Sally Brown describes the importance of her work like this.
“Literacy is the key to all learning,” said Brown, an assistant professor of education. “When there are deficiencies in reading, it impacts all areas of a student and a child’s life.”
McKay Cunningham outlines the importance of his work like this.
“It’s one thing to study and become aware of past policies that created racial inequities,” said Cunningham, who instructs pre-law classes at the College while also working in the High Impact Practices department. “It’s quite another to do something about it.”
Both of the educators at The College of Idaho are leading groups who are working outside the classroom with legislators in the current legislative session to help fix critical shortcomings in law that will eventually impact the entire state of Idaho.
Brown has spent time working with Robin Zikmund of Decoding Dyslexia in Idaho and Idaho Senator Carl Crabtree, among others, to write proposed legislation that would massively upgrade testing and education about dyslexia, a learning disorder that impacts the ability to identify speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words. Brown, who has eight years of classroom experience as a teacher to go along with master’s and doctorate degrees, said Idaho “is the last state to come to the table” when it comes to early testing and identification of children who may have dyslexia. Research shows that as many as one in five students could be directly impacted.
“When I was a teacher, I couldn’t have said, ‘characteristics of dyslexia,’ (in relation to specific students) because I did not have that knowledge at that point in time,” Brown said. “I think that’s how a lot of teachers feel now. It’s why I’m so passionate about this issue.”
Brown and Zikmund connected as members of Idaho’s Special Education Advisory Panel. Both have children who are learning with dyslexia and are helping to lead the charge – helping to write the legislation, testifying before Idaho’s legislature, speaking out publicly – for more help for children and support for educators across Idaho.
Cunningham is leading a team that includes fellow faculty members Rachel Miller and Megan Dixon to research existing housing covenants that have racial restrictions written into them. The restrictions, long since deemed illegal, still appear in the documents.
“The College’s History department, as well as the Anthropology/Sociology department, introduce and analyze some of the causes for racial housing disparities,” Cunningham said. “Government policies, like redlining, and private actions like racial covenants, purposely excluded people of color from the housing market for decades.”
That team of educators and students are researching and locating those covenants. The Executive Director of Intermountain Fair Housing Council, Zoe Ann Olson, became aware of the research team’s work. She connected the team with Idaho Senator Melissa Wintrow. Senator Wintrow convened a diverse group of constituents to draft a law that would allow Idahoans to nullify racial covenants in their property deeds.
“The law will not be very effective without our research. It’s very difficult and can be expensive for a homeowner to research title records to see if their property has a racial covenant,” Cunningham said. “Our research team is doing that work for them. We still have a long way to go. We still need more student researchers. But one thing is clear, our efforts are making a difference.”
Miller’s area of expertise is investigative research. Dixon’s expertise is in GPS mapping. The three educators, along with a team of students, are working together with the plan of publishing their findings, “so Idahoans can see the modern-day effects of these historic racial policies,” according to Cunningham.
The bill being supported by the group’s work went before the Idaho House of Representatives, Judiciary and Rules Committee, this week. It passed unanimously and will now go to the full House for a vote. Then, the final step would be a signature from Governor Brad Little to become law.
Though the work of both groups is being done outside the classroom, the message is being shared inside the classroom as well.
“One hundred percent,” Brown said when asked if this experience can be a teaching tool. “Evidence matters. You need to see what the research is to impact your own teaching. I want students to see the big picture and how this affects their day-to-day teaching.”
And while the teaching tool refers to classwork at the College, the message can resonate well beyond the Caldwell campus.
“It has made their learning a little more holistic on how you fit in society,” Brown concluded. “You can make an impact. You can do advocacy. You can change legislation, and it will, when it is done correctly, move the mark for students.”
The College of Idaho has a 131-year-old legacy of excellence. The College is known for its outstanding academic programs, winning athletics tradition, and history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, and countless business leaders and innovators. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences, and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell, where its proximity both to Boise and to the world-class outdoor activities of southwest Idaho’s mountains and rivers offers unique opportunities for learning beyond the classroom. For more information, visit www.collegeofidaho.edu.