Racial equity policy searches to extend equal opportunities
By Clara Atwell, Editor-in-Chief
The Vashon community has long prided itself with holding the values of acceptance and equality in high regard. However, given that the majority of the island’s population is white, many residents have not experienced discrimination based on skin color.
This lack of diversity has led to what Stephanie Spencer, district director of teaching and learning, refers to as “color blindness.”
“Because traditionally [Vashon has been] a predominantly white culture, it creates sometimes what is called ‘color blindness.’ So those of us who are white aren’t necessarily aware of the small things that happen every day because we don’t tend to notice the difference in color,” Spencer said.
District policy 3212 ― Ensuring Educational and Racial Equity ― was adopted on Oct. 26, 2017. The policy was put in place to address discrepancies within test results between white and non-white students by uncovering subconsciously-held biases and raising awareness around white privilege within the district.
This discrepancy within test results can be seen within the 2017-18 Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium data for 10th graders. In the mathematics portion of the test, 67.74 percent of students identifying as students of color performed below proficient, compared to 33.33 percent of white students.
The policy focuses on five key areas that the district believes will support the overarching goal of ensuring that every student is given the same chances to succeed.
According to policy 3212, these five sections address the issue. They require the district to do the following: 1) “Raise the opportunity and achievement of all students while narrowing the gaps between the highest and lowest achieving students; [2)] Promote representative diversity of access to and participation in academic courses, activities and school events; [3)] Ensure adoption of culturally diverse instructional materials and lessons; [(4)] Ensure ongoing assessment of the effectiveness of racial equity initiatives through review of assessment data, surveys, focus groups, and other means; and [5)] Ensure all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, or class, graduate from the District prepared to succeed in a racially and culturally diverse local, national, and global community.”
Spencer describes this approach to dealing with equity issues as acting like lens through which the district views school issues, from curriculum adoption to social issues.
At Chautauqua, this idea has already been put into place. It is currently used in the adoption of English Language Acquisition (ELA) curriculum and in choosing an updated Washington State History textbook for the fourth grade, which now includes edits by Native American consultants. Within each school, the librarians have focused on choosing books across genres with characters and authors from all cultures and ethnicities in hopes of making sure that students feel that they are represented in literature.
“When we were looking at the high school adoption [of the ELA curriculum], the teachers were looking at a selection of literature that wasn’t [written by] a bunch of dead white guys,” superintendent Slade McSheehy said.
The policy also supports trainings, workshops, and consultations for teachers and administrators; programs such as Journeymen and Vashon Youth and Family Services, book studies; and release time for teacher leadership teams to work on understanding and implementing the Racial Equity Policy. Each of these programs are funded through the Vashon Schools Foundation. The organization allocated $35,000 to the cause in the 2018-2019 year, a $10,000 increase from last year.
Each school is currently at a different stage within the implementation of the policy. One of McSheehy’s goals for the program is to get all of the schools at the same pace with the policy’s implementation.
While conversations concerning racial equity have occured to some degree among students at McMurray and Chautauqua, the same can’t be said for high school students. These discussions surround issues such as achievement data, opportunity gaps, and creating a culture of belonging. McSheehy hopes that next year the work will be partially transferred to the student body, particularly in facilitating ASB conversations. Spencer believes the conversations are crucial to understanding what it’s like for a person of color living on Vashon.
“One of the greatest successes is that we are having conversations,” Spencer said. “[In] our society in general, we are not great at having conversations about race, and we really do need to have conversations about race.”
Throughout the district, there are professional learning communities (PLCs) comprised of one teacher from each department, as well as the recently-formed Equity Teams who work with the Racial Equity Policy within the individual schools. PLC members work much like chairs for their departments, and focus on both growth goals and district initiatives in addition to equity goals. The Equity Team focuses more specifically on the Racial Equity Policy. The Equity Team disseminates their goals to the PLCs, and the PLCs further disseminate them to the rest of the school.
According to Equity Team member and high school government teacher Jason Butler, the group plans to continue meeting in hopes of soon being able to set a clear vision for how the policy will be implemented within the high school, as well as what the tangible results of the progress will be.
Currently, the group meets twice a month. At these sessions, the team works to create an equity calendar with goals and targets for both the staff and students. They also read books and articles to help generate conversation and build understanding of race-related issues.
“Racial equity is a school board priority,” high school assistant principal Alanah Baron said. “As such, administrators in all three buildings complete a report outlining our goals, action plan, and a timeline which [all go] to the superintendent. The superintendent reports this progress to the school board three times each year. These meetings are open to the public, live-streamed, and recorded as public documents.”
Since the policy was first implemented, a common question from the community arose: why does the initiative focus solely on racial equity as opposed to overall equity or on issues such as socioeconomic status? According to the district, this distinction stems from the difference in test scores between students of color and their white peers. Additionally, policy-makers emphasized that students don’t have a choice to mask the color of their skin in order to “fit in,” whereas people of a particular socioeconomic background can hide that aspect of themselves with relative ease.
“When you are in the predominant culture … you can choose to engage with race issues, or not, by the color of your skin,” Spencer said.
These two issues have led the district to prioritize the success of underperforming students of color.
“If I’m looking at an advantaged [white] student who is not achieving and a disadvantaged [student of color] who is not achieving, I’m going to focus my priorities [on the disadvantaged student] because the studies show year after year, decade after decade, that the likelihood of this student ever catching up to the white student is unlikely,” McSheehy said.
This strong focus on students who are underachieving has led to controversy in the community due to beliefs that the program is taking away resources from higher-achieving students.
“When you start taking resources and differentiating those resources and putting them to support disadvantaged students, other families see that as diverting resources away from them, and now it’s not fair for them and why can’t we just support all kids,” McSheehy said. “We are supporting all kids, but … there are some students in our district that I feel are my priority.”
Despite a clear vision, McSheehy admits to not knowing how effective the policy will be, due to the time it takes to gather concrete data.
“That, to me, is the biggest challenge; is what we are doing going to make a difference?” he said. “I know at the end of the year we aren’t going to be able to tell anybody that. We will be able to point to some data [but] we won’t really know until we see the student achievement data.”