Equity: More Than a Buzzword

The term “equity” means a lot of different things to a lot of different people in the education community. It’s a concept bound up in social-emotional learning, developing the whole child, building a culture of trust and justice, listening to student voices, and much more. NASSP’s Building Ranks: A Comprehensive Framework for Effective School Leaders describes equity as the behaviors, systems, processes, resources, and environments that ensure that each member of the school community is provided fair, just, and individualized learning and growth opportunities.

We convened a roundtable in December with a diverse panel of principals, including Willie Jackson, principal at Ballou Senior High School in Washington, D.C.; Paul Kelly, principal at Elk Grove High School in Elk Grove Village, IL; and Hannah Nieskens, principal at Whitehall Middle and High School in Whitehall, MT. Principal Leadership Senior Editor Michael Levin-Epstein moderated the discussion.

Levin-Epstein: “Equity” is a buzzword these days in education circles. What does the term mean to you?

Nieskens: For me, equity is ensuring that each student is known and valued as an individual so that they can experience academic and social-emotional success and reach their potential. This means that we have to provide an environment in the school and have the structures in place to support each and every student.

Kelly: I agree with everything that Hannah said and would add that, for me, equity includes the idea of getting students to be in a position where, after they have left our schools, they have the opportunity to control their own destinies in our diverse society—that they have economic opportunities, that they have justice, that they have all the things that really fulfill the values of our nation.

Jackson: I’d like to add that, regardless of gender, race, color, nationality, and sexual orientation, that each kid feels loved, valued, and validated, and they are given the necessary supports and structures that they need to be successful in school as well as postsecondary. That means that we, as educators, have to strive to figure out how we can help remove barriers and overcome barriers that stagnate and prevent students from being successful.

Levin-Epstein: How have you implemented this principle of equity at your school? 

Nieskens: One of the things that we do is determine which students are missing a positive adult connection. We compile something called a “connections list.” We print the name of every student, and we put all the names up on a big bulletin board, and each teacher goes and selects five names of students that they feel close to, and we do rounds of that until teachers feel like the students who remain are students that they do not feel connected to and they don’t have a very solid personal relationship with. The remaining names on the bulletin board identify which students are not connected to a staff member. These are the unknown students in our school who we need to reach out to in order to make sure that they are known—that they do feel valued. We work consciously to build connections with those kids. That’s one example of what we do.

Kelly: First, and most importantly, it’s impossible to ignore inequities and injustices when we all see our students as individuals with unique identities. If we allow students to simply proceed through school anonymously, it’s easier to inadvertently leave injustice and inequity unremedied. We do our very best to try to make sure every voice is heard. [We use] our “We Are EG” podcast, which allows students and faculty to share their stories and be seen as people with depth and a common humanity.

It’s very difficult to not seek justice and equity when you are thinking of somebody as a person and you really get to know who they are. It is also critically important that academic opportunities are truly available for all. We want to make sure that every kid in our building gets the same academic opportunity, whether it’s an advanced placement, a career pathway, or a dual-credit course—whatever the opportunities are for any of our kids, we want to make sure that those are available to all of our kids.

Jackson: At Ballou, equity starts at the front door every day for me. We make sure when kids enter the doors of Ballou Senior High School, they feel loved and validated before they enter the hallway. … We greet them by shaking their hands, slapping them high-fives, sometimes rewarding them with tickets when they come through the door, just for coming to school. They are able to use those tickets to go into the store to get an item or two of their choice. We also make sure they feel connected. We provide mentorship and mentors for the students. We have an advisory group with all grade levels and nationalities as part of the principal’s advisory committee to ensure students’ voices are leveraged throughout the school.

We also have partnerships. A lot of our partners come in and they mentor and provide equity throughout the school building, whether it’s field trips, whether it’s tutoring, whether it’s equal access to programs and after-school programs, so we have an opportunity to ensure that these things are happening throughout the school year and the school day.

Nieskens: One of the things that we’ve really promoted among our students and our staff is recognizing the potential in every student. We encourage every student to form a growth mindset. The staff acknowledges that every single student is capable of positive growth and that it is our responsibility to ensure that each student reaches their potential. Sometimes “equity” is confused with “everything being equal,” and that isn’t necessarily the case. To achieve equity, sometimes you have to give certain students more. It certainly shouldn’t be some students receiving less, but some students are going to need more support in order to access a more complete education and to grow to reach their potential.

