Ten ways school boards can champion racial equity
By Pat Savage-Williams
Pat Savage-Williams is the president of the Evanston THSD 202 Board of Education and special education coordinator, SEED facilitator, equity team co-chair and PEG affiliate at New Trier THSD 203, Northfield.
School board members are expected to understand board structure, board functioning, and the board’s role. They are responsible for approving policy decisions that affect the educational environment in many ways. These decisions include how students learn, how students are taught, how learning is measured, how teachers are supported with professional development, how funds are allocated based on district priorities, and how effectively the community at large is engaged around student learning.
If we consider these roles using an equity lens, we quickly understand that unless board members are “on board” with the implementation of racial equity within their school district, there are many opportunities for failure.
All students should have equal access to a high-quality education. As long as race, class, and ethnicity continue to be strong predictors of student achievement, college success, and successful life experiences, school board members must work within their school systems to identify barriers and obstacles to opportunity, interrupt their negative impact, and eliminate persistent disparities in student outcomes. When we look at racial achievement data in our nation, we see disparities in education pervasively across all areas. We must never make excuses for those disparities in our schools or lower our expectations for any students.
Our purpose is to successfully educate all the students who attend our schools — all the children in our community — and implement improvements to address racial disparities. It is essential that we, as school board members, focus our work on racial equity in schools and identify all forms of racial inequity for two reasons:
To increase awareness of systemic barriers that disadvantage students of color.
To encourage and support educators as they seek to adapt instructional and leadership practices to respond more effectively to the needs and aspirations of all the children they serve.
Many school districts and communities across our state and in the country are experiencing a move to raising awareness of equity issues with a particular emphasis on racial equity. The long-term impact of race and racism on student achievement, how instruction is delivered, discipline, resource allocation, etc. is discussed and debated at many different levels. Getting school boards to commit to implementing racial equity work within a school district requires more than finding people with assumed good hearts to serve on the board. Most school board members want to provide opportunities for students and community members. However, securing a real impact on student achievement requires skills, courage, strength, and determination.
Moving the equity work from theory to practice at the board level means that school board members must be willing to craft policies that encompass equity and empower the district to undertake the work of racial equity.
Here are 10 ways school board members can move the district towards racial equity.
1. The school board must have a strong commitment to racial equity.
Members of the school board must be willing to commit to creating a school culture that embraces and implements racial equity practices, with board members holding themselves accountable to progress towards equity.
A key example is Evanston Township High School (ETHS). In 2010, ETHS dramatically changed its curriculum for incoming freshman-year students. ETHS de-tracked freshman humanities classes (English and history) and biology. The goal of this dramatic change was to remove barriers that historically caused the under-representation of students of color in Honors and Advanced Placement (AP) classes. The district believed that students who have access to, and are successful in, highly rigorous courses have greater opportunities to be accepted to, and successful in, colleges and universities. Moreover, they will have a greater likelihood of successful life experiences in general. Since there was so much dialogue regarding these changes, the school board’s public commitment empowered the superintendent to move forward. In the last five years, there has been a 61 percent increase in the number of African American students taking AP courses, with 91 percent of them earning a 3 or higher on the AP exams. There has been a 48 percent increase in the number of Latinx students taking AP courses, with 51 percent earning a 3 or higher on AP exams.
Without the clear commitment of the school board, the superintendent will be unable to make large-scale, systemic changes that will impact the district. The board will need to be solid in its commitment to the importance of racial equity work and endorse the efforts of the superintendent to move forward.
2. Adopt an Equity Statement.
The Equity Statement will serve as a guidepost for the equity work of the district and provide the framework to focus on racial equity at every level. This statement is meant to guide the equity work and is not an actual policy. Samples of the statements ETHS has developed can be found at www.eths.k12.il.us/Page/978 and www.eths.k12.il.us/Page/955.
3. Know your district demographics.
School board members should know the racial demographics of the district — both staff and students. It is necessary for the board to have a level of understanding about the intersection of race and education to make decisions about important district-wide equity initiatives in order to approve the expenditures for the large-scale changes. Data must be disaggregated by race.
