Together for Equity
4 Ways School System Leaders Are Addressing Equity
Educating all our young people for the future they imagine is our greatest collective responsibility. Reaching this vision requires specific work from all of us. So, what is the role for school system leaders?
Leading Educators’ new action guide Teaching for Equity calls out school and system-level resources as the foundation for transformative classroom practice. Though there is no greater influence on students’ opportunities than their teachers, we recognize that the priorities, supports, leadership, and other conditions around teachers are hugely consequential. Recently, we convened a panel of four amazing leaders who have been in the work to hear what they are trying—especially in light of the pandemic—and learn how they think we can all move forward for equity together.
Meet the Leaders
- Yesenia Sánchez is the Chief Academic Officer at North Chicago CUSD 187. She was previously the director of ELL/Bilingual and Title I Programs for the district, spearheading the development of a two-way immersion program. Under her leadership, new curriculum has been developed to serve the district’s culturally and linguistically diverse student population. She has also managed and led professional learning communities, guided district-wide professional development initiatives, and managed parent outreach programs.
- Jackie Haynes is the Executive Director of Acceleration Schools for Charleston County School District. Within districts, she has been the architect of a range of efforts to strengthen teacher support and instructional quality. Jackie’s achievements include developing a school turnaround framework for Hillsborough County Public Schools, directing a university partnership for leaders in education, and overseeing the improvement of 50 schools to meet Florida’s rating system. She has overseen implementation of strategic plans for improving leadership, instructional infrastructure, talent management, climate and culture, and equity initiatives.
- Janise Lane is the Executive Director of Teaching and Learning at Baltimore City Public Schools. Janise supervises all core content areas, as well as the areas of early learning, differentiated learning, specialized learning, and instructional technology. Previously, Janise served the district as the director of literacy and as leader in the district’s school support networks. She is a known advocate for high-quality curricular materials and teacher professional learning, often writing and speaking on behalf of Curriculum Matters.
- Dr. Tom Shepley is the Chief Academic Officer for FirstLine Schools in New Orleans and the network’s previous Executive Director of Leadership Development. He began his career as a 1992 Teach for America corps member, teaching in Baltimore City and later in Detroit. He later returned to Baltimore to serve as a principal for five years during which his school closed the achievement gap and raised math scores in the primary grades by nearly 30%. During his last year as principal, the school had the highest reading achievement in the city.
Over an hour, we touched on several timely topics tied to advancing education equity at scale. To watch the entire conversation, scroll to the video at the bottom of the article.
Equity Efforts Must Be Rooted in Self-Reflection
For all our panelists, formative experiences shaped how they think about equity in their personal and professional lives. Each reflected on key moments that helped them realize the importance of their identities, see ways in which the status quo works against marginalized students, and to interrogate their leadership.
Mrs. Sánchez recalled how her parents enrolling her in bilingual education in elementary school ignited her passion for serving linguistically diverse students.
She shares, “After I finished second grade, we moved to the north side of town, and I was enrolled in a school that didn’t offer bilingual education. I remember coming home from school in third grade, just crying because I didn’t understand my teachers. I couldn’t talk with any of the other students. And I think that’s kind of what set me off on this education journey…I didn’t want students to ever experience what I had experienced as a child.”
For Ms. Haynes, moving from a suburban school to a principalship at a school in the inner city of Tampa illuminated vast differences in the opportunities Black and Latino students had in an urban context. “I saw the inequities just as plain as day,” she reflects. “Walking down the hallway [I saw] that students separated into honors classes and AP classes were my white students, and then Black students were in all the remedial classes.” She continues, “At that moment, that time receiving a position, I had to shift my thinking, knowing that we could do better by the students that I was going to serve for the next 10 to 12 years at Howard W. Blake High School.”
