The growing acknowledgement of racial injustice and systemic racism is leading school districts, schools and individual teachers across the nation to examine and, in some cases, change their policies and approaches. Others, however, don’t know where to start or worry their actions will have no impact.

“The work about unpacking equity is scary,” said Daryl Williams, senior education equity specialist at the Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium and doctoral instructor at the University of Phoenix. ”The fears are real, but your presence means you want to be part of the solution.”

Williams said there’s no one right approach to cultural responsiveness and antiracism initiatives in school systems. He does, however, advise superintendents and principals to examine their own racial and cultural beliefs.

“Some superintendents want equity addressed, but they don’t really believe it,” WIlliams said.

He also recommends any action taken by school administrators be inclusive of a larger group including teaches, students, parents and community members. “Equity is a framework that’s universal, and where every student and adult feels valuable,” Williams said.

Education Dive recently spoke with three school systems about their efforts around inclusive and antiracist practices. 

Albemarle School District in Charlottesville, Virginia

In his first speech to staff as the new superintendent of schools for the Albemarle School District in Charlottesville, Virginia, Matthew Haas told educators assembled on Aug. 14, 2018 that they were “tolerant, patient, loving, encouraging, forgiving, supportive, kind, warm and generous.”

Among the praise, however, he told them they needed to do better in one area: “For the most part, our diverse students of color, specifically African American students and Latino students, are not as successful as I believe they can be in Albemarle County Public Schools,” according to a copy of the speech provided by the district.

Haas implored the staff, specifically teachers, to focus on equitable practices. The newly-arrived superintendent’s call to end the “predictive value of race, class, gender, and special capacities” could have been viewed as too aspirational or provocative for a community that just a year before had been the location of a violent white supremacy rally. Instead, school employees broke out into spontaneous applause and did the wave.

They were ready for change.

Since that speech, the district has written, with the help of students, an anti-racism policy in which all staff have been trained in eliminating all forms of racism, including individual and institutional racism. “It’s really changed the climate,” said Phil Giaramita, the district’s strategic communications officer.

Some of the efforts began prior to 2018 and have included instructional, personnel, training and budget changes in efforts to boost the social, emotional and academic outcomes of all students through inclusive practices. “This motivates teachers to think of each student individually,” Giaramita said.

For example, the district no longer has a gifted and talented program. Now, all of its 13,500 students are included in the Talent Development program. “Every student comes to school with a passion for something. It’s our responsibility to identify that,” Giaramita said.

The district has also made a greater push to recruit educators of color, and it has a teacher certification program that coaches educators to identify and overcome their own biases and to view underachievement as an instructional problem rather than a student deficit. The Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) program is a year-long intensive course that requires teachers to document classroom practices and show a positive impact on students’ achievement.

The CRT program has yielded some impressive results. Collectively, the 2017-18 5th grade state reading results showed Black students taught by CRT-certified educators doubled their pass rate, from 50% in 2016-17 to 100%. And the pass rate for students who qualify for special education and were taught by CRT educators increased from 0% to 50% over the same years, according to Giaramita and a district press release.

“What people talked about quietly is now being talked about openly,” Giaramita said.

Gadsden Independent School District in Sunland Park, New Mexico

In Sunland Park, New Mexico, where the Gadsden Independent School District covers 1,200 square miles on the border of Mexico, nearly half of the district’s 13,000 students are English learners, and nearly 100% receive free or reduced-price lunches. Most of the district’s teachers and employees grew up and live in the area located near El Paso, Texas, said Susan Yturralde, the district’s associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional support. 

Although district performance on state assessments is typically higher than state averages, there is a student knowledge gap the district is fighting, Yturralde said. Educators want to better understand their own biases and improve individual student connections by supporting each student’s needs, she added.

Earlier this year, the district established an Equity Council consisting of parents, administrators and students to review a variety of practices, such as attendance, allocation of resources, parental involvement and instructional delivery and see where improvements could be made, she said. 

The district has been more deliberate in purchasing instructional materials representative of its students. For example, the district recently adopted Curriculum Associates’ i-Ready Math, which meets the culturally and linguistically responsive indicators the district looks for, Yturralde said.

“Many of the materials we purchase are in English and Spanish so as to meet the needs of all students in the district,” she said.

Additionally, Gadsden ISD also invited Sharroky Hollie, executive director of the Center for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning, to provide all the district’s employees with self-paced, online professional development courses and follow-up assistance for engaging students and improving learning, said Yturralde, who called the courses “enlightening.”

“We need to recognize we all have biases,” Yturralde said. 

Teachers and administrators are using data-driven approaches to discover where to make alterations in instructional delivery and materials. Although there’s been much progress, the district is taking a slow approach because conversations about cultural bias can be uncomfortable, and because the district wants its efforts to be effective and meaningful, Yturralde said. 

“This is not a one-shot thing. It will take many years,” she said. “Our goal is to provide the best education for all our students.”

Emerson Elementary in Berwyn, Illinois

It’s hard to pinpoint the origin of the equity movement at Emerson Elementary, a K-5 school in Berwyn, Illinois. It happened organically and through many small discussions that grew into a larger mission, said 4th grade teacher Dennis Puhr.

When a core group of teachers approached Principal Jean Suchy about their desire to increase equitable practices, she was supportive. The Berwyn South School District 100 arranged for Ivette Dubiel, the executive director of equity and professional learning at the DuPage Regional Office of Education, to provide professional development to a small group of teachers, Suchy said.

Puhr said the training was “transformative.”

“A lot of people thought they were being inclusive, but we realized to be an antiracist educator, it’s really to be proactive and to take concrete steps in our classroom and school to bring about change that I think our world needs at this time.”

Since that training, the school staff has discussed implicit and explicit biases and the definition of antiracist. Additionally, teachers have been modeling antiracist practices, Puhr said. 

Emerson’s antiracist actions go hand-in-hand with the school’s established responsive classroom approach that gives priority to social and emotional learning at the beginning of the school year, Puhr said. Teachers encourage the school’s 350 students to speak their minds and react in productive ways to what’s going on in the world. For example, students can write letters to members of Congress or raise money to help communities damaged by a hurricane or climate change. 

“We’re here to facilitate the learning process, not to tell them what to do,” he said. “We encourage them to speak up to make their hopes and dreams  not just their hopes and dreams of knowing that 2 plus 2 is 4, but their hopes and dreams of making the world a better place.”

Suchy said the school is also getting more exposure to equity differences through its participation in a Trauma Responsive Schools pilot program with the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

In the classroom, Puhr and other teachers are being more intentional in introducing books and videos representative of different races, genders and abilities. This year, Puhr’s students are studying the U.S.

The lessons revolve around Stripes, the school’s tiger mascot, flying in an airplane to the different states. Puhr has identified Black female pilots to escort Stripes on the trips, and has also invited small business owners of color to talk to his class. During Hispanic Heritage Month, his students studied math and number systems used by the Aztecs. 

“We’re hoping that with gradual changes, our students will realize that their ancestors were great mathematicians and that they can be anything they want to be,” Puhr said.

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