School board members should understand the community and relevant demographic data as well, including housing patterns and the history of these housing patterns. They should be able to discern where most people of color live in the community and what schools students of color attend. Data can help school board members discuss and ask questions about achievement patterns: which student groups participate in various programs, the racial make-up of classes, who is in special education, who participates in extracurricular activities and clubs, attendance patterns, graduation rates, and which students are being disciplined most and why. Identify trends that run through the school district and community. Be aware of classes and activities that tend to be comprised of racially homogeneous students.
At this level, try to avoid explaining or excusing why you believe these disparities exist. There are many theories and opinions that you will review, debate, and consider. What truly matters is the board having the determination to address the disparities. Consequently, it is important to have a clear understanding of your district and the breakdown of the experiences of racial groups in your community.
4. School board members must be willing to engage in their own personal journey to expand their knowledge and understanding of issues of race.
The first critical step of this journey is expanding your racial consciousness. Unconscious biases influence institutional and structural racism and impact student learning in school systems. As school board members become aware of their own individual biases, they will reflect upon their personal life experiences. This will equip them to determine how these experiences have shaped those biases and how they have affected interactions with others. They will develop better ability to weigh and consider the perspectives of others. Be ready to share your perspectives and listen thoughtfully and responsibly to colleagues and community members.
Engage in formal training such as Beyond Diversity and SEED. Beyond Diversity is a powerful, two-day seminar designed to help participants understand the impact of race in academic institutions and is sponsored by the Pacific Educational Group. Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity (SEED) is a professional development opportunity designed to create equitable experiences and outcomes for all students and staff. Find and attend workshops on unconscious bias and culturally competent pedagogy in educational institutions. These trainings will provide you with tools to undertake your personal journey and will give you a context and language to engage in courageous conversations about race.
These board trainings should be done as a group with facilitator-led discussions to debrief and follow-up. School board members will be encouraged to challenge the internal and external systems — that have been in place for decades in the district and in the community — that maintain the disparities between students of color and white students. The trainings develop the capacity to systematically change and challenge insensitive policies that serve to impede the success of students of color. It is essential that school board members take the time to engage in ongoing training and courageous conversations about race to deepen their understanding of how the district’s governing body can create a more welcoming and culturally conscious school district.
In addition, consider a book study to help further the school board’s learning about racial impact. A list of suggested titles is below, but it is not an exhaustive list. It is essential to make a point to review relevant literature on institutional racism and class bias in public schools. In addition, attend lectures and find articles that are written about your community, various cultures, and topics around equity to read as a board and discuss at board meetings. It is important for the staff and community to see the board engage in this learning process.
5. Be able to initiate and create structural changes that challenge the status quo and support equity for all.
Look at the areas of disparities within your district with the goal of identifying the structures that hold them together. Finding these disparities will lead you to determine the structures that support these disparities. Because you are considering the history of the district and community, you may be learning about the long trends and decades of patterns set. In addition, some of these patterns have been in place for a long time; therefore it is difficult for many to see them as problematic. Tradition and customs are often named as “reasons” for patterns that usually support racial inequities. In collaboration with the superintendent and within your role as school board member, dream and create a different narrative, a counter-narrative with different outcomes. For example, if your district is separating students by “ability level” in classes, look at the traditions and the outcomes of this. Challenge the policies and practices that maintain and uphold this. Look at where students are separated by race and talk to your superintendent and board colleagues about the impact and outcome of these separations. Consider how to work backward to dismantle the structures that hold this together.
6. As a board, commit to develop goals and policies with a strong equity lens, and identify and dismantle the policies that support the disparities.
Because every student in your district deserves the right to excel, be compelled to assure that all students have an opportunity to achieve. As school board members, we must ensure that students are on track to graduate and attend college and/or pursue successful careers. This accountability to all learners means that we promote high academic standards and outcomes for all, embracing and accommodating differing characteristics of the students, always having high expectations for all students, not just for some. Thus, an equitable education that will increase each student’s academic and functional trajectory to realize college/career readiness and independence should be included in the goals. Striving to eliminate the predictability of academic achievement based upon race should be embedded within the mission, goals, and vision of the district.
