Superintendent Association committee zeros in on equity to improve gaps in education

Aims to reduce achievement disparities along race, income lines

It’s a stark reality: Academic achievement levels vary greatly depending on race and economic status. Kent County educators are putting a renewed focus on that fact, unwilling to let it remain the status quo.

Kent Intermediate Superintendent Association Diversity Equity and Inclusion Committee

  • Godfrey-Lee Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Poston
  • Coni Sullivan, Kent ISD assistant superintendent of human resources and legal services
  • Bill Smith, assistant superintendent of instructional services
  • Brandy Lovelady Mitchell, director of the Kent ISD Office of Diversity Equity and Inclusion
  • Sunil Joy, Kent ISD data researcher
  • Cedar Springs Superintendent Scott Smith
  • Mary Jo Kuhlman, assistant superintendent of organizational learning at Grand Rapids Public Schools

“Data shows there is a disparity of results between students of color and students in poverty, compared to Caucasian students and students not in poverty,” said Godfrey-Lee Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Polston. “In some cases a Caucasian student who receives free lunch was outperforming a Hispanic or African-American student that (is not in poverty).”

Polston is working to address that disparity and others that exist along racial and socioeconomic lines, by chairing the seven-member Kent Intermediate Superintendent Association Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. The group meets monthly with the goal of building awareness and working toward change.

“We are trying to build the capacity for every superintendent in Kent County to lead with an equity lens,” Polston said. “Once we have that lens, we can look at the unique needs of our individual districts.”

Polston said it’s imperative that education addresses gaps that are leaving some students far behind others in reaching their potential. It’s a personal issue to him and many area educators. Godfrey-Lee has a majority of Hispanic students and the highest level of poverty in Kent County — 95 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch and 40 percent are at the federal poverty level.

Change to better meet the needs of all students requires ongoing training and a shift in thinking, Polston said. The committee is tapping into resources from New York City Leadership Academy and Leading Educators, which have worked to confront inequities in education.

“This is not a one-and-done professional development,” he said. “We believe it’s our actions as educators that will shape the performance of our students.”

Brandy Lovelady-Mitchell

New Post Addresses Issue

Kent ISD also this school year created the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, led by Brandy Lovelady Mitchell, to increase focus on equity issues.

“The fact that we can still pretty accurately forecast who is going to thrive and who is going to lag behind on most school success indicators based on ethnicity, socio-economic status, language and zip code provides a blatant reason why we need to take action,” said Lovelady Mitchell, who is also on the committee.

It’s educators’ responsibility to not perpetuate inequities and to redesign systems to eliminate them, she said.

“We have pockets of excellence in our community that we need to bridge together to help move the needle in the right direction,” she said. “We are so fortunate with so many resources, it would be a tragedy if we didn’t look the root of the problem in the face and address it.”

Different Outcomes for Different Students

  • Higher-income white students had proficiency rates of 30 and 20 points above their higher-income African-American and Hispanic peers, respectively, on the 11th-grade SAT in Evidence-based Reading and Writing.
  • White students eligible for free and reduced lunch performed at similar levels as higher-income Hispanic and African-American students in M-STEP grade 3 English Language Arts.
  • White students eligible for free and reduced lunch performed at similar rates as higher-income Hispanic students in M-STEP eighth-grade math, and at greater rates than higher-income African American students.
  • Higher-income white students had proficiency rates 2.5 times greater than higher-income African American students in SAT 11 Mathematics, and more than 1.5 times greater than their Hispanic peers.

Source: Kent ISD Data Warehouse, 2017-2018 Kent ISD student data

Schools Increasingly Diverse

The committee’s work comes at a time when Kent County schools are increasing in diversity. Over the past 10 years all 20 districts in Kent County have grown in numbers of students of color. Examples: Kent City increased from 12.5 to 25 percent; Caledonia from 5 to 14 percent; and Godfrey-Lee from 78 to 93 percent.

The trend is mirrored across the country. Data shows by 2045 the U.S. will be a majority of people of color.

Not serving all students with education that equips them with the skills they need for the workforce would negatively impact the well-being of the entire country and future economy, Polston said. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation published a study, The Business Case for Racial Equity, which projects the U.S economy would be $2.3 trillion, or nearly 6 percent, larger by 2050, if the educational achievement of black and Hispanic/Latino children were raised to that of white children.

“The risk is not in doing something around equity; the risk is in not doing it,” Polston said. “We can’t continue on the path that we are on. We have to really take a critical look at what we are doing, how we are doing it and what are the steps we can make for change.”

