Education and Equity
CHS social studies teacher Deb Wiens is no stranger to misfortune.
“My P.E. teacher kept telling me I had to have tennis shoes and I couldn’t tell her ‘my parents don’t have money for tennis shoes.’ We barely had money to eat because we were on a small farm, trying to make a living,” she said. “Every time I would rather take a berating than admit I didn’t have tennis shoes.”
Wiens’ past memories were rekindled when she saw that students, specificallyAfrican-American students, in her classes were in a similar plight — a lack of opportunity and resources that was, and still is, affecting their performance in school.
“It’s like playing baseball with a rubber bat for some of these students,” Wiens said.
II. The District
The School District of Clayton has, collectively, begun to develop new strategies to combat inequities. One person leading the effort is District literacy curriculum coordinator and English teacher Jennifer Sellenriek.
“A lot of our work as educators has to be in understanding the historical underpinnings of a lack of equality,” Sellenriek said. “If we don’t understand where the inequalities come from, sometimes we don’t act on the inequities.”
The District has updated its cohesive Strategic Plan to address the concept of equity. Accordingly, an emphasis on equity has developed as a primary focus in professional learning for faculty members across the district. For Sellenriek, a primary goal is to solidify a collective understanding of the inequities plaguing Clayton and beyond.
“There are few faculty members of color and they shouldn’t be studying inequity or implicit biases in the way I should be. What we’re trying to do as a District is provide a variety of experiences and also provide some like experiences so we can meet individual needs but also make sure we have a solid shared experience,” Sellenriek said.
Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Milena Garganigo spent much of her career as a foreign language teacher, on both the middle school and high school level. Constant was her in-classroom approach to ensuring equity for her students. “I’ve always had this philosophy of fair and equal are not the same thing. Treating people fairly doesn’t mean I’m going to do the exact same thing for everybody. That’s always been my philosophy,” Garganigo said.
For many, the word “equity” has no clear definition. Like Garganigo, School Board President Kristin Redington believes that an understanding of equity must begin with an important distinction from equality.
“What comes to mind when I think equity is making sure that everyone is able to start from the same base point,” Redington said. “So not everybody needs to have the exact same things. Some people need more than others.”
One branch of the District’s focus on equity stems from an understanding of its demographic make-up. As a District with a significant population of African-American students, conversations have been held specifically regarding the opportunity gaps the District creates for certain groups of students.
“What are the opportunity gaps we are creating in the context of our work? What are the things that are happening that we aren’t realizing are happening within our classrooms? In the way that we treat students or different groups of students, or the way we talk to them, or what the things we expect from students?” Garganigo said.
The term “African-American achievement gap” has often been part of the conversation around educational equity, viewed in the lens of race. However, the District has been cautious about the language it uses in these discussions.
“Originally the District began an African-American Achievement Gap Initiative and they’ve been really thoughtful about not calling it that because what we wouldn’t want, unintentionally with our verbiage, is to communicate that this is a problem that was created,owned by African-American students and their families,” Director of Learning Center Carol Lenhoff-Bell said. “So what we did is we switched the term to educational equity and what we should be owning,focusing on is the education — as a District.”
As Lehnhoff-Bell mentioned, the District realizes the importance of being self-critical during the process of addressing inequity. Through the various professional development sessions this year, faculty have been researching the roots of racial inequity and examining the current state of the District.
“[We’re] really talking about some of the strategic laws and strategic policies that were put in place to divide and to create inequity,” Lenhoff-Bell, who has been a leading voice in these conversations, said. “We’re also looking at the data. I think that’s really important and compelling. When you look at the data, it’s rather heartbreaking — both in our district and nationwide — to see the disparity in achievement.”
Research and gaining awareness is only the beginning. Transferring the insight gained from research into practice is requisite for a tangible solution to be made.
The search for tangible solutions is at the heart of many professional development discussions in CHS now that the building is looking at equity audits. Teachers who are further along in this “journey,” as Lenhoff-Belled deemed it, of educational equity, are beginning to do action research to ascertain what changes could be made quickly to better fit the needs of this specific subset of students.
