“What would you consider to be the most pressing concerns for leaders in education right now? What are the things that keep you up at night?” These were questions posed by my leadership coach in a recent meeting. Like most leaders, I started to run through all the items on my to-do list and the other things weighing on my mind.
After a brief discussion, we agreed that the safety of the students and staff we serve is the top concern, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic has added a new layer of stress. At the same time, our discussion shifted to the equity and achievement gaps that continue to persist in our education system. We need to approach and respond to the inequities that plague our school systems with the same level of urgency that school safety receives. It seems like there are endless professional development opportunities to learn and talk about inequities that exist in our schools, but not as much of a focus on equity in action.
We often learn best from stories and models that we can learn from and then make our own. The purpose of this blog is to share an example for other leaders in education to take and make better. In my experience, equity in action requires a focus upon a clear vision, data-driven decision making, strategic improvement planning efforts, and a relentless focus on relationships.
1. Clear Vision and Purpose
When I began my first year as an assistant principal at Cape Henlopen High School (CHHS), we focused on three goals: Increasing access, achievement, and equity in our program. The following year, our district adopted the vision “Excellence, Equity, and Responsiveness: Every Student, Every Classroom, Every Day!” This type of district vision and promise to our community created the space for us to have difficult conversations about what we could do to improve equity and decrease achievement gaps in our AP program. A clear vision and purpose are critical first steps in taking action in equity.
2. Data-Driven Decision Making
Data tells a story. In our case, underrepresented students were achieving at lower levels than our white students, and the number of students enrolled in AP classes and taking AP exams was also not reflective of our student population. Using the data allowed us to reflect on our curriculum, instruction, and messaging to students about higher-level coursework and use this to make decisions.
More specifically, looking at the specific higher-level coursework you offer in your school and making adjustments to meet the need of your population is a part of this process. Dr. Jackie Wilson, the leader of the NASSP School Leaders Academy, once told me, “You cannot improve equity if you have an access problem.” After looking at achievement data by subgroup, we realized that we were missing an opportunity to offer AP Spanish exams. Three years later, we tripled the number of Hispanic students, and our Hispanic population was the highest achieving subgroup on the AP exams in 2020.
3. Strategic Planning Efforts
One of the first steps we took at CHHS was to establish an AP leadership team. The team included district leadership, building administrators, AP teachers, and a counselor. We met frequently in the beginning stages of the improvement efforts to examine the AP Spotlight on Success stories and create our improvement plan. After the initial implementation of the strategic plan, we began meeting on a monthly basis to monitor the progress of our efforts and discuss any problems of practice.
At the end of the day, none of these efforts would have proven effective without a relentless focus on relationships. Relationships with our students, teachers, district leaders. and parents are the most powerful strategy we have to take action in our equity work. After three years of embracing these strategies, I am proud to report that we made some progress on equity in the AP program at Cape High. In 2020, we achieved the following gains:
- We increased the number of AP students from 116 to 255
- We increased the number of exams from 210 to 383.
- We increased the number of AP students with score of 3 or higher from 60 to 168.
- We increased the number of low-income students from 7 to 31.
- We increased the number and mean score of every subgroup to higher levels than white students on the exams.
The question now becomes, what will your story be? No matter what the COVID-19 pandemic brings our way, I can guarantee you that vision, data-driven decision making, strategic plans, and relationships will continue to be critical to our equity work.