In the past two years, school districts across the country have been moved to write equity policies or pass resolutions to publicly commit to being a more equitable district. Unfortunately, for some districts, the work stopped there. Now, many community members inside and outside of the district are likely to see the approval as nothing more than a symbolic gesture. But this doesn’t have to be the case.
As an equity officer, I’ve partnered with districts and organizations at many stages of readiness to make their policies a reality. However, no matter where a district is in their quest to become an equitable organization, some key components are necessary in the process.
Have a Common Language and Shared Beliefs
My first step of working with district leaders is to make sure that there’s a common definition of equity they all use and that everyone believes all students can be successful in their school system—especially those who have been minoritized. This coming together is launched by a training where leaders are asked to unpack their own journeys to racial consciousness.
During a training I facilitated in Tennessee, district leaders walked through the cycle of socialization created by Bobbie Harro in order to see the impact of socialization on them growing up and how it manifested in their current leadership roles. This exercise led us into a conversation about what they may consciously and unconsciously be doing that gets in the way of students’ success.
This may look like making quick budget, personnel, and/or transportation decisions without talking to those who are impacted the most by the decision. It could also include not speaking up when you know a new policy or program will be detrimental to a particular group of students. Leaders essentially make decisions on an hourly basis that have a direct impact on students. Focusing inward is fundamental to helping leaders articulate what they actually want the experience of their district to be and motivates them to take on individual and collective responsibility in making it happen. The conversation around shared beliefs doesn’t end with training.
Between and after trainings, I spend a lot of time talking with individual district leaders as they balance their own personal journeys to racial consciousness with being public spokespersons and decision makers in equity work. I often support them in drafting a set of questions that they can use in conversations as well as for personal reflection, such as, “What impact will this decision have on those who are the most minoritized?” or “Whose perspective do we need to hear from before making this decision?” or “How can I ensure equity of voice in every meeting?”
Leverage Acquired Data
I’ve led several districts through a community-centered equity audit that provides districts with actionable data. These audits aren’t just quantitative but also include discussion groups and voices from a variety of stakeholders. With a district in Florida, we leveraged an equity group of over 50 people that included students, community organizations, teachers, and families to lead the audit.
This group grappled with how we’d manage getting input across a very diverse district and ensure that those voices were the ones that weren’t always being asked for feedback. This meant offering focus groups and surveys in multiple languages and having facilitators that were known and respected by the community to ensure honest responses. These facilitators were teachers, principals, parent coordinators, or community liaisons whose role was to connect the school to the community. Once the surveys and focus groups were analyzed along with artifacts, a clear story was being told about the district that couldn’t be ignored.
The story that materialized in the audit wasn’t just about student achievement gaps or lack of access. The compelling story highlighted a systemic issue. The story showed a lack of access for students of color, which was the same as lack of teachers of color, which was the same as lack of access for paraprofessionals of color. These systemic sentiments were shared by a variety of stakeholders across the district. The feedback catapulted the district to create a plan that leveraged the shared data and positioned equity as a top priority.
Craft an Action Plan for Accountability
After data is gathered from an audit, an action planning process can commence. My push to districts is to ensure that they put into place short-term actions that can be easily measured and monitored. When I worked with an education agency in Iowa, small groups brainstormed a variety of next steps based on their data and then narrowed their focus down to one or two high-leverage action steps.
One of those next steps was to create an equity officer position and office. However, before they could do that, they needed clarity and agreement on what the person in the position would be asked to do and how the role would be set up for success (in terms of funding and access to resources). I can’t stress enough how important it is to ensure that the plan is created in collaboration with a cross-section of roles, including community members, teachers, and students.
Each school district and organization will bring its own unique set of challenges—especially if they’re in a community (and/or state) that has been pushing against any work labeled “equity.” However, successful leaders stay focused on the need to serve all students and ensure that they’re academically, emotionally, and socially successful. Once the focus is there, challenges can be seen as opportunities, and the next steps can fall into place.