In their own words: Big city school leaders on making equity a reality in schools

school equity

We have a lot of work to do to shrink the achievement gap in schools.

That was the consensus among leaders from some of the largest urban school districts in the country at a town hall discussion during last week’s Council of the Great City Schools’ (CGCS) 61st Annual Fall Conference in Cleveland.

During the discussion, presented live on 90.3 WCPN’s Facebook page and hosted by CNN personality Van Jones, school leaders from Cleveland, Milwaukee, Denver, and Dallas explained the equity challenges their districts are facing and how they are tackling them head-on.

While the issue of resources—or a lack thereof—was discussed, the crux of the discussion was on why pushing for equity among students of different socioeconomic backgrounds is so critical to student success.

If you missed the conversation, here’s a few of the more salient points made by participating school leaders, in their own words.

Eric Gordon, CEO, Cleveland Metropolitan School District, on why student equity needs to be a priority for all school leaders:

“The core of what I do as a superintendent is I want to make sure that my kids and my kids’ families can dream without limits and that they’re fully able to pursue whatever their dream is. To me, that’s the ultimate win in equity…We do talk about the resources we have, the curriculum we need, the education that is the pathway out of it, but I fundamentally believe we have to create a space where we bring our whole self. Education is only one piece of that and if we only narrow it to the piece about education, I don’t see how any of us will get to the goal. We just recently, in this town, talked about how we have all these ‘islands of excellence’ in all of our districts across the country, but there’s not been yet one city where everyone’s thriving.”

Darienne Driver, Superintendent of Schools, Milwaukee Public Schools, on her mission to change the narrative about what students can achieve in public schools:

“We have the worst achievement gaps between white students and black students, the highest incarceration rates for black males, highest unemployment rates for black males, and so there is, unfortunately, this repetitive narrative that ‘blacks can’t, blacks don’t and that whites can and that they have.’ Part of my mission is to change that narrative and the way to do that is through equity…I’m a public education product. My parents were. My grandparents were. I know that public schools can work for all kids, but it has to be a commitment. It has to be a choice, because you can have the infrastructure, and the policies, and the frameworks—and we have those things now—but it really has to be the adults choosing that this is the best pathway forward to make sure all kids have.”

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Allegra “Happy” Haynes, Board Member, Denver Public Schools, on the idea of equity versus actually putting it into practice:

“We had a conversation earlier about the challenge we have when people nod their heads when you say ‘all kids should be able to do this’ and ‘we want all kids to graduate.’ But when it came time for us to address issues around budget and giving some of our struggling schools the resources that they needed, people got nervous, because then it meant to them, ‘you’re going to take resources away from us.’ When people equate the idea of equity with taking away from one group and giving to another, it’s a lose-lose strategy. So, I like to turn it around and talk about every child, not all children, because it’s too easy to lose the individual needs. If you know me, if you know what my needs are as a student, then you’ll understand what it takes to educate me and meet me where I am.”

Michael Hinojosa, Superintendent, Dallas Independent School District, on putting the best talent in the most challenging schools:

“Dallas is a tale of two cities. What people don’t realize is that Dallas ISD has 93 percent economically disadvantaged. We have 44 percent English learners…We’ve had to get courageous and try to do certain things. So, first of all, we used to pay teachers for how long they’ve been breathing instead of how good they are. So, now we’ve paid them for how good they are. We’ve identified them. And now, part of our equity strategy is a program called ACE—Achieving Campus Excellence. We pay the best teachers to go to the toughest schools, and we pay them a lot of money to go to the toughest schools.”

To see more about how school leaders, parents, and students are encouraging equity in their schools, check out the video of the full discussion below:

How is your school or district making equity a priority? How do you engage your community to help battle the real challenges your schools face? Tell us in the comments.

About the Author

Todd Kominiak
Todd is Managing Editor of TrustED. Email: tkominiak@k12insight.com.

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