By Donya Kemp
Principal, Slater Elementary School
Given the national conversation around the failures of our country’s system of education, this may sound a little bit crazy, but I am deeply hopeful about the future of our schools.
We are gradually seeing schools embrace authentic and inquiry-based models of instruction like project-based learning.
We are learning about how to create trauma-informed schools, while maintaining high expectations.
We are hearing teachers lift their voices to be a part of a national conversation, not just about compensation, but about the critical supports our students need and the funding structures that must change to make this possible.
We know that we have an immense amount of work to do, but researchers and practitioners are asking the right questions to make the right changes. We are working harder than we ever have, we are reflecting and adjusting our mindsets, and we are finding the right tools; but there is a dark truth:
Our schools are not equitable.
As a new principal, I have learned that there are many things I don’t have control over. School leaders can’t teach every lesson, call every parent, calm every child, or celebrate every success. We control school budgets, but not school funding structures. We adhere to educational laws, but we don’t write the laws. We teach standards, but we don’t write them.
Still, there is so much we can do to move the school forward until our dream of equity is realized. We aren’t omnipotent, but we are powerful.
INEQUITY IN EDUCATION
After nearly 20 years in education, I have observed that there is one word that can instantly trigger any group of people at any level: equity. Most people would agree that we want to achieve equity in our schools, but educators can feel defeated and attacked, because the minefield of external factors that teachers are expected to navigate becomes more and more difficult each year, especially when you’re expected to produce the same results as any other school no matter how many explosives are planted in your field.
Have you ever looked at the Georgia Social Studies Standards we are required to teach? In grades K-5, there are 46 different white men named, while there are only nine black men named. The inequity doesn’t stop there. There are six white women and four black women named. Only one Latino male is named and zero Latino women. Two Native American men are named and one woman. One Asian male is named but there are zero Asian women and zero Pacific East Islanders, male or female.
When we examine the clear imbalance in our standards, either we believe that contributions important enough to study are predominantly white, or we must admit that this is inequitable. Our standards drive everything we teach and how success is publicly measured, so if we only follow these standards, we are promoting inequity.
This inequity reaches far beyond standards. Although some may assume that high-poverty schools receive more funding than others, a U.S. Department of Education study of nearly 83,000 schools found this to be false. This study determined that “from 42 percent to 46 percent of Title I schools (depending on school grade level) had per-pupil personnel expenditure levels that were below their district’s average for non–Title I schools at the same grade level, and from 19 percent to 24 percent were more than 10 percent below the non–Title I school average” (Heuer & Stullich, 2011).
Additionally, Title I schools are spending more. This study also found that “54 percent to 58 percent of Title I schools had expenditures that were above the non–Title I school average, and 29 percent to 39 percent were more than 10 percent above the non–Title I school average” (Heuer & Stullich, 2011).
The challenges facing our students are real, deeply rooted in the soil of our entire world, and reach far beyond the walls of our schools. The amount of challenges we face, their depth and their severity can be overwhelming for anyone. Educators sacrifice themselves on the front lines of the fight for social justice every day, wondering if we ever really make a difference, if it’s even possible to make a difference.
FIGHTING FOR EQUITY IN TURNAROUND SCHOOLS
In turnaround schools, principals spend a great deal of time with evaluation. You evaluate instruction, protocols, culture, discipline, engagement, partnership, and spending. You know that you must “inspect what you expect.” But this inspection should be centered on a strategic plan to promote and achieve equity.
You evaluate whether a reading curriculum is followed, but don’t spend so much time questioning the diversity and cultural relevance of the texts and instructional tasks. You make sure that lesson plans are turned in, but not necessarily whether cultural relevance is meaningfully and purposefully integrated.
I propose that we consider equity an objective that is just as important to achieve as standardized test scores (actually, it’s much more important).
You have power over resources, both time and money. In turnaround schools, are you using this power effectively?
- How much energy do you put into finding and developing equitable curriculum, especially with the knowledge that standards are clearly unbalanced?
- How much time do you spend addressing the root causes of inequity, as opposed to bandages that never heal?
- How do you engage parents?
- Do you plan events for the convenience of staff, or based on the needs of the community you serve?
- Do you ever ask the community how to best engage with them?
- Do you approach them with respect and dignity, or do you condescend to them, creating an adversarial relationship?
Who do you hire? Who do you choose as leaders? Do you even consider equity and diversity as a worthwhile goal in and of itself?
The National Equity Project asserts that “to achieve equity in education we must develop leaders who can transform our institutions by eliminating inequitable practices and cultivate the unique gifts, talents, and interests of every child so that success and failure are no longer predictable by student identity – racial, cultural, economic, or any other social factor” (National Equity Project, 2020).
LEADING THE WAY AT PURPOSE BUILT SCHOOLS ATLANTA
The good news, however, is that we do not have to be paralyzed by hopelessness or worthlessness. The outside world may sometimes be hostile, but as Purpose Built Schools educators, we dare to keep moving forward because we have a miraculous privilege.
We see the impact of the worst this world has to offer, but we also see the best it has to offer in the bright futures of our students. We get to travel through time as we teach about the past, create the present, and impact the future through the environment we create in our schools. We are powerful beyond measure.
I’m proud to be a part of a team that is committed to this work. A colleague gave me the nickname “Disruptor in Chief,” and I love it.
Any school leader has the capacity to disrupt the narrative of what is possible for education in our country.
We see what other people can’t see. We create what other people have never dreamed of.
We believe that our purpose in this world is to not only disrupt but destroy inequity.
We are crazy enough to believe that our demographic of students can learn in an environment that promotes creativity, authentic problem-solving, and self-expression.
We believe that achievement and opportunity gaps will not only be closed but destroyed.
We believe that we can do this because of the community we serve, not despite it.
This can be scary. It requires courage, vulnerability, transparency, and trust. Yet, we can do hard things, and this can be done. It must be done. It will be done.
Heuer, R., & Stullich, S. (2011).
Comparability of State and Local Expenditures Among Schools Within Districts: A Report From the Study of School-Level Expenditures. Alexandria, VA: U.S. Department of Education.
National Equity Project. (2020, February).
Educational Equity: A Definition. Retrieved from National Equity Project.