Taking the First Steps

Embracing practices that advance equity will take multiple resources and an extended effort from school leadership.

Topics: Equity and Diversity

Leading a school community down the long road toward equity can be intimidating. It’s difficult to know the best way to start challenging systems that have been in place for generations. Fortunately, there are resources school leaders can use to adjust the ways in which they lead and exercise more control over the school processes that might have created barriers in the past.

In leading the quest for equity, a great place to start is with yourself. It is crucial for you to be clear and resolute in your belief that this is important work so that you are able to communicate that vision to your stakeholders.

Your rationale might be different from that of your colleagues. You might be aware of inequities in school data and wish to improve outcomes for your students, while others might say that it is an obligation to create and maintain systems that eliminate barriers and ensure that all students have the same access. Neither answer is wrong, but part of your work is to know what’s bringing staff and families to the table.

Listen to Your Community

One of the best ways to identify the needs of the community you serve is to develop avenues for regular, transparent, and open communication with stakeholders. To build trust and relationships with the people you are trying to understand better, you will need to find ways to safely give different groups a voice they might not have had in the past.

You might start with different focus or affinity groups. You could suggest a coffee and chat for parents or a lunch-and-learn with groups of students. Check out the Code Switch podcast for ideas as you work to incorporate a broader variety of historically underrepresented voices.

Learn How You Relate to Race

Part of understanding the challenges in the community you serve is to learn as much as you can about the historical barriers that the underserved face. Then, learn what it means to be an anti-racist to better identify your personal relationship with race and to use these perspectives to inform your journey. Good resources for this effort include the books So You Want to Talk About Race, The Guide for White Women Who Teach Black Boys, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, How to Be an Anti-Racist, and White Fragility.

Whether you come from a place of privilege or not, talking about race can be uncomfortable. It will also be difficult for you to hear criticism about your school or programs—especially if you had no control over those decisions. Don’t let that stop you, though—lean into the discomfort. Read Courageous Conversations About Race if you need support in engaging in meaningful discourse.

Use Data to Drive Next Steps

Quantifiable data can help you and the building leadership team identify a baseline for the work you are launching. An equity audit will give your team data to identify the barriers that currently exist in your school and result in reduced access, engagement, and achievement for students. You can then work that data into actionable steps for a school improvement plan that results in higher levels of achievement.

Many equity audits are available free of charge or at a reasonable cost on the internet; the Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium (maec.org/equity-audit) and Beloved Community offer quality tools. Just as important as the quantitative data will be the stories families and students share with you once they trust you enough to do so. This qualitative data will help you understand the experiences that cause people pain.

In It for the Long Haul

Accept that the journey you are about to embark upon won’t be quick. A few professional development experiences are not going to produce lasting, sustainable change that addresses equity in your school—if it were that simple, we would have done it already. The work you start will likely last well beyond your tenure if it is to succeed.

Don’t let that stop you. The time to begin is today.

Shaun Campbell is associate principal of Evergreen Public Schools in Vancouver, Washington.