Maplewood Opinion Schools / Kids South Orange

Baker: Work of Educational Equity and Systemic Change Is Not Easy, But We Must Move Forward

This is an open letter to our community, laying out my perspective on equity in our school district. This letter may seem long, but there is no more important subject than educational equity and I want to do it justice with a full analysis. I appreciate having the opportunity to share this analysis with the SOMA community.

Data presented at the Board of Education meeting this past Monday, October 16, should make members of our school community very concerned, even angry.

In its report describing course level placement data by race, the Administration described the degree to which the Board’s October 2015 Access and Equity (“A&E”) Policy had increased participation by students of color in honors and other advanced courses at Columbia High School and the middle schools.

Overall, the news is not positive. Monday’s report should make us even more resolved to do the deep, hard work of equity and integration that is needed for our schools to become welcoming, supportive and challenging for every child who enters our school doors. I am convinced that with our experienced Interim Superintendent now in place, we can accelerate the day-to-day efforts that are needed to make a real and lasting difference in all of our schools.

It will certainly take more than Board policy to achieve real educational equity, but the A&E policy was a necessary start. In fact, our school district has struggled for decades with the question of levels and disparate treatment of students of color, and over the years there have been segments of our staff at the secondary schools and some parents opposed to change. Even today, there is still denial or opposition in some quarters. Nevertheless, the Board spoke firmly and clearly in adopting the policy and directing that it be implemented. I am determined that we succeed, not just in implementing Access and Equity, but in changing our school culture and making equity sustainable and far-reaching.

On Monday night, we saw that since the A&E policy was adopted two years ago there have been modest gains in the percentage of African American students and other students of color enrolled in higher level courses in middle school math, high school physics, pre-calculus and many Advanced Placement courses; in addition, the lowest level math course (“Level 2”) has been eliminated from 6th to 9th Grade. But these modest gains were dwarfed by the persistent — and corrosive — discriminatory sorting of children that begins with middle school math and then expands into language arts, biology and social studies as students move from middle school to high school.

We in the SOMA community often collectively express our commitment to diversity, but our school district has struggled to move beyond diversity to educational equity:  equity in opportunity, equity in resources, equity in welcome for every student and family, and equity in student outcomes.  The numbers we saw on Monday don’t lie. That is why this report was essential. We need to understand whether specific steps taken have worked — or not. Even more importantly, as a school community we need to grapple with how entrenched the many barriers and biases are in our current structures and practices — including placement processes, curriculum, advisories, guidance, extracurricular and support structures. The culture of low expectations is a powerful impediment to change.

Going back decades, our district adopted and perpetuated policies and instructional practices that sorted students — segmenting them and frequently segregating them.  Our district created hyper-levels and tracks that were not based on students’ true instructional needs, sound pedagogical practice, or a commitment to helping every child achieve his or her fullest potential. Rather, these hyper-levels and tracks were based on a closed mindset where students’ potential was seen as pre-determined, where implicit and at times explicit bias and racism have been tolerated.

These structures were also grounded in the false premise that opportunity should be rationed.  In this hyper-leveled structure, demographic characteristics — including race, socioeconomic status and disability — have too often determined destiny. As a result, students who entered kindergarten on a level playing field in terms of readiness for school have been put on diverging tracks by the early middle school years — with some set on a path to very high achievement, and others, most often students of color, subject to pernicious low expectations and relegated to lower level courses.  This hyper-leveled structure failed teachers as well — making them gatekeepers of opportunity, rather than educators, mentors, and leaders.

For at least three decades, nearly every school board has declared its intention to  “close the Achievement Gap,” ensure “fairness in placement” and so forth.  Over the years, some boards have sought to go deeper — questioning the validity of the policies and practices that have taken hold and seeking to implement more fundamental changes.  But these efforts have met with anxiety, cynicism as to whether fundamental change is possible, and, at times, outright opposition.   Over the past fifteen years, the majority on the school board has swung back and forth — sometimes from one election to the next — from boards that pushed forward for educational equity to boards that have then retrenched. While there have been real steps in the right direction — including the elimination of levels in middle school social studies, science, and language arts — these measures alone have never gone far enough or fast enough, and at times they have been reversed, neglected, or undermined by budget cuts.

Sometime in 2013, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”) notified the school district that it was the subject of an OCR investigation resulting from disparities in achievement that were evidenced by our test scores and other data reported under the federal No Child Left Behind statute.

In October 2014 (just before I was elected), the District signed an agreement (the “Resolution Agreement”) with the OCR, which laid bare these inequities and required the District to act. I ran for the Board because I am committed to racial justice and wanted to put an end to the many inequities I observed as a parent. In the last two years, I have led the Board in adopting the Access and Equity Policy, along with revisions to the Academic Placement policy, the Section 504 policy, and the Transgender Student policy.

This past year, following adoption of these policies, we restructured our budget process to align with this work – to restore high school teaching positions that had been cut, to expand school climate and anti-bias work and to increase student supports. We also revised placement processes, introduced more flexibility and timeliness into the high school scheduling process and began to revise curriculum.  We knew that deeper change was needed and, as the data showed Monday night, removing procedural barriers to higher level courses and these initial implementation steps have not, and cannot alone, remedy systemic issues of inequity and climate that have developed in our schools for decades.