“[We’re] looking at some of the structures that are making inequity and looking how to change that. It’s really personal work too because I’ve maybe contributed to that, but it’s like ‘alright, it’s time to be different,’” Lenhoff-Bell said.
The deliberate nature of the District’s conversations has manifested in specific academic contexts as well. The literacy curriculum has, for example, adopted new texts with a focus on equity in mind.
“Changes in the types of books we put into classroom libraries, like at the elementary schools and even up through the high school. Students are seeing themselves reflected in protagonists in books,” Garganigo said. “If you look at a lot of the books we were reading before, they were dominated by white male characters. And us being much more deliberate about choosing characters of color and successful characters of color.”
A closer inspection of the student experience has yielded a more thorough examination of the way teachers are incorporating technology in their curricula.
“This is the most serious we have been about asking ourselves ‘what in our system is preventing kids from having an even playing field?’ What about the way we hold parent conferences? What if you don’t know – you’re not part of the ‘mama’ network here. And the next day, slots are available but parents are at work. So we’re talking about all those systems, those barriers. And looking at how to take [those barriers] down,” Wiens said.
One of the most prominent barriers, Wiens suggests, is the use of technology in the classroom. As she teaches current issues and government classes, Wiens is constantly making use of students’ access to Internet. These classes are dependent upon research and news, and technology and wifi access greatly increase the efficiency of such tasks.
“Government is constantly changing. It’s revolving and rotating; it’s not like talking about history. Abe Lincoln is Abe Lincoln. That story doesn’t change. Government has to have instant access,” she said.
However, in such a technology-dependant environment, Wiens noticed that some kids were beginning to fall behind. While most of the other students could go home and complete their research or write their papers, these kids could not complete the work due to a lack of resources.
Whether this was a complete absence of sufficient technology in the home or the unreliability of internet, it became obvious that all of these students were not having the same educational opportunities as the majority. Even with teacher accommodations, Wiens believes that there are students that remain at a disadvantage.
“I had one kid who I was trying to help and we were just super rushed. It’s research; you can’t really rush research. I had to print it all before the bus came,” Wiens said. “That’s a huge sacrifice because a Clayton kid or a kid living in the City with Internet can go home and leisurely read through things and save things to their computer, but he didn’t have that opportunity.”
As the world of modern education continues to progress, Wiens is adamant that such inequities need to be addressed with great urgency.
“If all the kids are expected to use and they don’t have that equipment it’s the same as telling a kid ‘sorry. you can’t have a seat in a class, you have to stand.’ ‘You can’t have a textbook, you have to search everything up.’ ‘You can’t have a calculator,’” Wiens said.
Filling the gap that exists in students’ access to technology isn’t so straightforward. The administration is in the process of finding the right solution.
“I can tell you that we had conversations about hotspots. We had conversations about access to wifi outside of the school building. We’ve had conversations and policies on access as far as the filters that are required on computers. So all those things are being thought of right now with the technology department and the committee that’s working on this,” Redington said.
Transition to one-to-one at the high school level next year is one dimension of the District’s approach to closing the gap – to combatting the inequity in access. But the conversation doesn’t end there, Garganigo insists.
“I don’t know if [going to one-to-one] is seen as a solution but I think it’s a step in the right direction,” she said. “When we hand a student a device and say you have 24 hour access to this device, if you don’t have internet access at home or readily available internet access, then what’s the solution the district can come up with? We’re exploring those options right now. There’s a lot of other districts that have done it before us so we can learn from them to be able to figure out some alternatives to provide support to all students.”
Even for students who may have ready access to a computer and/or internet, another obstacle may come in the way. All students and parents are required to digitally sign a “Acceptable Use Policy” before they can use the school computers and access the google suite capabilities. Just recently, the District shut down the accounts of all students who did not have this form filled out. These accounts allow students to access things like google classroom, google docs (where students write essays), google sheets (where students compile data for science classes), google drive (where students store important school documents) and gmail (how students often communicate with teachers).
