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In this issue:

The Call for Equity over Equality

by Heather Bennett, director of Equity Services at PSBA.

The pivotal 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education is known for declaring unconstitutional the practice of “separate but equal” in public schools.

Prior to the case, public school districts, specifically in the South, were operating segregated schools based on race, where black children attended one school and were denied access to white schools. The Supreme Court recognized that separating children from others based solely on their race “generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to be undone” (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954, p. 494).  However, one of the most powerful pronouncements of the case is the Court’s definition of the purpose of education:

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right, which must be made available to all on equal terms. (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954, p. 493).

This statement made more than 60 years ago is still valid. It holds that education is a right and is the stepping stone to democratic participation and economic and social opportunity for students. It holds that to do so, education must be available on equal terms. However, focusing primarily on equality is not enough.

Why equality falls short

Equality is treating everyone the same. But focusing primarily on equality discounts and disregards students’ unique backgrounds, individualized learning styles, experiences, and our history and systems of discrimination that have held back the opportunities of marginalized populations such as the poor, students of color, women, LGBTQ students, religious minorities, special education students, immigrants and English learner students.

Focusing primarily on equality – or treating all students the same – ignores our commonwealth’s achievement and opportunity gaps. The achievement gap is the academic disparity between groups of students. Usually the achievement gap pertains to major differences in academic indicators such as test scores and graduation rates between white and minority students, male and female students, rich and poor students, English proficient and English learner students, and special education students and non-special education students. The opportunity gap represents how the education system delivers education to different groups of students. Disparities in educational delivery contribute to the divergent academic, social and economic outcomes including these: the inequitable distribution of resources and funding; continued segregation within and between school districts; underrepresentation of staff of color; disciplinary policies that disproportionately affect students of color and special education students; and tracking and ignoring or invalidating the histories and lived experiences of diverse population groups.

The need for equity

Recognizing the critical role of school boards in the provision of education for Pennsylvania’s students, PSBA calls for equity. Equity recognizes that some students and schools need more resources to obtain equal access to a high-quality education. Equity is the just and fair distribution of resources based upon students’ needs. Equitable resources include funding, programs, policies, initiatives and supports that target each student’s unique background and school context. Equity also requires the remedy of resource disparities that contribute to the divergent academic, social and economic outcomes of our students in our districts and communities.

Equity ensures that all students, no matter their disability, gender, socio-economic status, class, geographic location, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, English language ability, religion or national origin, will have the opportunity and knowledge to reach their highest potential.

Equitable remedies address the economic and social conditions students experience in their homes, neighborhoods and schools. This includes how students get to school, how they learn in school, what they learn in school, how they are treated by peers, teachers and administrators, how their families and communities participate in the education process, what resources are available and needed in schools, and what opportunities exist for these students after school, at home and beyond.

One important dimension of equity is students’ access to high-quality, culturally competent educators and curriculum. This means diverse teachers, administrators and support staff such as librarians, counselors, nurses and social workers. Equity also requires access to curriculum and activities, including STEM and Advanced Preparatory courses, Gifted and Talented courses and programs, extracurricular activities, technology in the classroom and home, and higher education opportunities. Equity considers the impact of public benefits on students’ opportunities to learn, such as health care, food, housing, and environmental and community safety, as well as opportunity gaps between groups of students. Additionally, equity forges the relationship between a school and its community, ensuring that minority and marginalized communities are included in decision-making processes.

A path forward

As the director of Equity Services, my role is to provide public school boards and districts with equity-focused tools and research to support an equal education experience for students. Our plan is to:

  • Create and establish an equity statement for PSBA, and enact a model equity policy to help school boards promote equity within their school districts.
  • Create an equity taskforce with rural, suburban and urban school boards from across the commonwealth who are committed to pushing equity initiatives forward and could determine what is needed to better serve students.
  • Address specific equity issues by putting out whitepapers, best practice case studies, webinars, educational training workshops, resource guides and toolkits.

The promise of Brown – to make our schools more equal for all our students – requires a focus on equity. Equity is a movement, and it requires a commitment by our Pennsylvania school leaders to lead this drive in creating an education system that is truly for our students.  B

Strategies toward Equity

By Marissa Orbanek, administrative assistant /public relations manager for General McLane SD (Erie Co.).

As more and more schools across Pennsylvania address questions of equity within the classroom, many schools are finding success implementing plans to ensure all students achieve academic success, regardless of race or socioeconomic status.
Yet, despite the fact that ensuring educational equity is the common goal, districts vary in their plans. From providing access to high-quality early learning in single-parent households to addressing the unique emotional, social, and academic needs of minority and economically disadvantaged students, equity in education addresses many areas.

Bethlehem Area SD 

During the 2015-16 school year, Bethlehem Area SD (BASD) committed to becoming more strategic in addressing equity by putting goals into action.