If we are to achieve equity and make our schools into vibrant and welcoming learning communities for every child, we must make our top priority the effort to dismantle structures of segregation, eliminate the many opportunity and resource gaps and fight bias (implicit, institutional, and explicit), whenever and however it manifests.

To dismantle the structures that are perpetuating inequity, we must ensure that, throughout the district, our elementary and middle schools are integrated both racially and socioeconomically, and that students with disabilities are welcomed and supported in district to the fullest extent possible.

We will soon engage with the community and adopt a plan to construct approximately 26 new classrooms and attendant spaces needed to replace 16 deteriorating portables and meet the greatly increased elementary enrollment. In that community discussion, we must articulate a programmatic and organizational model for our elementary and middle schools that will sustain racial and socioeconomic integration, allow every student and family full participation in the life of our schools (including afterschool programs and enrichment activities for which distance, transportation and fee structures can create barriers to entry), and ensure that students with disabilities who are often compelled to seek out-of-district placements can be served in our own schools.

We will not tolerate and must actively, and continuously, combat the internal segregation that exists in our secondary schools and many student programs – the “school within a school” segregation.  This segregation is toxic to all of our students’ wellbeing and to the climate in our secondary schools.  It results not only from segregation at the elementary level, but also from hyper-leveling that begins in middle school math and expands as students move to high school.

It is further exacerbated by the lack of active recruitment and mentoring for students of color in both higher level classes and many extracurricular activities as well as the repeated failure of our schools to recognize and effectively surmount barriers faced by students from economically disadvantaged families — including lack of digital access, unapproved participation fees that continue to exist in athletic and extracurricular programing, and lack of access to academic support after school.  And most damaging are the outdated and/or biased instructional practices that result in low expectations and resulting ineffective engagement by some teachers for students of color.

While we have begun to dismantle hyper-leveling (such as the elimination of Level 2 math in 6th to 9th grades, and the deleveling of three core subjects at the middle schools), we must take this work to scale.  This does not mean the elimination of honors classes or the elimination of Advanced Placement as those who oppose equity have insinuated over the years.  Monday night’s report makes it crystal clear that we must ensure that every child is supported and resourced in elementary school so that they emerge solidly at or above grade level.  We must then intensely focus at the transition points from elementary to middle school and middle to high school to stop segregation from occurring in the first instance, and to then support students in persisting in high level, challenging course work. We need to stake out clear curricular and instructional expectations for all students (for example, taking Algebra in 8th grade) and drive the work in our Central Office and each one of our schools, to support our students in getting there.

Contrary to what opponents of equity assert, I am not talking about doing this so our district can appear to be “politically correct.”  I am talking about our district meeting its legal, moral, and educational obligation to provide every student with an education that will enable them to succeed in life.

Equity will not be achieved unless and until we are honest in acknowledging what has been allowed to happen in our schools, and we make an unequivocal and unwavering commitment to eliminate the many opportunity and resource gaps that hold students back and proactively create a positive, caring climate. I have made that commitment and I am determined to help make this happen.

As an individual Board member, I alone cannot impose or implement any plan of action. However, I have and will continue to push my Board colleagues and our District to adopt measurable goals with clear time frames for:

  • full compliance with the OCR Resolution Agreement and frequent reporting to the community of our efforts;
  • ending hyper-leveling and the tracking that results from hyper-leveling;
  • the full  K-12 curricular and instructional review required by the Access and Equity and Placement Policies as well as the strategic plan;
  • for students who have reached the high school but who are in lower level courses, additional academic resources and supports (whether it is free summer step up or after school support) to allow them to make up the skills deficits that have been the byproduct of the lower level courses in which they have been placed;
  • ensuring through policy, implementation and budgeting that we are eliminating economic barriers to participation in academic and student programs — including sufficient funding to ensure that every student has access to technology, academic support, and extracurricular and enrichment opportunities — including opportunities in STEM and the Arts;
  • strengthening our Guidance Department especially at the High School to ensure that every student and family receives proactive, high quality, informed guidance about opportunities and support within our schools as well as comprehensive, meaningful planning for post-secondary college and career success;
  • expanding programs such as MAC Scholars that have proven track records of success;
  • sustained anti-bias and positive climate work – not only for District staff but our broader community — to ensure that every student feels welcomed, respected, challenged and valued in every building and every classroom;
  • evaluation and supervisory systems that hold adults in our schools accountable for engaging, respecting, and supporting every student in their charge;
  • creation of an ongoing advisory body on equity and climate that consists of community leaders and educators, parents, and students that can provide feedback and assistance and their expertise in developing actionable plans for the district and building leaders;
  • development of age-appropriate climate surveys through which students can share their experiences and recommendations;
  • recognizing and addressing the impact of the pre-K gap that currently exists in our towns due to a lack of affordable, accessible, high quality pre-K for low income and working-class families in our community.

The work of educational equity and systemic change is not easy. And it is not at all comfortable. This work is hard. All of us — our Board, our District Administration, our teaching staff, our families, town officials, and the broader community — can and must propel this work forward, especially when it is hard or uncomfortable. We need to be honest about where we are and why. And we must seize this moment of truth to move forward and create the equitable future we want for our community. Our children deserve nothing less.

Elizabeth Baker is President of the South Orange Maplewood Board of Education and a member of the Board since January 2015.  The views expressed are her own and not a statement on behalf of the Board.

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