The decision was not made hastily. Administration and faculty members have been making phone calls, sending emails, and reminding students in-person to get this done. However, 95 students and their families still failed to do so. 51 out of these 95 students are African-American.
For Lenhoff-Bell, who also tries to individualize each child’s learning, it is data like this that undeniably shows an inequity affecting a particular group of students.
“We want to be careful to not lump a group of students because they are all individual so there’s a caution that needs to be put into place if we’re doing this work. If you start to clump together, do we start to stereotype? That’s not what we want to do,” she said. “When I first came to the district, the way to look at this opportunity gap was to look at individual kids and to really be thoughtful about the individual kids and I understood why our district wanted to do that. But I equally understand why now there’s this push to look at the larger [picture] — because when you do look at the data, you see that this is a group and no matter what their background, they’re underperforming.”
III. Student Lens
Kaevon Damous, a junior at CHS, does not have a computer at home. If he wants to get his homework done, he must ask his father to drive him to the city library — which is a 10-20 minute drive from the house.
“Nine times out of ten there is a computer available (in the library). The limit is an hour. I can’t get all of my work done during that time,” Damous said. “Some nights I don’t do the homework because the drive is too much.”
Trying to get the work done in school is an arduous task as well. Damous often goes to the library before school, but his arrival time is generally 8:03 A.M., giving him a mere seven minutes to complete his assignments before the first bell rings.
Even when he goes during lunch, the bustling environment of the library makes it hard for him to focus. Damous recognizes that the quality of his work suffers because of these circumstances. “To get it done, my work is simple even though I have to put in extra effort,” he said. While Damous prefers utilizing the library resources, other students turn to the Learning Center. The Learning Center offers technological and educational support for any student who needs it.
“It’s a place where — when we do look at some of our students who are underperforming — if they have a learning center built into their schedule, this is a place we can individualize their learning and work with their teachers, and families, and maybe them to make some progress in trying to close that opportunity gap,” Lenhoff-Bell said.
Nevertheless, for students like Damous, finding time to visit the Learning Center can be difficult. On top of that is added a hesitancy to ask teachers for help or tell them about their predicament. Damous, for example, has only told one teacher: Wiens. “I don’t ask my teachers because I feel like I can do it on my own and it’s not worth it,” Damous said. However, he is beginning to notice that managing his work completely by himself is an onerous undertaking, and telling teachers about his situation might help relieve that burden.
“In English, we had a Frederick Douglass essay that I didn’t get to get done,” Damous said. “I didn’t tell my English teacher. I don’t know why I didn’t tell him.”
Wiens has also noticed her students’ disinclination to share their situations with her.
“I have to be really careful with how I ask a student whether or not they have capability because it feels painful, it feels insulting,” she said. “They sometimes don’t want to admit it and so that’s really difficult.”
Wiens has been pushing for the one-to-one program for years after teaching several students like Damous. Damous is also hopeful that the implementation of the program next year will help him and other students complete their assignments on time and with better quality.
“Having a Chromebook to take home will be a lot more effective because you won’t have an excuse why you didn’t do your homework,” he said.
As this inequity stems from a myriad of historic policies, making way towards an equitable education in the District and beyond can be likened to a lengthy quest.
Indeed, Lenhoff-Bell calls the path towards this goal a “journey.” She herself has been on this journey for 10 years, but in her eyes, that is nothing.
When you really think about the work needs need to be done, Ten years feels like I’m relatively new on this journey of educational equity. But I feel a huge responsibility to that as an educator, so that’s why I’ve been doing the work,” she said.
As for the District as a whole, educational equity has only recently become a major focus, making it one small step when compared to the entire trip ahead. Garganigo agrees.
“It’s still pretty new for us. It’s not that the issue or that the fact that we need to be thinking about this is new to us; I think we have sort of a newfound energy around it,” she said.