Kevin: The Plyler versus Doe Supreme Court decision requires states to educate all undocumented students. This year that number is estimated to be 1.1 million students. What can school districts do to support these students' unique needs? And how has the pandemic affected this vulnerable population? This is "What I Want to Know."
Kevin: Dr. Monica Goldson is the CEO of Prince George's County Public School System, a diverse district that serves more than 136,000 students. She has worked in the district her entire career. Her first job was as a high school math teacher. She moved on to become a principal, chief of operations, and deputy superintendent before being named CEO in 2019. Today, Prince George's County Public Schools has the fourth-largest population of undocumented minors in the country. Monica, welcome to the show.
Monica: Thank you just for even having me here to talk about the place I love, and that's Prince George's County.
Kevin: You have a unique vantage point about Prince George's County, Maryland. You were a student there, an educator, administrator, and now as CEO of Prince George's County Public Schools. You know the county inside and out. I wanna talk to you about a number of things particularly are undocumented students that you serve. But before we do that, you've seen a lot of changes in terms of the demographics and the economics of the county. How do you view the county compared to when you were a student many years ago?
Monica: We've had a 300% increase in our English language learners since 2004.
Monica: 300%. I have a school district I have the opportunity to represent that's 134,000 students, but 28,000 of them are English language learners. We have the highest percentage in the state of Maryland, and our demographics continue to change. Most people would not believe that that is what you would have in Prince George's County, but I'm proud to represent this diverse population of students we have.
Kevin: How do you shield yourself from the rancor and divisiveness and the rhetoric associated with immigration politics?
Monica: First, we make sure that our own policies are policies that are inclusive that allow that inclusivity, and that allows us to say when there are adult issues and the politics gets into play that these are our policies. This is what we follow. And while you may have your own personal opinion about what should take place, or you might have some constituents that even continue to support that belief, we for our district have a set of policies and procedures that we adhere to that allows us to say we're gonna be separate from what you believe.
Kevin: Have you had the federal government put pressure on you about how you interact with these students or make suggestions about the impact of that sort of increase?
Monica: While there has not been direct pressure, it typically shows up around policies, around free and reduced meal applications. So for families who are undocumented, they need meals. We know that. But in order to get those meals so that they're subsidized so they don't have to pay a penny when they come to school for a meal, they have to give some information to the federal government that they don't feel comfortable giving. And so for us, we've begun to subsidize those federal meals with having to pay out of our own operating budget so that those families can still be fed. A child can't learn when they're hungry, and that child didn't ask to be put in a situation where their parents don't feel comfortable sharing their immigration status or their employment status.
Kevin: So, to be clear, the federal government pays for free and reduced lunch and meals, and you do have to fill out information about the students to make sure they qualify. And in your experience because you suspected, you weren't sure that the federal government may use that as a hook to figure out who's here that's undocumented, the county started to supplement those meals rather than force those parents to give up that information. Is that fair?
Monica: That is a fair assessment. Along with adding the parent sense of distrust around how that information may be used. While I can't prove how the information will be used, I can tell you for sure that our immigrant parents don't feel comfortable giving that information, and so then they end up without.
Kevin: That's fascinating. Let's talk about some of your specific programs that you've personally put in place that you need to be commended for. WAMU did a wonderful series about Prince George's County Public Schools and how you have treated the influx of undocumented students. So talk about some of the programs that you really adjusted to make work specifically for that population.
Monica: A lot of our immigrant students join us at the elementary level. And so we started a newcomers program, which really allows us to bring students in in very small groups and to acclimate them into the culture that they're walking into and learn the language at the same time and learning content. And then over time, they begin to progress through the newcomers' program, and we can then have them move into their regular classroom experience with their classmates, knowing a lot more English and content than they came in with. We also started two international high schools where students come in at grade nine, and they don't follow the traditional way that we grade our students. It really is content and competency-based. It allows our students to work through content at their own pace. They have professional school counselors, social advocates, social workers that help them to advocate through their high school experience, and that helps to make sure if they so choose to go into a post-secondary experience at a community college or college level that they're able to do that. And we have found that program has been extremely beneficial to students who were hesitant before because of their desire or concern around getting a Social Security number.
Kevin: Now, you have an entrenched community of long-time Prince George's County citizens. I'm often struck by the fact that many Prince George's County citizens like you, they've been in the county for a while, their parents were in the county for a while. And you have one of the largest school districts in the country. How did your parents, those entrenched ingrained families, react and respond to the influx of undocumented students because, in some places, it can be more dicey than others?
