SBR: KASB leaders explore school equity

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By Leah Fliter,

Four Kansas school board members recently attended the National School Boards Association’s third annual Equity Symposium in Washington, D.C.

The board members represent rural and suburban school districts with student enrollments of 350 to 30,000; some have served on their boards for more than 10 years, while one took office in January.

Though their board tenure and school district demographics differ, Dayna Miller, Frank Henderson, Rod Stewart and Brian Geary said the Equity Symposium is an important opportunity for school leaders to learn more about how to support the success of all Kansas public school students.

The one-day meeting, held just before the kickoff of NSBA’s Annual Advocacy Institute, offered a forum for school board members, public school advocates and community leaders to examine and discuss the strategies, current trends, research and best practices to support academically and economically disadvantaged students in traditional K-12 public settings.

Topics covered included mental healthcare for students of color, including trauma sensitivity; parental and community engagement; supporting immigrant students; and the impact of pre-K gaps on high school graduation.

Miller, Henderson, Stewart and Geary sat down with KASB to talk more about the Symposium.

Read about their experience below.

Here are excerpts from our interviews with Dayna Miller, Frank Henderson, Rod Stewart and Brian Geary about the Symposium.

KASB: What are the equity issues you think Kansas schools face? Which are most urgent?

Miller: I don’t think Kansas has a particularly different equity experience from other states. I believe the most urgent issue we face as a state is financial. Without funds to create equal experiences for all students, it will not happen.

Henderson: I believe Kansas faces most of the same equity issues in many other states: wealthy districts versus non-wealthy districts and the distribution of aid; disparity of the availability of resources from one building to another even in the same district; and quality of teaching staff in areas with higher social economic need. The most urgent need is the lack of resources to meet the whole needs of every student.

Stewart: Providing equal educational opportunities to all students regardless of zip code and meeting the educational needs of all students are the most important at this time.

Geary: I think there are several, with some of the most glaring being the financial differences (socio-economic) of our students, special education needs, racial & ethnic discrimination (of both students & staff) and access to technology (somewhat related to financial differences).

I think all of these are urgent, but being able to understand the racial, cultural and/or ethnic differences that exist and being able to make the school experience as positive as possible is the most urgent in our state today. For example, we have a quickly growing Hispanic/Latino population, so finding ways to better communicate, teach the student and incorporate “school life” without constantly pulling them out of the classroom would be something we should be focused on. Physical differences are easy to spot and ignorance and bias linger in today’s schools, whether we want to believe it or not.

KASB: Did the Equity Symposium address the issues you identified? If so, in what way(s)?

Henderson: The Equity Symposium created an awareness of some of the disparities that exist in education. It also highlighted some best practices taking place in districts across the country that are addressing those issues.

Geary: One of the sessions I attended was “Diversity in Leadership: How and Why Leadership Impacts Latino/Hispanic Student Opportunities and Success,” which offered some best practices on engaging the students and staff from the Hispanic culture in the “life of the school” as leaders.

Stewart: Yes, they were addressed. We need to be aware of what our students’ interests are and work to provide the resources they need to pursue them. Not all students learn in the same manner and we need to be willing to adjust the curriculum to enable the students to be successful.

KASB: What strategies did you bring back to your district?

Miller: I am bringing back a sense of change with regard to the way we might address equity in our district. I think we have to see “equity for all” differently than we have in the past.

Geary: Many of the strategies being used involve a real deep dive into the data of how our Hispanic/Latino kids are performing compared to others. I am anxious to get some of this data from our district, related to the different scores and assessments and continue to find ways to improve upon them individually. I also would like to visit with some of our Latino and/or Hispanic staff to explore what some of the issues they see are and how we can help provide as much equity for these students as others from their viewpoint.

KASB: How do you think the issues you identified, and those covered at the Equity Symposium, mesh with what Kansas schools are attempting to accomplish through the Kansans Can vision and the Mercury and Gemini redesign efforts?

