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Chandler High School biology teacher Katie Nash was one of hundreds of teachers taking professional development courses at Chandler Unified School District’s Breaking Barriers for Excellence Equity Symposium.
“This summer I have a lot of professional development planned,” said Nash, including training in Florida for a new International Baccalaureate class her school will offer.
The equity symposium’s teacher training focused on building relationships with students of color, engaging families and students to boost achievement, creating equitable classrooms for special education students, recruiting and retaining non-traditional gender students in career and technical education, learning culturally responsive practices to close achievement and discipline gaps, creating safe spaces for LGBTQ+ youth, preventing suicide and examining bias.
Video by Mary Irish/AZEdNews: Breaking Barriers for Excellence Equity Symposium 2019 at Chandler Unified School District
What led to the equity symposium?
The symposium is part of Chandler Unified’s response to incidents that made headlines in recent years, including racist statements made off-campus on social media by Santan Junior High School students in 2018, sexual abuse allegations by Hamilton High School football players against teammates from 2015 to 2017, and the deaths of several students and graduates from suicide, which have increased in the East Valley and statewide.
“As many of you are aware, over the last few years, words and actions have surfaced that do not cast us in a positive light,” said Chandler Unified Superintendent Dr. Camille Casteel in her speech opening the symposium at Hamilton High School on June 5, 2019. “Now, we are not unlike what is happening nationally, but nonetheless, it is unacceptable.”
In response to the incidents, Chandler Unified created a culture committee two years ago to focus on equity and inclusion, developed kindness and pay-it-forward initiatives, and worked with Black Mothers Forum, East Valley NAACP-Arizona and Diamond Strategies to revise its Diversity and Inclusion Resolution, which the district’s governing board passed unanimously.
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Chandler Unified also hired Dr. Adama Sallu as director of equity and inclusion and Brenda Ramos as director of counseling and social services, began an equity initiative to recognize students as individuals, developed challenging content for students, employed culturally responsive teaching, started an Equity Community Council made up of staff members, parent groups, community groups and faith based organizations as well as an Equity Advisory Board made up of parents, teachers, support staff and administrators, and refocused its Journey 2025 metrics to focus on equity and inclusion.
Dr. Casteel said Chandler Unified has and continues to take steps to focus on equity and inclusion, which is its number one priority moving forward because “diversity, equity and collaboration on our school campuses and in all district operations are essential.”
“Frankly, we believe that if we can successfully develop a truly more inclusive, compassionate, equitable environment for all, that many of our other issues related to the increased incidents of suicide, depression, anxiety, bullying, and misconduct will be addressed,” Dr. Casteel said.
Dr. Casteel asked everyone who works at Chandler Unified schools to “commit the time and effort it will take you personally and professionally to help us develop this culture where everyone is treated with value and respect.”
“The board and I realize this is not an overnight fix. It is going to take a conscious effort to change the way we look and interact in our world,” Dr. Casteel said. “I will tell you that, personally, I am overwhelmed at what lays before us, and at the same time, I am looking forward to the challenge because I believe if it can be done, it can be done here in Chandler Unified.”
Strong relationships with students are key
Many of the strategies that work for teachers to connect and communicate with students of color apply for other students as well, said Erica Maxwell, a former administrator of small school in South Phoenix who now works for Year Up.
After doing an activity in Maxwell’s breakout session, many teachers found they knew more about their students who did well academically and their students with behavior issues than they did about students who are struggling academically and students who are average academically.
When Maxwell asked why, one teacher said, “We’re focusing so much on managing kids who are in trouble, that the average student is floating through the day and flying under the radar.”
“Average students many times have the potential to be awesome students, but sometimes it doesn’t get realized, because ‘this is what gets me by and keeps me out of trouble,’ ‘no one says anything to me,’ ‘I don’t necessarily get put in leadership roles, because I’m not the high academic student.’ Think about that,” Maxwell said.
Then Maxwell said when teachers really know their students instead of knowing of them, it makes “a difference in students’ level of success.”
Tina Chu, a second-grade teacher at Chandler Traditional Academy’s Independence Campus, said she’s always focused on developing strong relationships with her students and their parents, and this symposium has encouraged her to “continue to do that” and highlighted “the importance of that.”
When teachers communicate with students they need to focus on their tone, terminology and their timing, and what teachers say and how they saycommunicates how they see students of color and their ability to succeed in their class, Maxwell said.
“Students internalize your tone and how they think you feel about them, and it impacts their success in your class,” Maxwell said.
Moving from saying “those kids” to “our kids” is important, so pay attention to language, connotations and “choose your words carefully,” Maxwell said.
