to take a step back from the event, as well, Borrero added. 

“There was nothing for us to do except honor that request,” Borrero said. “We want everyone in this space to feel safe, and that was our goal: to create a place where everyone can speak.” 

In a brief Twitter thread, Gross, a New York-based educator who identifies as an abolitionist, told their followers why they decided to back out of the summit. 

“I cannot align myself w/ [sic] any entity, person or otherwise that thinks p*lice [sic] should be in convo [sic] about early childhood equity for Black & [sic] brown children,” Gross said May 22, the day of the event. “I’m still processing the harm, & [sic] am not in a place to divulge further, but I wanted to share my absence for those who might’ve been attending today. 

“p*lice [sic] are not community helpers. they [sic] have no place in our communities, schools or otherwise. abolition or nothing,” they continued. 

In a written statement, Gross said their beliefs are rooted in “anti-police” and “stand in solidarity with Black and Brown children who are often talked about and for, but rarely ever present to make decisions that directly affect their lives.” 

“We believe that police have no place in our communities, our schools and surely, not on panels at early childhood education summits that claim to center on equity,” they said in the statement. 

Borrero shared that for some people, talking about equity and access to education, resources and opportunities can often be personal and passionate. 

“When people talk about young children, they get emotional. They think about their children,” he said. “People really care about what happens to children in our communities. I think it’s natural that there would be an emotional connection to that topic, and when you have people in the room who are emotionally attached to a topic, I think it lends itself to these kinds of deep conversations.” 

Borrero also believed the event, overall, was still a success and said he does not consider the “dissonance” between some of the panelists as a negative. Borrero said it did not detract from the vision of the summit, as the event continued to move the conversation of equity forward. 

“Everyone who walks into that has a different take and different experience that informs their understanding of equity, and those are what I think are the areas where sometimes people’s differences come out,” he said. 

“We’re really proud that we’re part of this community and proud of the role and the commitment that we’ve seen from the community,” Borrero said, adding that one of the main messages here is the organization will strive to create a safe space for people to talk, learn and build.  

Reynolds could not be immediately reached for comment.

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