We recently had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion on equity in K12 education at the annual iNACOL Symposium, the industry’s leading event for K-12 competency-based, blended and online learning. Experts, practitioners, educators, policymakers and researchers gather annually at this conference to work to transform education. We hosted an in-depth discussion on how three districts are transforming equity to drive the potential of all students. The panelists, equity leaders from districts across the country, shared how their equity initiatives are improving systemic culture, conditions and competencies to raise achievement for all students.
What are the challenges?
The panelists agreed that one of the major challenges of an equity program is communication. According to Diana Marshall, Director of Equity and Student Achievement at San Juan Unified School District, a large suburban district outside Sacramento, California, the Department of Equity has existed at the district for five years, yet there are still people who aren’t aware of its existence. “It can be a challenge creating awareness with teachers and staff members,” said Marshall. “Teachers often share that they don’t feel we are communicating. It’s about over-communication and being okay with having cultural humility to make a mistake and own it.”
Another hurdle can be overcoming unconscious bias. Marshall often hears statements regarding personal biases and a confusion as to the purpose of the equity department with some teachers, staff and fellow administrators. She has a strategy for managing this feedback. She suggests recognizing any personal reactions from those feelings and managing that frustration first, and then determining a plan for disrupting this way of thinking. “It’s important to bring the old conversation into the new conversation about equity, reminding people ‘we’re in this together and it’s a process,” she added.
Additionally, Rashad Slade, Director of Blended Learning at Guilford County Schools, a large district in North Carolina with schools sprawling throughout rural, suburban and urban areas, emphasized the challenge of time. Administrators face many demands on their time and focusing on equity is not always a priority.
Walking the Walk
According to Marshall, the goal is to get to a place in our society when we no longer need a department of equity. To do that she emphasizes that we must figure out how to systemically change the institutional barriers that are stopping us from creating social justice in our systems. Rather than actively supporting the barriers for each system, it’s important to evaluate the system itself. San Juan Unified School District is doing this by working closely with Dr. Luke Wood, San Diego State’s Dean of Distinguished Professor of Education and Dr. Tyrone C. Howard, a professor of education at UCLA, to address the district’s inclusion in a recent report, Capital of Suspensions, examining the racial exclusion of black males in Sacramento County.
Marshall’s team addressed this report by partnering with Dr. Wood and Dr. Howard to understand why suspensions were so high for black males throughout their district and what cultural shifts needed to be implemented to impact change. “As the department of equity, we really evaluated our ‘why,’” she said. “Our purpose is to build a systemic, sustainable culture which is inclusive, empowering, and socially responsible. I live that ‘why’ every day. Every decision I make I base on our ‘why.’” This includes pulling together all of the outside partners the district works with, NCAA, Improve Your Tomorrows, Venturing Program, etc., and meeting regularly to work together and support a positive school culture with students, staff and our leaders. “That doesn’t mean it’s easy,” said Marshall. “We are sitting down with administrators, inviting our community organizations to have tough conversations and challenging dialogues to go deep into trying to change the culture. Our district leaders are now sitting at the table with us and they are making equity a priority at our district.”
Rashad Slade saw an opportunity at Guilford County Schools to focus on equity training through professional development opportunities for teachers. The district is now offering an opportunity for teachers to earn their licensure requirements in a self-paced online course led by fellow teachers. The course was so successful that 150 teachers immediately signed up and they had an additional wait list of 50 teachers. Providing educational opportunities that define what equity means for the district and engaging teachers in a way that was easy for them to absorb, while also earning required professional development credits, was a win/win.
Antoine Hickmann, executive director of Exceptional Student Learning Support, at Broward County Schools, the sixth largest public school in the nation, shared a strategy that his district uses to create inclusive opportunities for students. The district enlists equity liaisons, identifying 300 people, one person at each school, to serve as an equity liaison. Each equity liaison goes through the district’s training platform to complete a 45-hour online course on equity, attend face-to-face training on being culturally responsive, as well as LGBTQ and mental health training. The liaisons participate in the planning for the annual equity conference. The purpose is for each of these equity liaisons to lead the effort within their school to remain socially responsibly and equitably focused.
The Role of Digital Curriculum
At Guildford County Schools, Rashad shared the role of digital curriculum to eradicate gaps and provide equitable access for all students. “We tie everything to our strategic planning,” said Slade. “"At Guilford County Schools one of our strategic planning goals is to eradicate gaps in providing equitable access. We are very excited about our partnership with Apex Learning and how we're using the curriculum to eradicate gaps. We partnered with Apex Learning to provide equitable access to credit recovery courses, Apex Learning Tutorials to remediate learning gaps and Apex Learning Virtual School to provide access to courses that we may not offer at our district."
Each of the panelists agreed that establishing effective systemic equity initiatives and strategically implementing them across the organization is incredibly important for today’s districts. It’s about working together and recognizing our similarities while we celebrate our differences to provide all students with the resources they need to become productive citizens.
We’d love to share more about how we are supporting districts nationwide with the resources they need to prepare students for college and career success. Learn more here: https://www.apexlearning.com/equity.