“Our district is very diverse and has been for a long time. I didn’t feel like we were being explicit that we had achievement gaps and that there were challenges. You have to recognize it,” said Bethlehem Superintendent Dr. Joseph Roy.
Of all of the district’s students, half are students of color and 60% qualify for free and reduced-price school meals. That’s why the district made it a priority in its strategic plan initiatives to eliminate race and family income as reliable predictors for student success, Roy said.
BASD administrators formed Excellence through Equity (ETE) subcommittees consisting of diverse district and community stakeholders to enhance action plans in five key areas. Some of the key areas of focus include working to make sure all BASD students are reading at grade-level by the end of third grade, determining student needs as they enter kindergarten and supporting teacher training in literacy.
“We’ve done many things for many years, but are now more strategic making it a priority, with actions and board endorsements that hadn’t been done in the district,” Roy said. “The real improvements in student success come if the majority of our kids are making good progress.” He added that for the district to be successful overall, it needs to focus on the needs of kids facing the most obstacles.
Data has shown that their initiatives are paying off. According to Roy, 88% of roughly 1,000 kindergarteners in the district were at or above the standard for where they need to be when they leave kindergarten.
“The achievement gaps that we started with in kindergarten were almost erased,” he said. “Every one was at or above the standard for being on pace, some were above.”
Another area of focus is providing students with support through transition years. For example, the freshman transition to high school.
“That’s a tough transition to high school; for minority boys, it’s a particular challenge. When we look at our data, African-American and Latino boys fair considerably worse in grades than the rest of the ninth-grade population,” said Roy.
The district connected a cohort of 40 to 50 boys at both high schools to a mentor teacher and placed them in a freshman seminar that focuses on the transition, study skills and career development.
Other areas outside of academics include working with the community to get health services to their students and implementing restorative justice at high schools to reduce discipline.
Although the district has multiple areas of focus, Roy said that the biggest success the board has had is getting people across the district to view things through an equity lens.
“If you are more sensitive, you notice when things are not equitable,” Roy said.
When their board president recognized that the cheapest package for school photos was $25, for example, they started looking at ideas for cheaper packages. The district’s parent-teacher organization groups also recognized that rewarding students who fundraise the most money is simply rewarding students who have more money to start with, Roy said.
“If you aren’t thinking about it, it never dawns on you,” he said. “What makes it a challenge is that in society, there are endless challenges.”

Pittsburgh Public Schools 

Pittsburgh Public Schools was one of three districts in the country – and the only one in Pennsylvania – to be named a recipient of the 2017 CUBE Annual Award for Urban School Board Excellence. This award recognizes school boards that exhibit excellence in school board governance, academic improvement, educational equity and community engagement.
“It solidifies the work that we are doing and lets the public know that we are definitely about supporting young people and our families as well,” said Pittsburgh Public Schools Board President Dr. Regina Holley. “Right now, we are focused on keeping students in school, building academic achievement and providing equitable resources to students.”
Some of the work the district is doing includes providing a nurse in every school, developing community schools that work with outside agencies to bring support into schools and working on not giving suspensions for non-violent offenses.
In 2015, the district selected 23 schools to participate in a project that uses “restorative practices” to provide an alternative to suspensions for non-violent discipline problems. This project was funded by a $3 million Justice Department grant. In 2013, Pittsburgh Public Schools worked with United Way to launch an attendance campaign to make attendance a priority.
Most recently, Holley said, the district was the first in the state to put a Transgender Policy in place to support these students. In addition, the board responded to the ending of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) by passing a resolution in January that it would not permit Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to access any students, without having contacted the Law Department with all relevant documentation.

“We have nine board members who have similar values. We may not always agree on everything, but we have similar values on supporting young people, and we want to keep them safe and in our schools,” Holley said. “We want to do everything we can to make that happen.”

Just this past May, Pittsburgh Public Schools established its first five “community schools” to provide social services for students and the surrounding community. This year was the first year for this initiative and the model will eventually include a health clinic and adult education classes.

“We wanted to do something different that involves community agencies supporting not only our children while in schools, but also the lives of the entire family,” Holley said. “The child doesn’t come to school in a vacuum.”


Erie Public Schools

Two new programs at Erie Public Schools aim to meet the unique needs of its students. The programs, which began at the start of the school year, are called the Newcomer Academy and the pilot of the Community Schools.
As one of the largest resettlement destinations for refugees in Pennsylvania, Erie is home to more than 10,000 refugees and almost 400 come to the city each year. As a result, the district’s Coordinator of Grants and Community Relations Daria Devlin said it launched a program this year to provide extra support to students, especially refugees.
The Newcomer Academy provides high-school and middle-school students who have recently arrived in the United States and who demonstrate beginning levels of English language proficiency, with a safe and welcoming learning environment. The program, which is available to all students and housed at two Erie schools, provides extensive language instruction. In addition, Devlin said there is a summer program in the works that gets students acclimated before the school year starts.
Partnering with United Way of Erie County, Erie’s Public Schools piloted their Community Schools at five sites this year as a way to organize school and community resources around student success.
“We understand that when students come to school with non-academic needs, it affects their ability to perform,” Devlin said. “The vision of Community Schools Pilot is to try to address those needs with community partners so kids can come to school ready to learn.”
Through this model, United Way provides each Community School with a full-time director who works with service providers and social service agencies to funnel resources directly into the school to address their most pressing needs.
Each Community School focuses on academics, services, supports and opportunities to improve student learning, create stronger families and foster healthier communities. Although it’s only in its first year, the district is seeing some progress. For example, Edison Elementary School now has a food pantry, uniform pantry (pictured at left) and clothing pantry to address some of their needs.  B