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March 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 6

Reversing Course: Equity-Focused Leadership in Action

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When Charles Sampson took on the superintendency of Freehold Regional High School District in Monmouth County, New Jersey, in 2011, the district had a reputation as high-performing. That reputation was based on a range of outcomes, from results on state assessments and Advanced Placement exams to its number of National Merit finalists. The district is one of the largest in the state, covering 200 square miles and serving more than 11,000 students. It is also uniquely made up of six high schools that draw from seven different K–8 districts.
Despite Freehold Regional's positive reputation, after a look at the numbers, Sampson and his leadership team realized that the aggregate high performance hid pockets of low achievement. Students receiving special education services, Latino and African American students, and economically disadvantaged students were not experiencing the same levels of performance as their peers. Ultimately, the team made these student groups and structural inequities that held them back the focal point for districtwide course restructuring, as well as central office restructuring.
As the team's work got underway, Sampson leaned on his colleagues in the New Jersey Network of Superintendents (NJNS), a Panasonic Foundation effort to support equity-focused instructional leaders. At monthly meetings, he received feedback and support on the difficult work of districtwide change. These conversations informed the district's first steps toward instructional improvement and more equitable opportunities.

Rebooting the Concept of "All Students"

Freehold Regional began by rebooting the district's concept of "all students," which had kept the inequities hidden. The district engaged in a systems approach to moving beyond "big picture" state test scores to identifying individual student needs, strengths, and aspirations. The reboot included a focus on unconventional approaches to data analysis, grounded in the concepts of equity and excellence. This allowed the district to forge a broader understanding of students' access to opportunity. Achievement data became part of a larger blueprint on which the district discovered, listened to, and prioritized what matters most—the students. In 2011, the district embarked on a strategic planning process that engaged thousands of stakeholders to forge a guiding philosophy: All students will explore passions in rigorous coursework.
The district adopted two key practices to center issues of equity: the development of a district-specific metric (the Opportunity Index) and deep analysis of deceleration patterns in course taking among certain groups. These practices, alongside strategies such as detracking, teacher professional development, and the mitigation of structural and cultural barriers to higher-level courses, have pushed Freehold Regional to ensure that all of its students are being academically challenged and that the barometers of performance reflect all students more equitably.

Creating a Sense of Urgency: The Opportunity Index

In districts with histories of high performance, creating a sense of urgency is difficult. Students in such districts whose educational opportunities have been thwarted often make up smaller portions of the overall population and lack powerful advocates for change. So it was critical to ensure that across the district, principals, teachers, and the community understood that pockets of inequitable access and outcomes existed and needed to be addressed.
To do this, the district leadership team developed the Opportunity Index, a visual that features a single number illustrating the over- or under-representation of a disaggregated group of students in a particular experience. This graphic representation of access highlighted participation in AP coursework and specialized programs, such as the district's rigorous Medical Sciences Magnet Program. As data were disaggregated by race/ethnicity, K–8 district, income, and special education status, key patterns of inequity came to light (for an example, see fig. 1).

Figure 1. Representation in Opportunities for Students with Disabilities

To create the Opportunity Index, the district identified key access points, including AP coursework, honors programs, and magnet programs. District leaders then created a formula that compared each group's percentage in the district overall to its percentage in these programs, leading to a number between −10 and 10. The formula calculated the distance between a group's proportion of the population and their proportion of participation in different opportunities. A score of 0 meant the group was equally represented in these opportunities; the closer the index reached −10, the greater the under-representation.
Sampson presented the results to various personnel teams, including the district's principals, superintendents and curriculum leaders from the sending elementary districts, and Freehold's board of education. Many were surprised by the results, while some were expectedly defensive. Others had already identified similar areas of concern and now had data to support their thinking. Sampson encouraged Freehold principals to reflect on critical questions of equity, access, and support, asking "Are we helping or harming our students in particular groups once they come through our doors?" As Elizabeth Higley, a principal in the district, put it, from the start of Sampson's tenure, she and her colleagues were being asked, "What are you going to do to help kids take higher-level classes, give kids more opportunity, and not hold them back?"
The presentation of Opportunity Indexes moved that conversation forward. While this tool was only the first step in Freehold Regional's push toward equity, it quickly accomplished Sampson's first intention: creating a sense of urgency to address systemic inequities.

