Centering Racial Equity Is Key to Righting Historic Injustices
This blog is part of the series, Education and the Path to Equity, examining issues of education and equity 5 decades after the Kerner Commission issued its seminal report on racial division and disparities in the United States.
As we reflect on the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Report, we must recognize that our educational institutions currently produce exactly what they were created to produce—opportunity gaps. Schools were not designed to adequately address the needs of students of color, nor has there been a legitimate attempt to systemically change the inequities that were illuminated by the report 50 years ago and continue to exist today. In fact, following the progress we made in the 1970s, many effective policies and practices, such as magnet school development and desegregation assistance, were scaled back or eliminated.
Education is a civil rights issue. Children, regardless of race, should be able to freely access the resources and supports necessary to reach their fullest potential. When school districts do not ensure an environment that emotionally and intellectually nurtures students, or when they fail to provide teachers with the professional development needed to support each child, we fail to deliver on the promise of that right.
In the Newburgh Enlarged City School District, leadership recognized that creating truly equitable opportunities was essential to moving the district forward. One early step involved understanding and beginning to address disproportionality in school discipline practices and its negative impact on students of color. Our work in this area began in September 2016 and has several components, including additional staffing at school sites to provide increased student supports and deepen implementation of a social-emotional learning framework; professional development for teachers on restorative and trauma-informed practices and unconscious bias; and a revision of the district’s code of conduct to focus on alternatives to suspension. To date, these efforts have resulted in an overall 5% reduction in suspensions. This work remains a district priority.
In 2017 the district created the position of executive director of equity and access, recognizing that if our school system continues to treat all students equally, we will continue to fail our students of color, students with special needs, English language learners, and students from low-income families. Creating a position focused on equity allowed the district to be very intentional and reflective about the opportunities that we provide all students.
As the first person to hold the position, I am charged with creating systems that will ensure equitable opportunities for all students, regardless of difference. That’s a tall order, but we are laser-focused on understanding and closing gaps in our district. For example, we are mapping school-based resources, such as mental health services and academic intervention services, throughout the district and redesigning systems to redistribute resources to school sites based on student need. Beginning next year, school sites will receive additional funding based on their number of students in at least four key subgroups: students with special needs, English language learners, students from low-income families, and high achievers across all subgroups. This allows the district to be more intentional about how it supports the unique needs of each student group.
Additionally, we are working to close the achievement gap between our students of color and our White students. While the gap is not new, the way in which we address the gap, with innovation, intentional program selection through the lens of equity, and collectively building the cultural proficiency of educators, is new. We are extending our work to collaborate more closely with the individual divisions within the district to ascertain additional needs of our student groups and then create action plans to support each aspect of the equity project from our respective divisions. And, for the first time, we will be releasing a districtwide equity report card, which provides families, staff, and community members with data across a range of indicators. We will publish the report card annually in order to keep our equity work front and center and to hold ourselves accountable for continuing to close gaps in opportunity and outcomes. This process will move down to building-level equity audits to ascertain the level to which schools have made progress toward closing the opportunity gaps.
Conversations about equity cannot be held only at the highest levels of a school district. Eventually, equity must be woven into every single department or division.
This is all important work, but conversations about equity cannot be held only at the highest levels of a school district. Eventually, equity must be woven into every single department or division. Implementing a culturally relevant curriculum and pedagogy within the district requires a collaborative and thoughtful effort. While we may want to move swiftly to purchase literature and put it in the classroom as soon as possible, it’s important to build staff capacity so that they have the knowledge and skills to create a culturally responsive learning environment. This requires understanding the needs of the staff while simultaneously vetting the most appropriate literature and materials to support our students of color.
Measuring the efficacy of this work is a gradual process. And while the Division of Equity and Access utilizes academic outcomes as a measure of progress, we must not ignore the importance of qualitative data that evidences the culture and climate of the school district and enables us to better assess the social-emotional health and safety of our students of color. How do students feel about themselves when they engage in the classroom with their teacher and/or their peers? Do they feel supported? Do they feel included? Do they feel that they can achieve at high levels? Do they believe that we believe in them? Do they know their worth? Utilizing multiple measures to assess progress provides us a better indication of where we're moving as a district and, ultimately, as a society.
Engaging in this work is a collaborative effort. Learning from each other must be a part of the bigger picture goals. In addition to our internal collaborative practices, I was selected, along with colleagues from other districts, to participate in the Racial Equity Leadership Network (RELN). This initiative is supported by the Southern Education Foundation, the National Equity Project, and the Learning Policy Institute and includes professional development opportunities that allow equity leaders from across the country to share ideas and solve problems.
This network includes senior district-level leaders who are all invested in improving student outcomes by focusing on equity. We come together to share ideas, collaborate on equity projects, and—most importantly—discuss equity challenges that we each face within our respective districts. Being a part of this network has helped to affirm my role in changing the world for children of color. It has also helped me to feel less isolated and far more supported, thanks to my colleagues in the RELN. Through this experience, I developed a deeper understanding of the complexity of this work and how integrated each stakeholder within the district must become to embed change fully and systemically within the district.
Participating organizations create the time and space to build professional capacity around racial equity and assist leaders with creating systemic change within our respective districts. They have been vital to expanding my breadth of knowledge of equity, race, racism, and classism. By doing so, we as collective equity warriors have become better able to create systemic change throughout the country. Through this kind of collective action, leaders nationwide can help us shift from conversations about racial equity to concrete actions to achieve it.
Dr. Ebony Green is the Executive Director of Equity and Access within the Newburgh Enlarged City School District. She is also a fellow with the Southern Education Foundation’s Racial Equity Leadership Network.