Ms. Lane saw some of those differences as a high school student when she decided that she was no longer going to attend the closest area school and moved into the city to be around a more diverse group of students and teachers. She says it was an opportunity to really learn about the different mindsets that people bring to their own being. “Just doing that own self-analysis of ‘where do I fit in that?’ ‘where does everybody fit together?’ really has always been a priority of my continuous improvement work, continuous learning work.”
She sees a connection from those experiences to Baltimore City Public Schools’ adoption of an equity policy. Enacted in 2019, it specifically calls out racial equity which has led to greater conversation and planning about the resources and spaces that students of color receive. Ms. Lane explains, “In my leadership, that’s where I lead from—a space of inquiry to really try to understand people’s mindset, their bias, and be really transparent that we all bring bias, and that bias sometimes comes from our experience, from our own history.”
Like the other leaders, educational equity was what inspired Dr. Shepley to go into education 30 years ago. He reflects on how his awareness immediately had to become intersectional. “When I became a teacher and a leader, I think the first thing that really struck me was my identity as a male. Being an elementary teacher, it was oftentimes me and the gym teacher. So, having the privilege and the time to work in a mostly female setting…that’s a unique experience particularly for a man my age and for men in general.” He says he has also had to work to understand his whiteness to show up for other people. “The vast majority of folks that I lead are people of color, and so if I lead as a learner, I can both do my best to model [continuous awareness building] but also learn to be a better leader.”
The Pandemic Has Put a Sharper Focus on Well-Being and Wholeness
One year into the pandemic, some of the initial challenges around technology access, getting in touch with families, and maintaining engagement persist, but the leaders say they are trying to keep a sharp focus on well-being and finding opportunities for flexibility. In unique ways, they are all thinking about opportunities to reimagine how their school systems operate.
Mrs. Sánchez shares that the pandemic ramped up conversations that were already happening within North Chicago about equity and cultural responsiveness. She says, “Prior to the pandemic we had started to look at culturally relevant classroom libraries and fusing some of the social justice [elements] into our literacy curricula…those inequities have risen to the top and I think we are very well aware of what that looks like in our system now.” North Chicago has seen increased challenges for high school students who have had to support their families. “They’re taking on full time jobs, and so how are we making our system flexible so that they can do what they need to do at school?”
From Ms. Lane’s perspective, it is critical that curriculum sits at the center of schools’ reentry interventions, but that is not all that needs to happen. “Don’t make assumptions that kids need x, y, z. Instead, we should lead from a space of rigor of what every student deserves.” She continues, “The [social and emotional] work is not just for students, but for our teachers as well…I think it’s a remarkable time for us as leaders to step out of our own, you know, privilege and space and really listen to the folks who have led through up and pandemic. Those are our principals and our teachers. I’ve never had to teach kids as ‘zoomies’ and ‘roomies’ at the same time, but our teachers have; [we need to be] able to elevate their voice to drive our work, not just in feedback, but really in driving, what is the strategy ahead?”
Dr. Shepley mentions that a whole child approach has always been the focus at FirstLine Schools, but the pandemic has made it harder for teachers to find balance. He says, “Our vision of a great school is educating students in mind, body and spirit It’s been a huge load for our teachers to try and keep that in mind during this time and balance all of their needs and all of our students’ needs.” One aspect of that focus on body and spirit is an “edible schoolyard”. FirstLine has beliefs around the food that they present to children and the exercise that students experience, but school closures made those programs more difficult to maintain.
To connect instruction itself more deeply to students’ lives, Dr. Shepley also sees an opportunity to interrogate social studies and the way schools teach history.
“I think a revelation has been that we’ve worked hard on, let’s say, our ELA curriculum to make sure we have windows and mirrors and to make sure that our students will see themselves but also see outside of their world. But I think our social studies standards have been so bad for so long here in Louisiana, and we haven’t done anything about it. We’ve sat by and taught history that doesn’t serve our children well, and it’s really caused us to say, ‘What are we going to do about it?’ both in our organization—how are we going to change immediately? how are we going to change what we teach?—but also as part of a larger movement in Louisiana to change our standards so that, if we have materials that are aligned to the standards, they’re actually teaching our students their history and the deserved history that they should have as Americans.”
