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by Sam O'Bryant

When I began working in Memphis in 2012, I arrived during the halfway point of a major investment in teacher effectiveness. While the work was worthy and victories were won, the focus was on making teachers the absolute best they could be. Like most education reform, there was an absence of specific language that spoke about systemic racism and how it supports the school-to-prison pipeline, or the way it diminishes academic achievement for black boys. The teacher credo even spoke of overcoming obstacles. These obstacles were never expressly mentioned, but the assumption is that the obstacle was crippling poverty… which in Memphis is a direct result of historically racialized public policy.

I was allowed to develop a speaker series that spoke purposely on black males and academic achievement. The best approach, as I saw it, was to bring in researchers and practitioners that excelled in this work. In April 2016, I invited Shawn Dove, who serves as the CEO of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, to Memphis. During Shawn’s visit, he gave 5 strategies for advancing black male achievement in cities. Since then, I have reshaped these strategies to focus on racial equity in public school districts and I identified 4 school districts that have done, at least, one of these strategies in furthering their equity work.

Strategy One: Make a Public Declaration Expressing the Need for Equity | DC Public Schools

In January of 2015, then DC Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced a bold, new initiative in the DC Public Schools that called for an investment in Black and Latino male students. Chancellor Henderson made her case by speaking on how the recent, overall success of the district had not impacted the targeted populations of males of color. Henderson noted that Black and Latino males made up almost half of the district’s student population. In this case, the investment was necessary for the good of the entire district.

In order for a public declaration to have the desired impact, it must have, at least, three key elements.  First, the declaration must come from a chief executive. As with this example from DC, the Chancellor of Education and the city’s Mayor spoke on the need for an initiative. Boldness on this level, from a chief executive, shows the importance of the need for equity. Second, the event needs to be an actual event. This declaration cannot be shared in a mass marketing e-mail, Facebook share, or a retweet. There needs to be an actual event with a podium and microphone, seats for an audience, hosted at a location that is easily accessible, and the press needs to be present. Third, the declaration should be followed by a plan of action. Using the example set by DC Public Schools, after the declaration and the reason for the declaration was made, immediately following were plans that spelled out how the district intended to invest in Black and Latino males. Their plans included an all-male school, innovative community grants to foster partnership, and strategic mentoring opportunities.

Strategy Two: Forge Strategic Partnerships | Portland Public Schools

Equity is lonely work, but the advantage to being lonely in the work is that you may stand out and begin to attract other advocates of equity. To avoid the creation of siloes that often comes with community-based work, a school district can establish an equity advisory committee that features representation from philanthropy, non-profit, government, and business sectors. Your community may already have community-based organizations already working on issues of racial equity. The addition of a local government entity, like a school district, may even reignite individual passions and drive the work to the next level.

Portland Public Schools partners with culturally specific organizations to provide family engagement in schools with high culturally diverse populations.  These partnerships supported the educational mission of the district, raised money from the corporate sector, and built a network of community based programs, particularly with people of color, which had historically lacked access to the district’s decision-makers. This work ignited courageous conversations about race, helping connect those isolated communities to the school district. In time, the district drafted a five-year, Racial Equity Plan, which called out race-based disparities in schools, among policies, practices and personnel. With a mission to help minority students achieve their academic potential, the plan worked to boost high school graduation rates, curb its exclusionary discipline, and improve access to high level courses.

Strategy Three: Invest in the Necessary Leadership to Lead Equity-based Work | Jefferson Co. Public Schools (Louisville, KY)

The work of equity in an urban school district should not be treated as a smaller component of a larger department or office. For equity to work within a school district, it must be able to exist in a capacity to impact all policies, procedures, and practices. But to utilize equity to impact policies, procedures, and practices in an urban school district, there must exist capable experienced leadership, versed in best practices, and able to do the heavy lifting required for this emerging work. Equity should function as its own department, complete with an annual budget, vision, mission, and some programmatic activity. The equity leader should also exist in a cabinet-level position, alongside the district’s chief executive. This position would be equal parts academic, community engagement, policy analyst, and social justice advocate. This position should also function as an inside instigator, always seeking continuous improvement via equity.

Dr. John Marshall is one of few district Chief Equity Officers in the nation. To get educators to a place where they can understand and connect with students of color or disadvantaged students, Marshall developed a range of programs. His department publishes a monthly Envision Equity newsletter. In collaboration with the University of Louisville, Marshall created a course to prepare educators for teaching diverse students. Marshall also helps to organize an annual Equity Institute. Earlier in 2017, JCPS approved the creation of an all-male middle school that will feature an afro-centric and multi-cultural curriculum.

Strategy Four: Be Maniacal About the Data. Measure and Promote What Works | Jefferson Co. Public Schools (Louisville, KY)

Academic data is widely used to predict life outcomes for youth. The data shows which students excel and which students have not. Districts also have access to or collect socio-economic data on their students. The data does not always reveal the root causes for subpar performances and colorblind practices in data collection and dissemination does not lend itself toward the proper disaggregation of data. When a district commits to equity, it commits to using data to tell a complete story. The data also shows us where we need to develop a targeted intervention for a targeted population. Data can inform a district’s decision-making when it comes to developing student policy and institutional practices.

JCPS publishes an annual data report, an equity scorecard, that puts the spotlight on equity issues across the district. Some statistics in 2016’s scorecard point to an improvement for targeted students. The proportion of students in extreme-poverty schools, those where at least 81 percent of students come from low-income families, considered career- and college-ready went from 21 to 50 percent from 2013 to 2016. However, the scorecard showed that low-income black students made up 62 percent of district suspensions, while low-income white students made up only 18 percent. Ultimately, the equity scorecard has pushed conversations in the local community and led to the overhaul of disciplinary practices at the school level.

Strategy Five: Sustain the Work | Oakland Unified School District

Often, with the school districts bold enough to focus on equity, the work began with a shelf-life of three to five years. This was, in part, because the work was tied to a grant or philanthropic initiative. The termed shelf life can also be attributed to the way school districts tend to categorize potential programs that aren’t already included in the day to day operation of a school district.

OUSD implemented its African-American Male Achievement (AAMA) program in 2010.  This program addresses the marginalization of African American male students and provide targeted supports to uplift achievement and graduation rates across the district. The AAMA program has achieved nationwide recognition as a replicable model for dismantling barriers to achievement. OUSD now has an implementation of the District’s Equity Policy and efforts to help the district better initiate and align efforts to educate African American, Latino, English Language Learner, Newcomers, LGBTQ and Special Education students. The equity framework of OUSD is embedded in everything from hiring and budgeting to aligning instructional approaches to ensure rigorous standards are met. They use an equity lens when analyzing student outcomes, developing professional learning experiences, and reviewing financial allocations.

In promoting racial equity in a school district, people will be understandably hesitant to publicly announce that they are going to help one group while seemingly ignoring all the others. However, if we are going to close any achievement gaps and disrupt the school to prison pipeline, we need to take into consideration the treacherous circumstance of their state of affairs. For many school districts, this is a new challenge that requires new thinking. Quick victories are possible if they are aligned with or intersect with existing efforts. Thinking intentionally about racial equity in public education offers the chance to go beyond 3 to 5 year programmatic efforts and move towards a sustained effort that disrupts the status quo.

Embracing racial equity, in policy, practice, and procedure, in our urban school districts is our first step toward remaking the American dream a reality and making that dream accessible and available for all of us.

Sam O’Bryant currently serves at the Senior Director for Equity & Partnerships at SchoolSeed Foundation. Sam is a graduate of Alcorn State University and is an advocate of historically black colleges and universities. Sam is a husband, a dad, and a graduate student.