Pronounce students’ names properly because it’s a sign of respect, and do not take the liberty of shortening a student’s name, because it is convenient for you – “names are meaningful for students,” Maxwell said.
It’s also important to praise students publicly and reprimand or correct them privately, Maxwell said.
“Students of color feel very offended if they are dissed in front of their peers,” Maxwell said. “They will sometimes hold onto that for the entire year, for their entire school career – and it’s not just students of color.”
Finding time to talk with students about things outside school helps teachers understand where they’re coming from, Maxwell said.
Another way to connect with students is to interact with them at cultural events important to them, challenge all stereotypical or disparaging remarks you hear, and provide resources, positive feedback, acknowledge achievements, affirm cultures and let students tell their own stories, Maxwell said.
Parent and student voices included
A parent panel at the symposium discussed challenges their children face and how teachers can help, while a student panel provided ideas on how to improve school and learning.
Students expressed their hopes, struggles and cultures through a “In My One Beat” video.
“These poems encourage people to share their experiences, stand up for what they believe in and support others. They help encourage awareness, learning and love,” said the student who introduced the video at the symposium.
In the video, a student says “In my one beat, my name is unique,” then a different student says, “In my one beat, I have anxiety that consumes my life when I give it the chance,” and another student says “In my one beat, I am small and scrawny.”
“In my one beat, Guam’s abundance of drugs and violence is not someplace a family can rely on,” a student says in the video.
Another student says “In my one beat, I am afraid of what is to come. Afraid of my future, and hoping it’s the future I’ve dreamed about.”
Mina Bhadgdev, a Hamilton High School chemistry teacher, facilitated discussion among students taking part in the symposium and said, “The thing that I’m already taking away is how passionate they are to affect change.”
The students want to make improvements statewide, and Bhadgdev said she’s helping them focus on what they could do at their schools.
“I’m not going to hold them back from effecting their big change. Their passion, their drive, their energy – it’s just spectacular,” said Bhadgdev, who is leading teacher workshops in Tolleson and writing her dissertation this summer.
Creating more inclusive classrooms
During a breakout session, Michelle Capriotti, who teaches in general education and special education classrooms throughout the day at Casteel High School, said, “The practices I try to implement, I hope, are not just beneficial for my students with special needs, but for all students that I’m working with at that time.”
One in five U.S. students have a learning or attention issue, 1 in 16 students have an Individual Education Plan, and 1 in 50 students have a 504 plan, but “many of us work with students who perhaps meet the definition of a child with special needs, but have yet to be identified,” Capriotti said.
Students with special needs are 31 percent more likely to be bullied, three times more likely to drop out of high school and are twice as likely to be jobless as adults, Capriotti said.
Teachers should take the information they have to build more inclusive classrooms by cultivating an anti-bias mindset in students, role modeling positive and supportive interactions and behavior, creating opportunities for students to learn about diversity, looking for and using the teachable moments that arise, and showing other students how they can include students with special needs in their activities, Capriotti said.
“My big takeaways are how to make students feel safe in my classroom, and welcoming and meeting them where they’re at so they can reach their greatest potential,” said Maria Hase, a speech language pathologist for Chandler Unified School District.
How niceness perpetuates educational inequity
Niceness may be getting in the way of many school district’s equity efforts, said Dr. Angelina Castagno, executive director of Just Perspective LLC during a keynote speech at the symposium sponsored by 1st Bank, State Farm, Intel, Arizona School Boards Association, Corwin, ASU Prep Digital, New Edge Science Academy, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and McGraw Hill Education.
“Inequity thrives when we limit our understanding of it to individual intentions, knowledge, instances and interactions,” Dr. Castagno said. “Niceness compels us to reframe potentially disruptive or uncomfortable things in ways that are more soothing, pleasant and comfortable.”
Niceness is difficult to critique, but analyzing it “is necessary if educators are to better understand the ways we maintain and advance inequity despite our best intentions,” said Dr. Castagno, a professor of educational leadership and foundations at Northern Arizona University.
Chandler Unified could be a model for other schools figuring out how to do the hard work of ensuring educational equity, “but that won’t happen if you leave after these two days and continue with business as usual nor will it happen if you rely solely on easy approaches or one-size fits all programs that promise sweeping immediate results,” Dr. Castagno said to attendees.
“Instead, each person here needs to ask themselves what their sphere of influence is, where and how can they do their part to enhance educational equity, and each person needs to critically consider the personal and organizational barriers to this work and how they will negotiate and maneuver through those barriers,” Dr. Castagno said.