Building a Culture of Equity

Levin-Epstein: How do you infuse principles of equity in your teachers and staff?

Kelly: I’m going to jump in right away. I think what Principal Jackson said about being visible and modeling behavior for every single kid truly matters. Every minute of every day, I think great school leaders show their passion for young people and their desire to see that every single one of them becomes as successful and as happy in life as they can possibly be. I think that if our staff see us engaged in those celebrations of academics and emotional growth and positive good deed-doing, we really set a tone for our staff to feel the same.

Nieskens: I would add to the answer, too, that it is really important to make people aware of their own biases, to confront bias in a real way and a genuine way, not in a judgmental way. Sometimes people exhibit bias without even knowing it, and so one of the things that we do at our school is a cultural survey to self-identify biases and start an open conversation about reducing and eliminating bias in the school setting. We want to create an environment in which every kid is appreciated for all the potential that they have.

Jackson: I appreciate the district in which I’m working—D.C. Public Schools—because they started a conversation a few years ago around equity and social-emotional learning (SEL) for students. A lot of professional development has gone into making sure teachers understand what equity is and what SEL is all about. So, it started with the adults—with self-awareness, self-management—having the adults be reflective in their practices and understand, “Hey, be aware of your own social biases,” and things like that.

A lot of work already has gone into preparing teachers and staff members around equity and social-​emotional learning. At a school level, we piggyback off the work that was begun by the district by providing them resources around mindsets and growth and what that looks like for us as a school community. We have gotten books by certain authors to go through and do a book study around growth mindset and what it means for me as a person, as a teacher, as an educator, as an individual. That’s where we are right now. We’re still reading the book at this time on growth mindset.

Kelly: I also feel that if staff see our students in a position of leadership and influence, it also becomes difficult for them to ignore the inequitable levels of empowerment that exist across different groups as our students join the adult ranks in our society.

As a career pathway-focused school, one of our primary goals is to create the next generation of leaders in areas like education and law and equity. Our kids are taking courses in civil and constitutional law and legal research. Our goal as a school that has a majority-minority population is to create the next generation of leaders in our education and justice systems to ensure an equitable future for all of our citizens. We feel like equity can be best achieved by facilitating the leadership of students, who then set the tone for what’s coming next.

Technological Inequities

Levin-Epstein: What about equal access to technology?

Nieskens: In Montana in particular, and probably in many rural places, almost everyone experiences technological inequity because our internet speeds at home are often slightly above dial-up. So, even for the people who do have access to the internet, it can be quite slow and unwieldy and not ideal, certainly, for getting anything done online in a quick amount of time.

Due to the socioeconomic status of many of our students, there is inequity as far as home access to technology devices beyond a cellphone. Most homes do have a cellphone, but students may not have home access to a device on which they can actually compute or word process in an easy or meaningful way. So, we build in opportunities here at school. We have computer labs that are open after school, before school, at lunch. Each student has access to a Chromebook here at school. We do have a fiber line at the school, so we have some of the fastest internet, actually, in the community. When I think about technological equity, as someone in a rural community, there are internet accessibility challenges due to geography that go beyond socio-​economic challenges.

Jackson: The DCPS has partnered with the Comcast cable network, and they are able to offer internet connection at a very, very low rate for students and parents who really need or want access to the internet. Also, we have several mobile carts here at the school level. Kids can be at the school up to 10:00 p.m. here at Ballou to make sure they get all of their homework done, their class assignments completed. We try to remove those barriers by providing partnerships and off-site resources, as well as making sure the school is open as late as possible.

Kelly: There are limits to the interventions and programs we are able to provide to the kids in need. So, we really have to prioritize the areas where we really believe we are going to have the biggest impact on the kids’ long-term futures. At Elk Grove, a quarter of our kids live in mobile home parks that are in an area that is, in Illinois, what we call “unincorporated.” It’s not in any municipality. Therefore, the kids who live there are not in a library district or a park district of any kind, so they don’t have access to library cards, camp programs, and things like that. As a result, we have taken on a lot of the work of providing these opportunities to our kids.

We partnered with Sprint, similar to what Willie just mentioned, to provide internet access to kids in the mobile home parks. We give kids iPads, but many of them go home to no internet, which really limits what they are able to do unless we help them access internet possibilities in their homes. We’ve actually created summer camp opportunities and a mobile library that we bring to the mobile home parks in order to provide kids with educational opportunities that they wouldn’t be able to get otherwise. We also include younger children in those as well. Even though they’re not in our schools yet, we know that they are one day going to be the kids who come to our schools, and we want them to have every opportunity that economically affluent kids take for granted.