Geary: I think all five of the goals of the Kansans Cans vision address all of the issues at some level. Initially identifying, through individual plans of study, the areas of greatest needs that exist for EACH child will help significantly. It may seem oversimplified, but we can look at financial differences, technology access, special education and racial/ethnic discrimination in each of these areas simply through communication with the students, parents/guardians and staff to start:

  • Kindergarten Readiness
  • Individual Plans of Study
  • Social Emotional
  • Graduation Rates
  • Postsecondary Success

Stewart: They align perfectly with the vision of Kansans Can and the redesign of the Mercury and Gemini Schools.

Henderson: Establishing equity for all students is embedded into the Kansas Can vision. Individual plans of study consider and act to meet the needs of every student. Accomplishing this requires the equitable distribution of resources to every district, every building and every student.

Miller: I believe strongly that by empowering our students to find their passion, reach for their own goals and become contributing members of our society on every level, we are doing exactly what we need to be doing to bring equity to Kansas. I certainly believe equity speaks to gender equality, financial resources and race. I believe we are on the right track.

KASB: What obstacles do you see to addressing education equity issues in Kansas?

Stewart: The two obstacles that I see are funding and the locations of our rural schools. It can be very challenging to provide all the educational opportunities that the students need without proper funding and the distance that many rural schools are from higher education institutions.

Geary: I think the school funding issue will continue to be the biggest obstacle. It’s hard to throw money at things that need to be addressed, when the money doesn’t exist for us to use. We will need to do a very good job of prioritizing education equity issues and sharing best practices happening around the state to combat this.

Miller: History, apathy unless things affect us personally, remote populations and financial constraints.

KASB: What strengths do Kansas schools possess that can be leveraged to address equity concerns?

Geary: One of the strengths of Kansas schools is that we typically have strong, prideful communities that we operate within, and this will help in addressing some of these equity concerns. Nobody wants to be “last” when we have pride in something. We care about each other in our communities especially, so it should be easy for people to understand, let’s help EACH child be at their best. This is a community-wide issue, not just the school district by itself.

Stewart: Kansans take a lot of pride in their schools. Boards, administration and staff are all dedicated to providing the best education possible for our students. Federal and state governments need to provide proper funding so local boards can provide the resources needed to ensure every student succeeds.

KASB: What can Kansas school boards and KASB do to better address the issues covered at the Equity Symposium?

Miller: I’m a firm believer that communication, discussions and honest information help in all situations. I think we can always do a better job of beginning conversations about how equity is not just about race…it is about socioeconomic constraints, gender issues, gay/straight/LGBT issues and general acceptance. I think keeping the conversation relevant and current and topical is a way we could help districts. Resources that help to explain/clarify what equity issues are and how to address are great resources.

Geary: The best thing that we can do is support our students and staff and listen to what is working in the schools and what isn’t as we try to address these issues. Also, continuing to share best practices and gathering data on students is important to continue to do.

KASB: Do you think Kansas schools do any kind of teaching about equity issues?

Geary: I don’t think we “teach” equity issues directly in most classrooms, but we perhaps “discuss” issues, such as recognizing and appreciating differences of others in certain classes.

We need to discuss the equity issues early in our elementary schools and continue to do so throughout the students time with us, so students understand the purpose of doing certain activities related towards eliminating some of the equity issues that exist today and so they aren’t so far behind that it makes it difficult to get them back on track.

Miller: I honestly believe we try to “teach equity”. I don’t think that is the answer. I believe we need to “do” equity.

KASB: Would you recommend other Kansas school board members attend a future Equity Symposium?

Henderson: I would highly recommend for anyone to attend the Equity Symposium. We can at times live in our world and fail to see what we are not exposed to or are aware of regarding the situation of others.

Stewart: I have found the Equity Symposiums to be very beneficial and I recommend it to anyone who is concerned about equitable education opportunities for all students.

Geary: I think that the more people that attend, the better it becomes. The speakers and breakout sessions were good, but I found the most benefit in just visiting with other school board members, teachers, administrators, etc from around the country that were experiencing similar issues in their communities and what they were doing to attempt to remedy them.

Miller: Most definitely. I learned that my experience with what “equity” is, is wrong. I have a deeper understanding of what true equity is. I think this is important for every board member…we need to understand what we are working toward and for. I was definitely moved by the things I heard and will be processing for some time.

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