Leading with an equity lens: Lessons from REEEN in the MN education ecosystem

MnEEP has 5 Big Bold Goals (BBGs) for transforming education in Minnesota. The first goal—for Minnesota schools to lead with an equity lens—is supported through numerous initiatives at MnEEP, including building collective action through Equity Action Processes and Plans with rural community leaders and families. Education leaders, community members, and students comprise the Race Equity and Excellence in Education Network (REEEN) to inform important equity planning in Greater Minnesota.

The REEEN initiative began in 2012 when rural leaders asked MnEEP for research assistance to provide base-line data about racial disparities in education in rural Minnesota. As of 2018, we have partnered with two rural communities – interacting with school board leaders, superintendents, families, students, nonprofit leaders, and foundation leaders through an inclusive equity action planning process to discuss race equity in education policy and practice solutions.

This year, we also initiated a new leadership development/dialogue series with school superintendents. We partnered with researchers and practitioners from Minnesota State University Mankato, Edina and Government Alliance for Race and Equity (GARE) and Generation Next and partnered with 30 MN Superintendents to discuss key concepts and frameworks around leading with an equity lens.

We have learned a lot from these partnerships and from our role in building the capacity of leaders and communities to use an equity lens in their equity planning, leading, and systems change work.

Here are some important lessons we have learned, and how we can continue to use them to build race equity in education:

Lesson 1. The Importance of a Systems, Structures and Cultures Framework

Almost like clockwork, the notion that addressing opportunity gaps is a “one person job” is a common thought. Students are not achieving academic proficiency? “It’s the family’s fault, they don’t value education.” Or no, “It’s the teacher’s fault, they are not prepared to work with such diverse students.” Or – really “It’s the cause of poverty, low-income students of color or American Indian students will never learn as long as they are poor.”

The reality, however, is that our education system is made up of systems, structures and cultural beliefs and values. Dr. Ron Ferguson of the Achievement Gap Institute at Harvard best put it, “In the context of a movement for excellence with equity, it is important to view the changing of cultural norms in schools, homes and youth peer groups as collective action projects requiring organizers and leadership, not adjustments that individuals will carry out in isolation without regard for others’ responses. Similarly, structural conditions are seldom under the control of a single person and changing those will also require organizing and leadership.”

The “Systems, Structures, and Cultures” framework is vital in changing systems and communities simultaneously. The student and family of color needs to know that the Superintendent welcomes their community to the school setting.  The teachers and school leaders need to hear what cultural communities and American Indian communities say is getting in the way of providing an equitable and accessible education. The opportunity gap issues in education are not going to close with only a new policy set forth by a Board of Directors- it’s a collective systems, structures, and cultures shift that must occur for real equitable outcomes in student achievement.  The more informed every “actor” in the system knows of one another, the better the outcomes.

Lesson 2. National Civil Rights in Education Laws Matter

While it is very clear from news and media updates that opportunity gaps in education persist while communities of color and immigrant students, in particular, are a fast growing demographic, what is less reported on are the laws in place that protect these students’ civil rights and access to quality education.

People are mostly familiar with the Civil Rights case, Brown V. Board of Education, barring segregation in school settings in 1954. Less familiar to the public are the laws that were passed in the 1970’s addressing English learners’ rights in education.

Dr. Patricia Gandara of UCLA reminded us at our MN Superintendent Symposium recently of the Lau v. Nichols case of 1974 that ensures “There is no equality of treatment merely by providing students with the same facilities, textbooks, teachers and curriculum, for students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from a meaningful education.” The law specifies, school districts to take “appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in the instructional program.”

As school leaders and community leaders are reminded of our U.S. laws protecting students’ access to a quality education, we see a re-commitment to addressing opportunity gaps in school community settings. We have learned that leaders doing the work every day to build equity in education find it critically useful to be reminded that there is a larger national, legal and principled context supporting this work based on our country’s commitment to fairness and justice.

Lesson 3. A Communications Strategy for Lifting Up Education Equity is Essential

From past Superintendents of the Twin Cities area, we have learned about the importance of a communications team in school districts to understand the race equity policy development and implementation of a district, and what the public needed to hear about these steps.

Likewise, we have learned from communication experts around equity plans and leadership innovating in the equity space that sharing disparities data is key in communications—as is sharing with the public an “we are all in this together” spirit to resolving it with equity action steps.

Social media and traditional media may not allow for great explanation of new equity plans or approaches, but ongoing newsletters and public forums to address a district’s approach to education equity is essential for transparency and better outcomes.

At MnEEP, we will continue to learn from the several partners in our REEEN Network and through all of our BBGs on education equity transformations.

We are honored to be able to share our lessons through blogs and other posts, if you know of anyone who should be on our e-newsletter list, please email us at info@mneep.org

Posted in Our Voices, Race Equity and Excellence in Education Network (REEEN), Race Equity: Promise to Act Plans

Jennifer Godinez View posts by Jennifer Godinez

Jennifer works in partnership with Minnesota communities to build Race Equity Plans and advance policies and practices that promote culturally responsive classrooms and encourage student success.
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