Changing Students' Course-Taking Trajectories

Recognizing that surface-level accountability metrics fail to fully reflect the depth of school inequities, the leadership team expanded its analysis to students' course-taking trajectories and placements. At first, they made immediate changes to English and social studies offerings, eliminating the lowest-level tracks and creating more heterogeneous classes. The leadership team also eliminated policy barriers, such as a teacher recommendation requirement for placement in an AP course. Finally, the specific work of identifying, placing, and supporting students in courses they would otherwise not have accessed has been embedded in each building principal's annual goal setting.
To measure the impact of these changes, the district began tabulating the number of students moving along the continuum. From 2015–2017, as a result of efforts to eliminate lower-level classes and increase all students' access to rigor, there were more than 500 cases in which students with disabilities moved up into a more rigorous class along the continuum, such as from resource classes to in-class-support classes, from in-class-support classes to general education classes, or from general education to honors and AP classes.
AP participation in particular has been an area of success for Freehold Regional: Within five years, the district nearly doubled its number of students taking AP exams—from 1,540 in 2012 to 2,658 in 2017—despite a declining student population. Additionally, the number of Latino students who took an AP exam increased by 110 percent over this period.
Given that English and social studies are often considered easier to detrack, the decision was not immediately made to detrack mathematics and science. Instead, Freehold's leadership team engaged in a deeper data dive. Their initial findings identified more than 400 divergent pathways a student could take through the district's mathematics curriculum. For students placed in Intermediate Algebra 1, the lowest 9th grade offering, these pathways disproportionately included repetitive, non-rigorous courses that did not adequately prepare students for the state mathematics exam or for minimum college entrance requirements. These students were more likely to take three, not four, years of mathematics; were generally accepted into lower-tier colleges and universities; and were far less likely to take more challenging courses such as Pre-Calculus and Statistics.
Placement within the Intermediate Algebra 1 courses was essentially a condemnation to a fundamentally inferior academic experience for students, and poor students and Latino and African American students were disproportionately recommended for and placed into such courses. As Principal Higley reflected, "If a kid was in Intermediate Algebra, he could never move up."
In analyzing the mathematics data, the district also found that some students decelerated—they went from a more rigorous course in one year to a less rigorous course the next. African American and Latino students, students receiving special education services, and economically disadvantaged students were all more likely to decelerate (see fig. 2).

Figure 2. Students Decelerating in Mathematics

By reversing deceleration, Samson's team recognized, the district would have an immediate positive impact on these students' educational experiences, making them more likely to attend and complete college. The district implemented three key strategies at the onset of this effort. First, they reworked the 9th grade Algebra 1 curriculum to provide more differentiation and in-time support for students, especially those who entered the district's high schools with weaker mathematics skills. Second, and as a result, the district was able to eliminate the lowest level of 9th grade mathematics (Intermediate Algebra), making the general level more heterogeneous and providing professional development on differentiation to teachers in advance of this change. Incoming students with weaker skills now also have the option to enroll in a second, concurrent mathematics class, often taught by their same Algebra I teacher.
Third, the district created a new course for 11th graders to serve as a springboard to more challenging opportunities. This new course targeted students who were caught within the tracked system and more likely to decelerate; it was designed to assist them in passing the state exam and launch them into a more rigorous 12th grade course, such as Statistics. As a result, the district has seen a dramatic drop in math deceleration. (Among students receiving special education services, for instance, deceleration dropped from 72 percent in 2014 to 12 percent in 2017.) Messaging to students about the benefits of the new math options and how the courses would prepare them for college or career pathways also helped. Because students were aware of their options, they were ultimately more likely to enroll in a challenging course.
Moving forward, the district is expanding its use of diagnostics and formative assessments to more effectively target students' areas of need. The mathematics department at each high school is also planning to expand opportunities for 11th and 12th graders, such as coursework in Computer Science. Analyzing course-taking pathways and creating new course sequences will soon extend to the science departments, the final discipline to be addressed in the district's focus on ensuring strong academic opportunities for all.
All teachers will continue to meet in professional learning communities with access to disciplinary consultants to support the transition and help them differentiate math instruction for more heterogeneous groups of students. At the same time, Freehold Regional is attacking areas where subjectivity can weigh in on a student's course taking so that educators' implicit bias does not serve as a barrier to students' access to rigor. They have eliminated the requirement for a teacher recommendation for participation in advanced courses, and administrators and guidance counselors are developing ways to ensure all students are being pushed toward rigor.

What's Next: Enduring Challenges and Unrelenting Focus

The work of dismantling systemic inequities does not come without challenges. In addressing deceleration, the district is focused on capacity—teacher capacity to differentiate, guidance counselor capacity to support students in rigorous course placement, supervisor capacity to measure progress, and principal capacity to maintain a sense of urgency. Principal capacity, for example, is developed through collaborative goal setting with central office teams.
Freehold Regional continues to face articulation challenges in ensuring the preparedness of students coming from seven different sending districts. Sampson meets with the superintendents of these districts regularly to create a more unified curricular experience for students, and close collaboration with the sending districts' 8th grade teachers has enabled Freehold Regional to identify incoming 9th graders who would benefit from additional math support.
Fortunately, Freehold Regional has had limited parental pushback, although other districts have experienced resistance from parents of high-achieving students concerned that eliminating barriers could water down courses. In those cases, districts have an additional political challenge to address. For its part, Freehold believes that because of the supports it has made available to teachers and students, the content and expectations of its advanced courses have not weakened in any way.
Throughout all of this work, creating a sense of urgency can only happen if a district then takes the next steps to identify and address areas of concern. Changing students' course placements can only work if teachers receive the support they need to teach new student groups. Beliefs, policies, practices, access, opportunities, and outcomes are all critical components in a district's approach to equity—and focusing on one without considering the others may lead to perpetuating the status quo or unintended consequences.
Despite the complexity and challenges it faces, Freehold Regional continues working toward its vision with support from teachers, administrators, and the community. As they embark on a new strategic-planning process centered on student ownership and agency, district leaders are heartened by survey data from over 1,500 recent alumni validating their efforts. Prior to opening up access to advanced coursework, Freehold graduates overwhelmingly reported that they had not challenged themselves during their high school years—which they regretted. Today, more graduates are reporting taking advantage of challenging coursework. The district is confident that continuous systems analysis and innovative approaches to data will lead to programmatic changes that prepare students for life beyond graduation—African American and Latino students, economically disadvantaged students, students receiving special education services, all students.

Charles Sampson has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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