Leaders Are Experimenting with New Ways to Be Responsive
Each of the leaders is focused on giving students greater access to strong, grade-appropriate content. They also realize that how we teach will need to be more adaptive into the next year. That is both a challenge and a chance to get creative.
Right now, North Chicago is thinking about how to build capacity for whole child approaches among staff. Mrs. Sánchez says, “It’s going to be a steep, steep ride ahead of us, but we’re thinking about how we can get resources in the hands of teachers and get those folks who are ready for it and willing to do the work to kind of be our equity champions to start moving that needle in their classrooms and in their schools.”
She hopes this next year will also be an opportunity to build stronger relationships with Latinx families. “We are seeing a tremendous reluctance from our Latinx families to send their kids back to school,” she reflects. “Because we know that the majority of them need to be in school, especially at the lower levels—pre-K, K-1, K-2—so we can get those foundational skills, we have to really look at our communication strategy work with our principals in our buildings and teachers to find ways that we can connect with our families.”’
Ms. Haynes named a few ways her district is thinking about bolstering teacher capacity. “[We’re] adding in tutorial components during the day and looking at innovative practices for how we can extend the teacher day. And what’s been exciting about Leading Educators is that our teachers are begging for PLC time. I did a survey with my schools and I asked for ideas…extending the time in their day to collaborate and do PLCs is in their top priorities since Leading Educators has come into our district. So, that is something that we’re looking at doing and are implementing in our 14 Acceleration Schools.”
In Baltimore as in many other places, engagement and maintaining communication with families has been a focus. Ms. Lane shares, “We had initiatives to really reach out and find each student…so we can really connect students to adults. When a student isn’t available for learning, we know the why behind that.” The district is also considering flexible staffing options to offer more personalized learning. “Whether that’s an adult to every five or six students, those are some things that we’re investigating and thinking about for summer, so that not only does the school hold that as a responsibility, but it’s a district wide responsibility,” she says. Family input has been a necessary part of the process. “Our CEO held regular family, community forums, and different ways to be able to track each and every student to make sure that they have what they need to be successful, and I think that is something that we want to continue to focus on and improve.”
Dr. Shepley acknowledges that schools pulled off a tremendous feat this year to keep students connected, and he sees an opportunity for the network office to provide even more support to teachers. He reflects:
“The other thing I think that we have not been successful at—and that’s why I’m just so happy that any student who wants to come back can come back full time now—is the instruction for our K-2 students. Again, our teachers taught their hearts out. They were jumping all over the place on camera to try and make sure kids could learn to read and have all the activity for phonemic awareness and phonics, but it just was such a struggle…I don’t know what the answer was, but I know that as I look at experience our K-2 kids had, it wasn’t strong enough for them. And it wasn’t because our teachers weren’t trying…. So, that’s an opportunity we are definitely going to start making up for now that our students are back.”
Partnerships Will Be Critical to Building Back Better
Our work at Leading Educators is about building on the strengths of our partners, using the tools and resources we have to help them move closer to their goals in a sustainable way. With a once-in-a-generation influx of federal resources headed toward school systems through the American Rescue Plan Act, collective work of this type will be necessary for reimagining the social infrastructure around students. Looking ahead to next year, lessons learned from community partnerships are top of mind for the leaders.
Mrs. Sánchez says, “We have started to look at buckets. And one of them is instructional time, different time, additional time. So, we’re thinking adding instructional days to the year, Saturday programming, after school programming, summer school opportunities, and enrichment opportunities for our students. And I think that Leading Educators is a great partner to help with that instructional quality time. That’s what we’ve worked with Leading Educators on for the past several years—just really developing that capacity of our teachers with [deep] content knowledge. Leading Educators does such a great job of weaving in that equity piece into that work, so that teachers develop a lens for both as they’re learning and improving.”