Monica: I won't sugarcoat it. For sure, when we first entered into this large increase of immigrant students, we had to begin to educate our community, and we really did have to share that even in our own school system, our students represent 152 countries and 142 languages. What you can't do is begin to think that you can put students in one box or the other. It's very easy because we fill out many applications where we check off our race, and we just assume that that represents our community, but it doesn't. And we continue to have to educate our community, but at the end of the day, there are children. Children don't ask to be put in the situation they're put in. It is our job to take what we have and to create citizens that are gonna help our community in the long run. For me, those 132,000 students no matter what their demographic background is and what their immigration status is, that's what's key and important to our staff and our students. And that's what we try to foster in our community.
Kevin: How did your engagement with the other parents, how did that take place? I'm imagining a lot of community meetings and school board meetings. Talk a little bit about that.
Monica: Yes. Those are community meetings that are ongoing. We do them in small group communities. We do them whole communities. We sometimes do them through our board meetings. I will meet with organizations, and I spend a lot of time helping to promote those organizations who are also partners to us. I'm a firm believer it takes a village. I can tell you, this pandemic I think has helped to embrace humanity for many people in our community. Clearly, we left March 13th believing that we will be out of school for two weeks. We are now entering month 16 where all of our lives have changed. For many of our families, I can remember when we first closed our doors, the very first thing I thought of is that I have to feed people. I need to make sure that they get fed because they're not in school. And I went to many of those sites. And for their parents, that was their meal, and they were extremely appreciative. I would go to sites, and they would say, "Thank you for giving my child breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It makes it so that all I have to do is worry about myself."
For us in our schools when it was time to distribute laptops, I did a plea to our community, we're not one-to-one yet. At that time, we were not, and so for those families who could afford to allow their child to use their laptop, please do. And we had community members and people who came out and said, "We have multiple laptops in our homes. Let's give them to families." And for our immigrant in Latinx community, many of them literally walked up to facilities to literally get devices from other community members. We are the safe haven for our families, and because of that, we had to open nine parent centers during the pandemic that our parents could go to. So what we learned early on, and we knew about our communities that our Latinx parents believe in brick and mortar. It's hard to navigate the internet system and digital, and we had nine places open where they could go. They could get food. They could get support education-wise, and they could get support even in their homes. And from those experiences, it allowed me to go back to teachers to say, "I'm gonna not only need you when you're doing your lessons live, but I also need you to record." Because in some of those families, those are students who now have had to leave during the school day to help their families make ends meet and would then come in the evening to take those classes in the evening that were taken by their teachers.
Kevin: I would imagine that you had to adjust, supplement, augment your training even for your staff and teachers. Talk a little bit about that.
Monica: Yeah. We have definitely had to change our training for teachers. And while this is not new to us as I shared, our numbers of students have continued to increase since the early 2000s around our student population. We still continue to have to do professional development frequently annually around new strategies and monthly just so that we can keep up with what we can do to support our families. What we're grateful for is even when this pandemic started, we had an opportunity then to go back and train all staff around strategies and supports that typically I think we might have taken for granted. And then at the same time, we still also have to challenge our own thoughts and beliefs. And so I've done two book studies now. The first one was on implicit bias last summer, and this summer was on a book entitled "This Book is Anti-Racist." And it allows us to really hone in on what our own personal beliefs are so that we can begin to look at each person individually and still meet them and support them. And that professional development is one that's priceless is to look within.
Kevin: So let me ask you about the academics. You know, when you run a large district, you talk about diverse, you have diverse academic levels where people start. And again, look, I'm big on let's focus on growth. Let's focus on where they start, you know, not where they are where they may have ended up because, you know, you have many kids who are a couple grades behind or three grades behind. You make up two grades. You may not be a proficiency, but you have shown growth. And for undocumented immigrant students who don't speak English, many of them, and some haven't been in schools for months or years. Talk to me about how the academics are going first with the undocumented students but just generally with what's going on in your district.
Monica: What you just described is exactly what we expect for all of our learners. It is to take them where they are to identify, and we use our own assessments that are generated that are aligned to our content that helps us to then pinpoint and identify what content we need to assist students with. So you and I in our traditional classroom experience, the teacher stood in the front of the classroom, and she taught all 35 kids, and we all picked it up or not. Now you can walk into a classroom, and you can literally see three different types of lessons going on. You may see a teacher teaching a small group, you may see students in another area working on the computers, and then you may also see a third group where a student is leading the work and helping to teach their other student colleagues around the lesson. That is the experience that we want all of our students to be in. And while I know we've had conversations around what that traditional assessment may look like in standardized assessments SAT, ACT, I can talk all day around what that could look like, in our schools, what we do is provide an opportunity to assess where kids are, take them where they are, and then show them that just from us focusing on your needs, you've had some progress. That's truly what our international high school is about. That's what our newcomers' program is about. And that allows our students to feel a sense of pride around tackling and accomplishing a new language. So you can imagine sitting in a classroom and someone teaching us in another language, and at the end of that 30-minute period saying, "I didn't understand a thing that just happened." That's what our immigrant students were experiencing. But if you take that same classroom, and the teacher acknowledges that, "Hey, Monica actually doesn't understand anything I'm saying. So let me in a smaller setting provide her an opportunity to now make connections between content, pictures, and also teach her that in her native language along with her new language," then you see a different progress academically for that child. But it doesn't stop with just us in the schoolhouse. Really, our post-secondary institutions, our universities have to change how we train educators. We continue to provide professional development, but it can't be the traditional way of supporting our teacher leaders as well. We all are I'm sure very strong advocates around increased pay for educators, but it's not the same, and that's because they really are taking on a classroom of 30 different types of learners and giving them exactly what you said, individualized learning. And that takes a special kind of educator to do that.
