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Color blindness hampers work to close achievement gaps


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  • Brad Hughes/National School Boards Association

Paradise Valley Unified School District Superintendent Jim Lee, Far Left, Speaks During A Panel Discussion At The Equity Event In Phoenix In March 2016. Buckeye Elementary Unified School District Superintendent Kristi Sandvik, Far Right, Was Also Part Of The Panel Discussion. Photo Courtesy Mike Barcia/ASBA

School leaders wanting to reduce gaps in student achievement and success can’t proclaim “I don’t see a child’s color” and advance such efforts. In fact, such positions may hamper change.

That advice was shared by several speakers at National School Boards Association’s Annual Conference preconference workshop on Friday, “Achieving Equity: Leadership Strategies and Promising Practices for Closing the Opportunity and Achievement Gaps.” The clinic centered on equity programs of the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA) and two districts in that state.

Color blindness hampers work to close achievement gaps EquityEvenJimLeeKristiSandvik

Paradise Valley Unified School District Superintendent Jim Lee, far left, speaks during a panel discussion at The Equity Event in Phoenix in March 2016. Buckeye Elementary School District Superintendent Kristi Sandvik, far right, was also part of the panel discussion. Photo courtesy Mike Barcia/ASBA

Seattle-based school equity consultant Gary Howard said objectives of student equity, inclusion, and excellence require leaders to have “courageous conversations.”

“It does not mean color blindness,” he said. “If you are in an educational leadership position and you can’t say ‘race,’ you can’t do the job. It doesn’t have to get in the way (but) the best way to have it get in the way is to pretend it doesn’t exist.”

Howard said achieving equity isn’t just about gaps.

“It’s also about issues of who is in student leadership, who is getting honored at your school, who is in your higher-level courses,” he said. “Equity is not just the things that we measure. It’s what is happening on the ground in your schools. Having someone who is has the title of director of equity won’t cut it. There is no decision you make that doesn’t involve equity.”

Two Arizona superintendents, James Lee of Paradise Valley Schools and Kristi Sandvik of the Buckeye Elementary School District, detailed their districts’ equity “journeys.” Both leaders labeled surveying students to capture their perspectives as critical first steps.

Lee said the surveys contributed to an “equity treasure map” at his district.

“Some districts either forget the student voice or they don’t pay sufficient attention to it,” he said. “We created (minority) student leadership courses to create action plans for their schools to promote equity.”

In Sandvik’s K-8, mostly Hispanic, 5,200-student district, each school has an “equity team” tasked to ensure that the issue is considered in every decision, every day.

“What we’ve learned is that reformed leadership takes place when policies and practices ensure opportunities and resources are intentionally allocated to those who have not been well served due to their race, ethnicity, class, and or home language,” she said.

Color blindness hampers work to close achievement gaps Jesus-Rubalcava

Jesus Rubalcava

ASBA’s two-year-old equity project began during the presidency of Gila Bend board member Jesus Rubalcava, who is this year’s NSBA Hispanic Council for School Board Members chairman. He acknowledged that bringing about real educational equity change will challenge some people.

“Anytime the word ‘race’ came up, people felt very, very uncomfortable. When we started, the conversations were not conversations; they were arguments. (But) unless we have those conversations, the equity piece will be lacking,” he said.

Tracey Benson, ASBA’s associate executive director and lead staffer on the equity initiative, said the organization worked to “inform, inspire, support, and sustain” its members to have those discussions.

“We needed them talking about board policies that directly impact equity in their districts,” she said. “Ultimately the goal is not to have an equity goal. It is to have it be an intentional value.”

Lee echoed that sentiment.

“This is more than just ‘best practices.’ I call it the ‘cardio curriculum.’ It’s about the heart. It’s a moral imperative,” the superintendent said.