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February 13, 2020
Vol. 15
No. 11

4 Actions Leaders Can Take for Racial Equity

Over my 17-year career as a teacher and leader in three suburban districts in Connecticut, racial trauma has shown itself almost daily. I have been asked about my race at inappropriate times, complimented on my "coffee with cream" complexion, and forced to put aside my meetings or classes because the school has not planned for parent translators. I have been the only person of color at the table during tense meetings about race and race relations. The implicit and sometimes explicit message with these experiences for people of color is, "You don't belong here." As an equity-minded leader, the message I try to absorb, however, is, "This must change." Over the years, I have honed this mindset into a practice with four focal points—actions any leader can take to make a daily commitment to racial equity.

1. Validate experiences and empower educators to make a change.

Racial inequity requires "right now" change. Students of color can't endure harmful policies and practices while leaders arrive at a perfect plan. I worked in a district where an English teacher took a stand against the "de-facto segregation" of the majority of students of color into remedial English classes. He met with our administrator who in response to the glaring racial imbalance in our course enrollment, was not afraid to change our school's approach to leveling or tracking. We began piloting heterogeneous classes. After a year of success with this new, more equitable approach, we dismantled our lowest-level classes. Our achievement data showed that students who were previously in remedial classes performed well in heterogeneously grouped classes. If educational leaders value equity, their class compositions should proportionately reflect their student population. This change happened because an English teacher noticed disparity and was empowered and supported to do something about it.

2. Complete an equity audit and make diversity the norm, not an option.

When educators show students what is worthy of learning and remembering, students believe them. In 5th grade, I told my teacher that I wanted to be "the first Puerto Rican writer." She laughed and said, "There are already many Puerto Rican writers, so you can't be the first one." I was shocked and asked, "How come we never read them?" A blank stare followed.
Looking at everything through an equity lens is eye-opening. From the walls of the building to the texts students are reading, everything needs an "equity litmus test." To get started, look at your school's policies, practices, curriculum, and even décor and ask:
  1. Who or what is represented?
  2. Who or what is missing?
  3. Whose stories are being told?
  4. Whose voices are silenced?
As an administrator, these questions often frame how I examine everything, including a teacher's lesson. For example, I'll never forget observing an educator teaching Toni Morrison's Beloved. She identified Morrison as "the greatest American writer," and as students finished the novel, she instructed the class to reread its opening. When they were done, she paused as if she had tasted the most decadent dessert. Students sat in wonder and waited. She declared, "That was the perfect opening. Let's discuss why."
Those students (and I) didn't forget their teacher's passion for this great American writer. When Morrison passed away in 2019, I thought of this teacher and so did her students. They reached out to her because they knew she was mourning and because they understood the significance of Morrison's legacy.
Completing an equity audit means diverse stories, materials, and experiences are an essential part of the collective learning culture in our schools. Students should experience authors such as Isabel Allende, Gabriel García Márquez, Alice Walker, Octavia Butler, Esmeralda Santiago, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and many others before they graduate because their voices mirror and expand the variety of cultural and racial identities in a school community.

3. Listen to families.

At a "Dine and Discuss" night, hosted by the Capitol Region Education Council, families and educators came together to talk about the effects of implicit bias on students. A parent panel explained how their children experienced moments of alienation and disconnectedness because of racial bias. They shared that assumptions had been made about their parenting, their neighborhoods, and their children. They described the racial trauma their children had experienced in suburban schools. For almost two hours, over 60 educators from many districts in Connecticut listened to their stories. This evening provided real professional development. It was a sobering, but much-needed, wake-up call.
One of my school districts met with parents of color to present our achievement gap data. From an emotional place, families spoke. One wept about what the achievement gap could mean for her child; one asked why she did not know about this gap sooner; and another seemed defeated. It was the first time I had ever seen district leaders confront the achievement gap with families.
Presenting difficult data to families will never be easy, but all parents need to enter the conversation. When families express feelings of frustration and the data is unpromising, this is when educators should lean in and really listen. Families need to be treated as collaborative partners, and their experiences should guide and shape our action steps as leaders.

4. Empower students to change school culture.

Often, sitting with students is all a leader needs to do to get a pulse on race relations. In one such conversation with my middle school students, many students of color expressed feelings of exclusion. We worked as a team—that included my assistant principal Sue McMahon and social worker Melissa Robinson—to come up with solutions like parent-engagement opportunities, schoolwide advisories, and partnerships with elementary and high school students. Our "Equity Leadership" student group, under the dynamic guidance of teachers Debbie Szabo and Sophie Nuccio, also empowers students to create social change. These student leaders make the school a safe space for all. They stand up for others and address incidents of hatred and bias when they see it. It is a small ripple that we hope to turn into a large wave.

Stay in the Fight

After several high-profile acts of racism involving students in Connecticut schools this year, Connecticut's State Department of Education did not sidestep the issue. In a statement, they reminded educators that, "It is our core responsibility as educators to do everything we can to foster environments that ensure equity, diversity and inclusion." Racial inequity can be overwhelming, but I have been in rooms where educators want to address it head on. Districts who have the resilience to stay in this difficult conversation and act on their values are ones that will always stay ahead of hatred and bias. As leaders, we can carry the torch for equity by sharing the power to change our schools with our colleagues, students, and their families.

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