Education leaders discussed how to close opportunity and achievement gaps, while students shared what helps them overcome challenges and succeed during The Equity Event in Glendale on April 6 and 7.
“Equity says we’ve got to be more strategic, more intentional, more customized and less generic, so that we get everybody to the same equitable outcomes,” said Diane Burbie, managing principal of the ASPIRE Group, and a keynote speaker at The Equity Event.
Nearly 200 education and community leaders shared promising practices and leadership strategies to provide all students the individual support they need to achieve. The group started to identify equality as every student receiving the same supports and equity being an approach that recognizes the diverse needs of each learner.
Topics included closing the achievement gap using culturally responsive practices, the transgender student, protecting students and maintaining schools as safe zones, and the impact of culturally responsive curriculum and teaching.
“Equity is really important. We need individuality at our schools, because everyone isn’t the same. We all don’t learn the same,” said Nora Fayad, a freshman at Tempe High School during the student voices panel at the event.
Representatives from 63 Arizona school districts took part in The Equity Event, now in its third year. The event is organized by Arizona School Boards Association and inspired the National School Boards Association’s one-day Equity Symposium, which began in 2016.
Listening to all voices
Student achievement and engagement increases when students have more ownership in their school and learning, said Cyndi Tercero-Sandoval, student support services manager at Phoenix Union High School District. She led a discussion on the topic at the event.
“Students have a significant stake in an educational institution. Think about it in terms of their time, aspirations, intellectual and social development. They are our primary stakeholders,” Tercero-Sandoval said. “So, how are we, as board members or district leadership, tapping into that knowledge or experience to make changes and improvement to our school systems?”
Helping students embrace their fears and find their voice is what Tomas Stanton, an educator and executive director of Phonetic Spit!, does in writing workshops in many Arizona classrooms. Stanton led event attendees in one of those writing exercises.
“We have to teach our young folks that they have a story, that they need to tell their story, and that if they don’t tell their story, someone else will do it and they’ll get it wrong,” Stanton said.
Every student should have the opportunity to speak up and say what’s on their mind, said Nikole Gomez, a senior at Washington High School who was part of a student panel at the event.
“Even though we don’t pay for our education, we are all part of the public education system, we should all have a say in our education,” Gomez said.
Power of education
Investing in education ensures Arizona’s future economic viability, because education can break the cycle of poverty, advance community development and empower individuals, said Barbara Ryan Thompson, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Helios Education Foundation.
“We believe education has the ability to change lives and transform communities,” Thompson said. “And we are passionate about ensuring that all students, regardless of where they were born or where they live now, have access to a high-quality education.”
Helios Education Foundation sponsored The Equity Event along with Cox Media, Achievement Via Individual Determination, and the Minority Student Achievement Network.
“We always say ‘why don’t people care about students in need, students who have particular needs, students who have particular variables put in front of them.’ I think that’s a good question, but it’s a limited one, because it assumes that people don’t care. I don’t think that’s true,” Burbie said. “Most people are advocating for ‘where am I in your equation.’ ”
Other critical factors in student and school success are family support and community partnerships, said Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams, who spoke at the event.
Working together for inclusion, equity and excellence
Many district leaders also participated in a pre-conference that walked them through a process for achieving greater equity in schools and districts, said Tim Ogle, executive director of Arizona School Boards Association.
At the pre-conference, attendees heard from Gary Howard, a national equity trainer, on personal, professional and systemic transformation to achieve equity in schools.
They also learned about how Wade Colwell-Sandoval, a veteran educator, uses culture and creativity including hip-hop music and movement in his equity work with students.
And Benjie Howard, a founder of the New Wilderness Project described how the arts-based education program focuses on devleoping youth leadership for equity and social justice.
Participants took part in activities and conversations about leadership, levels of engagement, phases of the work, culturally responsive teaching, and tracking equity outcomes.
The change process
In addition to participating sessions that demonstrated the need for a greater focus on equity, conference attendees also had the opportunity to gain a greater understanding of processes for making equity a community and system-wide priority.
Howard also moderated conversations at The Equity Event around five elements critical to that process – developing a common understanding of equity, understanding district and community demographics, digging into the data to identify disparities in achievement and opportunity, embedding cultural proficiency and creating opportunities for student voice.
Howard urged participants to view their role as stewards and their actions as rising “from caring and informed relationships, from one’s cultural and natural communities. It broadens the scope of what leadership is about, and deepens it.”
Dr. Adama Sallu, assistant director of equity at Kyrene Elementary School district, led the group on defining equity and noted that equity is about the fairness that’s embodied in American ideals.
“Brown versus the Board of Education, that was 60 years ago. Here we are, still unpacking the needs of all children that walk through our doors,” Sallu said.
Dr. Mary Roaf, Destination Graduation education facilitator for Valley of the Sun United Way, noted that some Arizona schools are already integrating curriculum and content that covers, honors and respects students from all different backgrounds.
But Roaf also noted that there’s a challenge “getting culturally relevant representative membership on our school boards.”
“There’s a mismatch between the voters who are registered in our districts and those who are actually turning out to vote. So there’s a big need to get the actual voter registration and voter participation up to a level where it’s matching and reflecting our communities.”
Earlier at The Equity Event, Julie Bacon, president of the board of directors of Arizona School Boards Association, told attendees that “We’re here to make sure that the stories that our students tell, every one of our students, are about opportunity, support, and success.”