It seems as though the events of the past several years are bringing issues of equity to the forefront. It is unfortunate that our students can scan the headlines and see evidence of a society and system that puts their lives in peril. Schools play an important role in helping to shape community values and norms, but have a much more direct impact on the values and norms within their own walls. Many school leaders are asking themselves what they can do to create equitable schools for their students.

Unfortunately, the systems that have created disproportionality and inequity, have been around for a very long time and are deeply seated in our communities, policies, and structures. Today, 16th Street Consulting will provide some guidance to leaders who want to take steps toward a more equitable schooling system.

Social Emotional Learning

A solid place to begin is with social emotional learning (SEL). SEL is about teaching students the skills, knowledge, and behaviors to help them manage their emotions positively and productively. We find beginning with SEL is a particularly strong beginning place because training staff in SEL will help them to develop a stronger sense of empathy for their students, which they will need when dealing with some of the other issues needed to create equitable schools.

Coordinated Services

When creating an equitable school, it is important to recognize that children come to the schoolhouse with lots of different backgrounds, issues, strengths, and difficulties. You will need to carve out some human resource to ensure that students with need are getting the whole-child look that they need, someone to quarterback all the different services that they might need, and to ensure that they are advocated for. Students with disabilities have long had this approach with a Committee on Special education, a School Psychologist, and a Case Manager, and we should recognize the value in it and apply the same principles to other students, as well.

Therapeutic Treatment, not Punishment

Perhaps the most disquieting aspects of our current system of schooling has to do with inequitable discipline practices. Students of color are suspended many times more frequently than white students. The same holds true for students with disabilities. This problem is twofold: first there are issues of bias and prejudice that we will address in the next section, and second the traditional response to problematic behavior is not actually helpful to either the child nor the school community. The evidence on out-of-school suspension is clear in that it does not make schools feel safer nor does it actually reduce violence. Additionally, the consequence of suspension actually makes a student more likely to reoffend. To reduce the likelihood of recidivist behavior, you must depart the punitive ways of typical discipline and use more therapeutic means, like restorative practices.

Critical Lens & Anti-racism

Achieving an equitable school means taking an unvarnished look at the system of inequity that is in place. Only by acknowledging that there are populations of students that are underserved and oppressed by the existing system can you hope to repair or build a new, more equitable system. This means you have to actively look for ways in which populations of students are disadvantaged by the current system, a system that you are the leader of. Be aware of your natural sense of defensiveness, set it aside, and ask others to teach you. If others are unwilling, you can easily find where to begin — a quick examination of your discipline and achievement data will tell you which groups of students are being underserved. Once you demonstrate a genuine commitment to addressing the issues, people will be more willing to help educate you as to what contributes to these results and help you to figure what should be done about them. Remember, solve problems with people, not for people. You have to be willing to confront subtle racist actions and be ready for the disruption that this may cause to your own relationship with colleagues and staff. Oftentimes, people are unaware of the microaggressions and racism they speak and they often react defensively when confronted with it. Be prepared with responses you have practiced, but don’t let your colleagues go unchecked.

Building Systems for Equity

Last, you have to remember that an equitable system cannot be built upon a cult of personality. You need to build system tools that will live on in structure and routine long after you leave. Think deeply about the policies and routines that shape the culture of your school and how they can be reshaped to embed the message of equity every action, every day. Does equity show up, loud and clear, when you walk up to the school, is it evident as the priority in the awards and display cases, is it front and center in your strategic plan, and in your public data reports? Build the tools, change the polices, and embed the practices that say “equity is our priority” and you find that excellence will follow.

The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people, but the silence over that by the good people.

— Martin Luther King Jr. is dedicated to improving organizational effectiveness through equity, focusing on education, health care, and government.