7. Fiscal accountability: Change the school budget options to prevent disparities.
Every district is facing challenges and threats that could impact its financial stability. School board members should partner with the superintendent and collaborate with the chief financial officer to assure that equitable resources are allotted for all students. Be certain that all funding, staffing, materials, equipment, facilities, space, school trips, and all other resources are carefully established with an equity-based lens. Highly qualified staff and facilities — including learning environments, technology, and instructional support — should be dispersed with racial equity considerations. The distribution of resources in an equitable and fair manner assures that all learners have equal opportunity to achieve high academic standards. Equitable allocations of resources is paramount to equity in a school district.
8. Be data informed.
Require the superintendent to develop inclusion practices and methods to measure, report, interpret, and analyze data regularly for the purpose of improvement and transparency. Examine data on student academic performance, discipline, attendance, dropout and graduation rates, involvement in extracurricular activities, special education classification, and access to student services. Identify areas of inequity in student success and participation, disaggregating data by race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, disability, and English language proficiency. Develop statistical measures to assess equity in these areas. Remember, the patterns established have been in place for decades if not hundreds of years. It is unlikely that disparities will disappear within a few years.
Recognize and understand the intersection of race, socioeconomics, mobility, gender, and sexual orientation/identity through district data. Determine how you will gain evidence of success, and be willing to make changes or tweaks if the data indicates the need to do so.
9. Develop partnerships and allies to achieve equity.
Communicate clearly throughout the community the district’s strategies and efforts to promote equity, diversity, and a safe environment. Acknowledge challenges and problems where they exist within the district and the history behind the patterns of disparities. Elicit community support for racial equity. Celebrate successes and accomplishments of all students and staff, particularly those who don’t often get the spotlight.
Find a way to focus specifically on programs for parents and guardians of children who are struggling in school, or who are experiencing lower rates of success and participation in school. Reach out to parents who do not typically come to school or speak at meetings. Ask parents how they feel most comfortable connecting with your school and be willing to make changes to meet their needs. It could be that joining the PTA, for example, does not work for all parents. Identify what does work for them. Work with staff to make sure these parents feel they are welcome in school and see the school as working on behalf of their students’ best interests. Promote parent involvement as the cornerstone of students’ success in all facets of school life.
Develop allies by partnering with community organizations such as local universities, faith-based institutions, and city government to promote racial equity in the district. Invite members of these groups to the school for training and other professional development activities to model this work, and encourage other agencies and organizations to implement similar goals and strategies in their organizations.
10. Expect opposition.
Change is difficult and not always welcomed by everyone. Many will engage in vocal discussions and conversations about racial disparities, but proposals for structural and policy changes towards dismantling what has been in place for decades are not often met with universal approval. This can divide a community as there is significant controversy surrounding racial equity work. This does not help the equity-centered school board members or superintendents gain confidence. Board members are elected officials and members of the community. The fact that this controversy is almost exclusively generated by white parents, educators, policymakers, and other community stakeholders, most of whom have never personally engaged in racial equity training, presents another significant challenge.
While it is important to continue engaging with them as community members, employ careful and thoughtful responses and strategies. Listening to their concerns, providing opportunities to share and hear other perspectives, and working to incorporate their thoughts into the plan may transform these critics into supporters.
Most important, do not lose your focus or your resolve to do what is right for all students. Every student deserves to have access to the best opportunities and the best education we can provide in our schools. When our schools are lacking equity, we are obligated to address inequities or we are failing to do our jobs properly. Our students are relying on us to assure equity for them in our schools. That is the purpose of public education.
“Ethics and equity and the principles of justice do not change with the calendar.”
— D. H. Lawrence
Between the World and Me by Ta- Nehisi Coates
Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools by Glenn Singleton
Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools by John Diamond and Amanda Lewis
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving
What Does It Mean To Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy by Robin DiAngelo
Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (20th Century edition) by Beverly Daniel Tatum