Kevin: Yeah. I would assume that that also means as you've mentioned and alluded to it before, more professional development. You gotta keep that coming.
Monica: You know, this pandemic allowed us to offer professional development in ways that we never thought of before. We were able to do professional development in the evening, and people could do it from the comforts of their home. It allowed us to tape that professional development and now create a professional development library, which allows our teachers who couldn't participate live to go back on their own time and then to watch the videos and then to still be able to join a professional learning community and embrace and talk about what they learned and then get new strategies that they could utilize in the classroom. It's a way that we thought about doing, but we were too scared to pull the Band-Aid and do it. Now it's happened. We'll never go back to just doing in-person one set time and never taping again.
Kevin: How has this influx of undocumented students and seeing the integration process...you're a lifelong Prince George, and how has that impacted or change your perspective?
Monica: It's changed my perspective a lot. Every child that comes to us has a story. And when you truly take the time to learn that child's story, it allows you then to embrace ways that you can support, not only that child, but their family. I can tell you, early on in my career, I think I looked at children as a group, not individually. I got to know a few students who would say, hey, Miss G, would come up to me after class or as a coach. I would get to know them. But I have learned over time that understanding every child's story allows me to hone in on my why. And I charge every educator to hone in on why they do the job that they do. And when you fully understand each child's plight, it allows you to then begin to support them in ways that you never thought you could and to think outside the box on ways that you can do that in non-traditional ways.
Kevin: So this is what I really wanna know. The pandemic has forced a global reset in all areas of life, even education. So what best practices would you share to peers, other superintendents on how to help educate and integrate undocumented students in their school districts?
Monica: The very first thing I would tell them to do is to look within, and that starts with their own personal policies. Believe it or not, we had policies that existed that kept people out. And many times when we looked at our own data, we realized the people we were keeping out were the ones we said, "Oh, they just don't wanna participate." No, it was us who created a structure that didn't allow them to. So start first with policy. The second is to look at how you spend your money. And we began to look at how we spent our per-pupil expenditure on every child, who they were, how much we spent on each child. It was an eye-opener. It was not a pleasant taste to the palette when we looked at who we were spending a large amount of our money on. And then we truly had to have our own personal conversation about our own beliefs. What is it that we truly believe? Do we believe in educating all, or is it just a banner that's at the front of a school when you walk in? And if we do, what practices do we have to change? It's why we have already created a goal that by 2030, every core content will be taught in Spanish so that our students who come to us can get that content in a language that they learn that they came to us with. We always boast that we want people to be bilingual, but then we turn around and offer courses in just one language unless you're taking a world language course. It has caused us to really do our own deep dive, and in that analysis is when we realized that we also had to do some soul searching and changing of everyone, and that's why we do a book study now. This is the second summer we've done a book study. It is volunteer. I've had a thousand of my closest friends who join me in a book study every week, and we break out into small groups of five out of that thousand. So you can imagine. And those are led by other leaders, teacher leaders, central office that are reading the book at the same time, and we are all being vulnerable around what we came to the table believing and what after the conclusion of reading we're going to change in our actions.
Kevin: Dr. Monica Goldson, you're doing amazing work. Thank you for all you do for the children of your county and state, and thank you for joining the show.
Monica: Thank you for having this true courageous conversation and allowing people to take a time to reflect on their own actions and see how we are embracing our immigrant students.
Kevin: Thank you.
Monica: Thank you.
Kevin: Thanks for joining "What I Want to Know." Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review too. Explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. I also encourage you to join the conversation, and let me know what you want to know using #W-I-W-T-K on social media. That's #W-I-W-T-K on social media. For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining "What I Want to Know."
Dr. Monica Goldson is the CEO of Prince George’s County Public Schools, a diverse school system that serves more than 136,000 students and has the fourth largest population of undocumented minors in the country. She has worked in the district her entire career, starting as a high school math teacher then moving on to become a principal, chief of operations, and deputy superintendent. In 2019, she was named CEO of Prince George’s County Public Schools.
Join the email list
Sign up and get notifications on new What I Want to Know podcast episodes.
Thanks for subscribing!
Check your email to confirm your subscription.
What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.