Spotlight: The Center for Educational Opportunity at Albany State University

Kathaleena Monds and Joy S. Jones headshots and Center for Educational Opportunity at Albany State University logo

With many schools across the country returning to in-person learning, we are highlighting this interview with Kathaleena Monds, Ph.D. who holds a doctorate in instructional technology and is the founding director of the Center for Educational Opportunity (CEO). In the interview that follows, Monds and Joy S. Jones, who serves as outreach and program coordinator at CEO, share their thoughts on the educational-opportunity challenges that fragile communities face.

The Center for Educational Opportunity focuses on how equity issues are impacting education. What areas of research are currently top of mind?

Teacher and elementary school girl Monds: A big area of interest for us is the absence of African American male teachers in the classroom. We also consider the concept of proximity to opportunity, especially in rural America. For example, transportation can be a major barrier to opportunity. Another topic is parents’ engagement in their kids’ education. We have a role in generating research findings and need to spread those findings to families that can advocate for change. Finally, given the rise of Black homeschoolers, we are focused on exploring the compelling reasons they choose to homeschool. There is a dearth of research on this growing educational trend.

Jones: We look at the educational ecosystem — from social determinants of health to the families’ living conditions, including housing, employment, food security, public safety and the geography of opportunity. So many of the issues that spurred the Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 persist today. Discrimination is legislated and codified so thoroughly that it is nearly impossible for fragile families to escape poverty and access opportunity. There’s a chasm, not just a gap, especially when you consider that more than one in 10 U.S. children come of age in persistently poor families.

How is the Center thinking about inviting students of color into the teaching profession?

Monds: We partner with researchers on understanding ways to increase the number of male African American teachers and we’re trying to expose students to the profession. Post-Brown v. Board of Education, the unintended consequence of integration was that many people of color lost jobs in education. The issues are bigger than just entering the door — there’s also the role of school boards and superintendents, the doorkeepers who do the hiring and firing. Another issue is that even teachers of color who want to improve the lives of fragile community residents are often voiceless because making change creates the risk of job loss. As we think of tackling education opportunity, it must be from all these angles.

How do some of the cultural elements in a classroom impact educational opportunity?

Jones: Foremost, I would say curriculums are seldom culturally nuanced. Youth often don’t see themselves in the lessons, and the testing instruments that measure their aptitudes are culturally biased. Many schools are described by whether or not the student body receives free lunch and negative assumptions are made about students who simply can’t afford their lunch — they tend to be assigned to low learning-ability groups and seldom have access to advanced study and gifted education.

“People think that poor and genius don’t go together, but if you live in a resource-poor environment, you learn to be resourceful in ways that tap into your genius.”

All of society’s institutions must improve in order for education to improve.

Monds: Labels have these long-standing impacts. Until we can tackle the cultural issues, it will be hard to separate teachers’ perceptions of Black, Brown and poor kids in the classroom from the labels. We are working with a teacher-leader who works to promote racial equity among her peers. Strategies to ensure culturally relevant training practices are implemented and the teaching of critical race theory to teachers is paramount.

“We need teachers who will tap into the unique gifts of all children and who will be compassionate toward all children, not just the ones who look like them.”

This interview originally appeared in our 2020 State of Opportunity in America report.