Levin-Epstein: How would you assess the impact recent school shootings have had on your school?

Nieskens: In Montana, there was some student movement following Parkland. At my school specifically, there wasn’t any one thing that took place after Parkland, but I think that is because we did have structures in place where student voice is constantly solicited and constantly affirmed. We give students many opportunities for their voice to be heard and to give input. We do surveys, which are anonymous, several times a year, but in addition to that, from those survey results, we ask for students to volunteer to be in focus groups. Those focus groups are led by various staff members and are on different topics that are extracted from the survey data.

So, students who want to take an active role in changing the school culture for the better or contributing to positive change in the school really have an opportunity to do that in a meaningful way. Even in my office, I feel like I’ve made a real effort to be approachable to students. Students can come to my office at any time and request to meet with me, and I make a point of honoring every request. So, I do feel like students in my school have a lot of opportunities to use their voice. They’re encouraged to do that. I think my students were, if anything, coming out of the Parkland situation really glad to see other students using their voices.

Kelly: At Elk Grove, we had interesting situations last year with student walkouts. Students expressed concerns about what they perceived to be America’s gun culture, and counter-walkouts, where other students expressed their support for the Second Amendment and gun rights. Our groups were extremely respectful to each other, even during the moment. There haven’t been specifically safety-related activism events on the part of our kids; however, I would say that there have been numerous groups that have either been formed or have sort of morphed into student empowerment groups.

We have a group called EG Aspire, which is a group of athletes seeking to create a proactively healthy and competitive athletic environment and to push each other forward. We also have a group called EG Fierce—female students who are really trying to push forward the conversation about gender equity in our culture. Neither of those student groups is tied specifically to Parkland, but I do think that a spirit of “students need their voices to be heard” has pervaded our school life and it’s—in my opinion—a very, very good thing to see.

Jackson: I’m at a new school now here at Ballou; I was at another high school last year. At my former school, we had a few walkouts. Students walked out to … the rally there in downtown Washington, D.C., to leverage their voices. But we didn’t have any other participation as it related to students not having their voices heard, because I provide a platform where we have open-door policies to see the principals or assistant principals under my leadership. We make sure students’ voices are leveraged in everything that we do. We put students first, so students will always have a platform to express themselves and come up with their shared ideas, because it’s all about the students when we’re at school here.

Levin-Epstein: What would your students say their most important concerns are in terms of equity?

Nieskens: We have asked that question here, and the answer that we frequently get goes back to that whole idea of rural equity—students want to ensure that here in Montana, at a small rural school, that they are getting an educational experience that’s commensurate with the rest of the nation and even the rest of the world; that they’re getting the class of education that is going to give them the opportunities to go to colleges or into careers that are going to be successful for them, and that they have all the tools they need in order to pursue those postsecondary options.

Frequently, our discussions around equity are to ensure that we’re somehow broadening the experience that students are receiving here by providing additional opportunities that big urban or suburban schools would offer that typically would be more difficult for a smaller rural school to offer.

Jackson: I’ve heard that Ballou often gets the short end of the stick when it comes to resources and opportunities. Our students here today would say that equity is based upon justness and fairness and making sure that what one part of the city is doing, the other part of the city is also doing and also has access to. We are divided into eight different wards. What’s happening in Ward 1 should be happening in Ward 8. We’re located in Ward 8. So, if students are having access to different after-school programs and different AP classes and college trips in Ward 1, we want the same thing in Ward 8. So, my students would say, not just on the outside perimeter but also inside the school, if the seniors are doing something, the ninth-graders should be doing something the same way or similar to it. It’s about fairness for them and justice for them.

Kelly: I totally agree with both of these answers. We’re not in a rural environment here, I’m in a suburban setting, but Elk Grove is a very good example of a modern American suburb in which poverty and diversity have significantly increased. The common theme among all kids is that they want to be viewed as more than a score, more than a number. They want to make sure they have a successful economic future available to them regardless of what their parents do or where their parents came from. They want to know that they have a future in this country. We have students who fear that, based upon the dialogue of recent years, that their very future in our country is at risk. They, regardless of their family situation or income level, want to make sure that their voices and values are respected, and that they have some role to play in the shaping of their own future rather than having it shaped for them by outside forces.