Ms. Haynes agrees with the caution to avoid false choices between content and equity in planning for next year. She says, “In Charleston, we’re doing the same thing and adding in tutorial components during the day, looking at innovative practices for how we can extend the teacher day and tutoring.” She shares that have partners has helped her to think about how to prioritize when band with is limited. “I want to do a shout out to my group: Michael Freeland, who is over our group, and Kim [Levengood Andrews] and [Emily Schriber]. Just being able to call them just yesterday—I’m calling Michael like, ‘I need help with algebra one.’ And then he tells me what we are doing K-8. And I’m like, ‘Well, we might go to 9th grade Algebra 1.’ So, just having that resource with Leading Educators is phenomenal. We have seen the growth of our teachers. I’m seeing the growth, even in myself, on how to make sure that our teachers are understanding those shifts, from math and for ELA.”
She continues, naming that “learning loss” or “unfinished learning” are very real factors that are weighing on their choices. She explains:
“We definitely are thinking about intervention and tutoring, but sort of as a fact of equity as well. And this is something I think Leading Educators does well—we can’t lose sight of the strong implementation of our core curriculum, that is on grade level and that helps students to access those things. What I think a lot about is what is the partnership that needs to take place before, during, and after school with teachers and leaders to ensure that that we don’t lose sight of that, while we’re also investing this time and effort in intervention.”
Ms. Haynes adds that there are many strengths to build from across Acceleration Schools.
“We’ve had a long term, focus on SEL that we want to grow and make stronger. To be straightforward, we’ve just recently offered every student who wanted to come back in the last couple of weeks [the opportunity to do so]. And the stress and trauma that our kids have faced is evident, right? It is transparent, more so now than ever. And we’re going to need to think more carefully. Beyond our current commitment, what else needs to be true for our teachers to definitely hold and bring all of our children back and see them as whole children?”
Ms. Lane closed this thread emphasizing that the time and intentionality for teacher learning is still crucial. “As important as it is for our students, it is important for our central office teams to continue to learn—for our teacher teams to continue to learn to utilize those practices, like looking at student work and providing feedback. What does that uncover? And what does that show in the learning that’s happening both at district level and at school level so that we can be responsive? I think one of the hardest things when buckets of money come is that there’s usually a tie to them and a timeline. One of the things that I most appreciate about our partnership with Leading Educators, is the time and space to think about those priorities and keep them at the forefront of what we’re doing—not come up with 62 new priorities.”
She adds that a one-size-fits all approach will not work. She sees a place for partners to help.
“My most favorite thing when we’re working with Leading Educators is there’s always options. You know, teachers are figuring out how to teach in two different modalities. At the same time, how are some schools differentiating that schedule based upon the size? We don’t want to just do the same things we’ve done over and over again but really think, ‘are they getting us results?’ How do we tie that to how we [do professional learning]? In that same forum, we’ve done a lot of attraction work to get teachers of color. We want to retain our teachers, so we really have to put that energy back into the wholeness that started this conversation. There are some real through lines we can hold ourselves accountable for.”
What thinking is emerging in your school or district?
There are many opportunities right now for school and school system leaders to guide their teams toward stronger opportunities for students to learn. We encourage you to reflect and consider the strengths you could build upon (check out our action center for more ideas). We offer the following prompts taken directly from this dialogue that you can use to start conversations with your team and your stakeholders.
- How does your identity shape your leadership and your priorities for next year?
- How do you currently think about tending to the wholeness of children, anti-racism and culture, and strong academics in a coherent way? How has that changed or become clearer in light of the pandemic?
- In physical reopening, relationships really matter. If you think about building relationships in this past year, what was the biggest missed opportunity? How are you planning to address it?
- What is one strength and one growth area you see in your system? How do teacher practice, curriculum, and professional learning fit into your vision for improvement?
- What is one way you are thinking about using new federal funding for transformation? How can partners like Leading Educators support you?
Let us know what comes up for you and how we can help. That’s what will make this moment a movement.