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 Tackling Uncomfortable Topics to Advance Equity in Schools

SDCOE is about supporting students – even if that means having uncomfortable conversations with the adults at their school.

A three-day institute created by an SDCOE leadership coach is helping to facilitate those important discussion and further the County Office's equity work.

Equity is a word we hear more and more often in education. One perspective of educational equity means ensuring every student has the unique supports and opportunities they need to succeed. In order to fulfill the promise of equity, the adults in our systems need to be equipped to recognize and remove barriers that prevent students from reaching their greatest potential.

"Equity is one of our top priorities at the County Office," said County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Paul Gothold. "It is imperative that each student in our care graduates ready to succeed in college, career, and life." The ExEL instititue includes a Privilege Walk activity where participants take a step forward or back based on life experiences

It's not easy to pry up the top layers and uncover the biases on race, gender, ethnicity, religion, and language that have been affecting our school systems, and in many cases denying our students opportunities to fulfill their greatest potential.

"Our students are counting on us to address the barriers that get in the way of their educational success," County Board of Education President Guadalupe González said. 

According to research, no one is exempt from implicit bias. These are attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. Activated involuntarily, without awareness or intentional control, implicit bias can be either positive or negative. Everyone is susceptible, according to the Kirwan Institute at The Ohio State University. Most people don't know they have them and their implicit biases could be different from their stated beliefs and stances.

The Excellence in Equity Leadership (ExEL) institute is moving forward SDCOE's commitment to strengthen equity work internally and in our schools and districts.

"I would absolutely recommend this program to everyone – district leaders, teachers, counselors, and support staff, if possible," said Timothy Dobbins, assistant principal at Los Coches Creek Computer Science and Media Arts Magnet School in Cajon Valley Union School District.

"Very rarely do we get the opportunity to discuss issues of equity in a safe and nurturing environment, where all voices are heard and respected," he said. "Also, the institute provided real strategies to use at our sites, taking the sessions beyond just ideas to actions."

Dr. Jaguanana "Jag" Lathan, an executive leadership coach in Learning and Leadership Services leads a dedicate team that facilitates the institute. 

"It was created to be a safe environment for participants to have courageous conversations, collectively learn, and share their perspectives in a confidential space," she explained. "It's only three days, but the work they do here has a domino effect on their entire system."

The institute begins with a look at equity, implicit bias, and systems thinking. One of the activities is the Privilege Walk (pictured above), where participants start in a line, then take steps forward or back based on their life experiences and opportunities. The exercise helps teams explore equity, privilege and systems of advantage and they begin to see how privilege impacts students positively and negatively.  

Principals, teachers, and other site and district leaders then analyze their own student data. The data can reveal challenges in their system, such as high suspension or low graduation rates.

The information is then examined through the lens of equity by asking questions such as which student group is affected by these outcomes, what is the primary language, and what is the ethnicity of the group most impacted. This is followed by a discussion on how the school system could be contributing to these outcomes and what the teams need to further investigate. Participants then narrow the scope of the work to something they can change in the system. After two days of work, they break for a month.

Juvenile Court and Community Schools (JCCS) instructional coach Sara Matthews attended the first institute.

"There's an expectation in our district that we focus on equity and relationships. There's an urgency to getting our students what they need or we're falling short," she said.

Matthews said her team focused on student performance in English language arts. After the first day, they conducted empathy interviews with teachers and students, looking for examples of when they felt successful or challenged and why.

"The interviews started the conversation and helped move us toward addressing our equity challenges within our sphere of control," she explained.

Dobbins said their equity interviews provided "amazing insight into the lives of our students that could be turned into a more focused plan."

With the data, interviews, and tools to implement an action plan, both participants said the institute has moved their educational equity work forward.

There have been two ExEL institutes with nearly 80 participants from 15 districts. The third institute begins March 1 and there are still a few open spots for interested teams.