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District begins multi-year effort to improve equity, scholar success

Work will focus on curriculum, hiring, creating belonging for all

Wyoming  Rather than doing it herself, Parkview Elementary third-grade teacher Elizabeth Weld-Wallis put her students to the task of explaining what goes on in their classroom to a visiting School News Network reporter.

Students were eager to talk about the book bins organized by reading levels, the Chromebook cart and the classroom list of chores. They summarized their system for tallying up points for positive behavior, and how they designate each other as “Super Readers,” meaning they’ve earned the privilege of snuggling up with a book at reading time on a comfy chair or cushion.

Third-grader Heather Urrita explained how a “Mood Meter,” a color-coded square on the wall, tracks how students feel as they begin their morning routines. Each day, students put their names on one of the colors. “Red is angry and mad, blue is sad, yellow is excited or joyful and green means, like, chill,” Heather said. The Mood Meter on that Thursday showed a lot of excited and chill students.

‘There is this controversy across the country about why we are doing this work, and I don’t think (schools) are that good at saying, ‘Have you seen our data? Have you seen our outcomes?’ It demands that we talk about what we’re not doing yet to push every baby past the success line.’

— Tammy Cambpell, superintendent for Federal Way Schools, Washington

Third-grader Joe Louie pointed to one of 21 flags hanging from the ceiling. “The 21st flag is where I am from and where my family is from. Mexico is pretty cool because there are lizards and scorpions.”

Letting students lead is an example of how Weld-Wallis is digging deep into her teaching toolbox to embed equity into her classroom. 

“For me equity is all about voice,” Weld-Wallis said. “It’s one thing for me to tell you, but another thing from a third-grade perspective.”

Weld-Wallis is a member of the new District Equity and Scholar Success Team, exploring what equity can look like in school if it’s present in everything. 

Working Toward District-Wide Equity

Equity plays a role in a student’s experiences in school, from the curriculum to the staff, to what resources they have at their fingertips. With that in mind, Wyoming Public Schools is embarking on a multi-year effort to improve equity and student success among its highly diverse student population. The district is about 47 percent Hispanic, 28 percent white, 15 percent African American, 7 percent two or more races and 2 percent Asian, according to mischooldata.org

“It starts with mindset and beliefs about what our children are able to do,” said Jennifer Slanger, Wyoming Public Schools director of teaching and learning. “Having that deeply seated belief that our scholars can achieve, that our scholars deserve   and it’s their right  to have a rigorous curriculum and access to that. If we have a collective belief around that, it is going to be a catalyst for improved student outcomes for all students.”

Creating equitable schools takes a lot of work and determination, Weld-Wallis said, but it’s something she feels strongly about. 

“I’ve realized that equity does not happen through osmosis,” she said. “I have to be much more intentional with my teaching practices.”

As in many schools nationwide, gaps in achievement based on ethnicity and race are a reality in the district.

“When I look at our scholar achievement data and I see the disparity in how our Hispanic and African-American students are achieving compared to our white students, it’s alarming, and it shows that we need to do something different,” Slanger said.

Jennifer Slanger

Glaring Achievement Gaps  

On the 2019 English Language Arts M-STEP for third- through eighth-grade students, 40% of white students were proficient, while 16% of black students and 28% of Hispanic students were proficient. 

On the 2019 math M-STEP of students in the same grades, 33% of white students were proficient, while 11% of Black students and 20% of Hispanic students were proficient. 

The 28-member District Equity and Scholar Success Team consists of staff members from across the district, including building leaders, a school psychologist, central office representatives and parents. The Superintendent’s Executive Council, which also includes Slanger, Superintendent Craig Hoekstra and several other administrators, is working alongside that group. Efforts will also include the Board of Education, students and families.

“We are creating a vision for excellence and equity, with the goal that this vision will have the fingerprints of all of our staff members on it by the time it is finalized,” Slanger said. “This is the most critically important work that we are doing.”

The district is working with Tammy Campbell, a nationally recognized superintendent for Federal Way Schools, in Federal Way, Washington, to embed equity strategies and align them throughout the district. Campbell will help Wyoming co-construct its vision this school year. She is also working with Kent ISD and Grand Rapids Public Schools.

‘It starts with mindset and beliefs about what our children are able to do. Having that deeply seated belief that our scholars can achieve, that our scholars deserve  —  and it’s their right to have a rigorous curriculum and access to that.’

—  Jennifer Slanger, Wyoming Public Schools director of teaching and learning.

Campbell emphasized the importance of the work during a presentation to all staff to kick off the school year. 

“There is this controversy across the country about why we are doing this work, and I don’t think (schools) are that good at saying, ‘Have you seen our data? Have you seen our outcomes?’ It demands that we talk about what we’re not doing yet to push every baby past the success line.”

The team’s early goals are to build a common language around equity district-wide and have conversations that allow people to share thoughts, ask difficult questions and listen to each other. 

“One of our year-one goals is creating a culture of belonging for everyone,” Slanger said. “We have to grow and learn together. We are going to have to be in dangerously safe spaces to do this work.”

Flags from 21 countries hang in Parkview Elementary third-grade teacher Elizabeth Weld-Wallis’ classroom

Reaching Scholars

Slanger said Wyoming’s efforts will examine many areas that impact student learning. Students’ backgrounds need to be reflected in the books they read and the role models they see. Said Slanger, “Do we have anti-bias resources? There are things we need to teach about our country’s history that have not been taught or have not been taught accurately.”

Hiring more teachers of color is another goal to serve the diverse student body, Slanger said. Currently, 98 percent of the district’s 207 teachers are white.

“What are we doing to recruit marginalized populations to go into education so we have a pool?” she said. 

Also, The district is undergoing a K-12 math curriculum review and adoption process. “One of the lenses we are using is to look at equitable math practices and equitable math resources,” Slanger said, adding that the same lens can be used in all content areas.

Weld-Wallis said she hopes to see students’ perspectives and voices included in Wyoming’s work through climate surveys given on a quarterly basis. She also wants outreach to parents to enable them to be included as much as possible in their children’s education.

She hopes the work results in improved graduation rates, college and university acceptance rates, and retention of students at those institutions.  

Lillian Cummings-Pulliams

Seeking ‘Genuine Sense of Belonging’

Team member Lillian Cummings-Pulliams, a school psychologist, also is hopeful the committee’s work results in “high expectations set for all of our scholars; academic, social, and emotional success of all of our scholars; authentic relationships with and connections to our scholars’ families and our community members; and a genuine sense of belonging felt by all of our scholars, staff, and families.”

For committee member Isa Gonzalez, a district parent and administrative assistant at the Administration Building, joining the team is about creating that sense of belonging for all students. 

“I wanted to be a part of it for multiple reasons, one because I have children who go to the district. I also went to the district and had overall positive views about myself growing up and being Hispanic,” Gonzalez said. “I also know how important it is to feel important and to feel included and I want to make sure that that’s continuing moving forward.”

One small but important piece of the work is shifting students’ own perceptions of themselves. That’s why the team and Campbell refer to students as “scholars.” 

 “It elevates an expectation. You are all scholars and what do scholars do?” Slanger said. “They accomplish great things in the world. It’s just really powerful.” 

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She 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, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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