The committee aims to bring its work down to a building level, fitting it with individual district needs. Polston noted that equity extends beyond race and poverty; it includes gender, special education, budget allocation and facilities. Addressing it involves different issues for each district and can impact things like  hiring decisions, the budget, curriculum and professional development goals.

‘The risk is not in doing something around equity; the risk is in not doing it.’ — Kevin Polston, superintendent of Godfrey-Lee Public Schools

Lovelady Mitchell said she is already seeing more conversations take place in education circles.

More educators are talking about implicit bias — the “tendency for stereotype-confirming thoughts to pass spontaneously through our minds,” according to a 2018 analysis in Scientific American — and working to become more culturally proficient. More are creating equity-centered school-based teams and using data within their buildings to zero in on inequities. Curriculum directors, administrators and other educators are sharing articles and other resources related to diversity, equity and inclusion in professional learning and development.

“We have great educators in our county who are hungry for continual development of identity, knowledge and the skills to operate as equity leaders,” she said. “We will move the needle through transformed policies, processes, practices, consciousness and condition. This is not easy work. It is the right work.”

Scott Smith

Socioeconomic Status Factors in Too

While students in Cedar Springs are mostly white, almost 50 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch, said Cedar Springs Superintendent Scott Smith, a committee member.

“Our area of focus might be slightly different than what equity means in Grand Rapids Public Schools or Kentwood,” Smith said about joining the committee last fall. “While we have less ethnic diversity, we have greater socioeconomic diversity. I thought it just provided a different lens of reflection to the work. Ultimately, I was hoping my work would bring back positive benefits to our students and families in Cedar Springs and northern Kent County.”

Smith said socioeconomic status is the biggest divide in his community.

Unlike financially secure students, those from low-income families often struggle to have basic needs met, such as food, coats, and heat in their homes. They often don’t own books or have opportunities for enrichment activities during the summer. Smith is working to build awareness that such differences impact how students learn.

“For me, equity is about access and trying to equalize and normalize access,” he said.

Educators need to consider what providing access to resources really entails. Laptops for students to use at home are only effective if they have Wi-Fi access, he said.

“Each student walks through the door with a different set of needs,” he added, “so how best can we customize our work to meet each student where they are so they can be where they need to be.”

Kevin Polston

Different Expectations Yield Different Results

Polston believes implicit bias is a significant factor in differences in education, including expectations and behavior consequences. Building awareness around types of subconscious generalizations is important, he said.

“We aren’t blaming anybody here. That’s not going to solve anything. We have to carefully reflect on our practices and the outcomes they are achieving.”

Teachers’ expectations of achievement for students of color are often less than for white students, he said. Access to grade-level curriculum for students of color is also less, Polston said. “It’s not a mystery that they are not as a whole achieving at the same levels.”

Biases affect “who teachers call on, who is recommended for opportunities, advancement, gifted and talented, scholarships, who gets referred to special education,” he said.

It even leads to parents of color believing their children can’t handle high levels of rigor, he said. On the contrary, he argued: “All children can learn, and they can learn at high levels when presented with the expectation and opportunity to learn and scaffolded instruction to learn.”

But the committee’s approach doesn’t point fingers. Polston said gaps in student success aren’t a result of lack of effort on anyone’s part. Instead it’s about how to improve with better practices regarding equity.

“People are doing their very best,” he said, noting the hard work of teachers, principals and support staff. “Parents care deeply about their children and their futures. But even with everyone’s best effort and intention, we still have this issue.”

Diverse Teachers Make a Difference

There are various factors to consider. A key one is that educators don’t reflect the student demographic of students they are serving, Polston said.

“We have primarily teachers that are white, middle-class, majority female, serving majority students of color and around 46 percent of students countywide on free and reduced lunch.”

Yet research shows a racially diverse staff can have a powerful impact on students. According to a large 2017 study, “The Long-Run Impacts of Same-Race Teachers,” low-income African-American male students having just one black teacher in third, fourth or fifth grade reduced their probability of dropping out of high school by 39 percent.

‘This is not easy work. It is the right work.’ — Brandy Lovelady Mitchell, Kent ISD director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

But according to Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Caniff,  less than 5 percent of the county’s teachers are African American, while 13.7 percent of the students are black. Likewise, 17 percent of the region’s students are Hispanic/Latino compared with less than 3 percent of their teachers.

Believing in Students

To illustrate how well students can do when given opportunities, regardless of their backgrounds, Polston points to a new FIRST Robotics team at Godfrey-Lee.

“Our students qualified for the state finals,” he said, proudly. “They placed second in two separate competitions. They were among the top 25 teams on the state.

“When you give kids exposure to opportunity,” he asserted, “they can achieve, sometimes better than their peers.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio

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