Equity Matters: Preparing for the New School Year

Three bold actions for school leaders as they transition their learning community back to the physical school building this fall and focus on students disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
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Hal Harris

“Only 41 percent of our students of color are reading at benchmark. Seventy percent of our white students are,” a principal noted about the current state of instructional excellence in her building.  

This leader was a relatively new principal and a participant in our Summer Virtual Leadership Academy (VLA). She was also having trouble rallying her team around ensuring the success of her school’s Black and Brown students. A fellow principal in her VLA group asked for more details about the composition of her instructional leaders. Her instructional leadership team (ILT) was made up of all white women, like her. During a recent retreat with her team, she noticed that they were resistant to creating performance goals specifically around improving the performance of their students of color.

“The team kept on coming back to ‘if we write a goal to ensure that 73 percent of our students of color are reading at grade level,’ that focuses specifically on people of color. We are not writing a goal for all students, only some,” she said.

Her team was struggling with prioritizing resources and expertise toward the Black and Brown students who needed to learn the most. They were profoundly uncomfortable with the reality that race determined a student’s educational journey within their learning community. This principal’s ILT was grappling with the inequitable truth that they were more effective in educating their white students than their Black or Brown ones.

The principal realized that the lack of diversity on her team was impacting her ability to help them go through the adaptive changes needed to guarantee instructional excellence for their students of color. Her Black and Brown students had no voice on the school team most responsible for daily, grade-level academic progress.

What bold moves could she as a school leader make to disrupt this reality?

Last summer, New Leaders launched the VLA  to support principals in boldly responding to dual crises. The COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to close their doors and pioneer virtual education for their learning communities. The murder of George Floyd also caused many citizens to mask up and take to the streets in protest. Within this national crucible, we created the VLA to support school leaders as they made the transition to online instruction. We wanted to make sure that the tides of change would not sweep away Black, Brown, and under-resourced students.

The upcoming school year will require more bold action from school leaders to transition their learning community back to the physical school building, with an emphasis on those who the pandemic crisis put further away from resources. This summer, our VLA focused on helping leaders build the technical skills in action planning and developing their ILTs. We also addressed the adaptive challenges of race and diversity that principals will have to confront as they lead their communities in learning acceleration for the upcoming school year. Leaders need technical skills to make progress on the first day of school and adaptive leadership to shift the mindsets and beliefs of their staff to instill a focus on equity.

Almost all of the principals who participated felt the Summer VLA’s content was relevant for the upcoming school year and that their time with us improved their leadership practice. From this, we have learned three things that matter to these school leaders as they enter the new year:

1. Talking Matters. Many leaders realized they have not had direct conversations about race, equity, and how their team’s mindsets around these issues influence instructional excellence. We noticed this trend was common across many leaders--principals of color leading schools with primarily white teachers; white leaders leading schools where the majority of staff, students, and families were Black, Brown or another minority group; and the gamut of schools between those two spectrums. School leaders must model how to have courageous conversations around race and education to end the silence that allows opportunity gaps and poor instructional practices to flourish.

2. Disruption Matters. The Summer VLA equipped participant leaders to take bold actions with their ILT about the racial inequities regarding academic performance – and to sit in the resulting discomfort until the team creates solutions. Several principals identified teachers of color who have both gotten results with the Black and Brown students in their buildings and who have demonstrated informal leadership by organizing cultural events. They resolved to add them to their ILTs to ensure that equity – having the power to distribute resources so that all students learn – is central to their leadership.

3. Equity Matters. “Our commitment is equity of access and outcome for all,” one principal said in an activity that had them place a clear, non-negotiable definition of equity within their school’s vision and mission statement. Leaders must create explicit goals for all students in the building, and ensure that their ILTs have action plans that result in grade-level progress for all students, including persistently marginalized groups. Such clarity ensures that students from underserved backgrounds learn. Adding instructional leaders who represent the school’s underserved population is simply not enough. To over-communicate the clarity of equity, those leaders must also get the appropriate support and power needed to transform the learning community so equity of access and outcome for all students is possible.

Once again, we enter another uncertain school year, full of real and manufactured distractions. Throughout it all, our communities are counting on school leaders to see their children for all their beauty and history. By building leadership teams that focus on what matters – racial equity and instructional excellence – principals will ensure that this school year is one of high achievement and joy.

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Hall Harris

Hall Harris

Hal Harris serves as Senior Director of Program Implementation and Adjunct Trainer Corps at New Leaders. He is committed to developing educators and leaders who are powerful and positive forces for change where it matters most: in schools, for students. Prior to joining New Leaders, Hal was a civics teacher and school principal.

Hall Harris

Hall Harris

Hall Harris

Hall Harris

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