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Great expectations for equity in education

Leaders seek help from communities to level the playing field in and outside the classroom
  • Dedicated to diversity: Jefferson County Schools in Kentucky (left) has resisted the resegregation that has plagued other large urban districts.
  • Organic integration: Administrators say the choice program in Jefferson County Schools creates diversity naturally, as it brings together students countywide and from all ethnic and economic backgrounds.
  • Knowledge is power: The Cleveland Metropolitan School District does extensive outreach so its students and families know they can access a range of specialized high schools—­such as business, digital arts, engineering and the environment.
  • Jefferson County Schools' extensive choice program allows students to attend schools with specialized curricula, such as health care.

Equity in K12 education doesn’t mean the same thing as equality. In fact, achieving true equity often requires providing lower-income schools and students with more resources than are given others in the same district, says Joel Boyd, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools in New Mexico.

“Fair student funding means some students are funded at a higher level—some schools and some young people receive additional services,” says Boyd, who raised the graduation rate from 56 to 67 percent since taking over in 2012.

“Some schools wonder why they get less, but this is how we ensure equity across a district,” he says.

Across the country, the sometimes bumpy road to equity runs through the classroom, where school leaders have adjusted academic programs to better support and engage students of different economic and ethnic backgrounds.

But the path may start and end in the surrounding communities, where problems like hunger, poverty, discrimination, homelessness and poor health care can ruin a student’s school day before it even begins. To overcome such challenges, districts rely increasingly on community organizations that have deeper resources to provide everything from food to mental health counseling to after-school activities.

That lets educators focus on what they’re best at—rigorous instruction. Yet, Boyd says, in too many low-performing districts, teachers must also address a host of personal problems that distract students from learning.

“When the teacher has to make the choice between meeting basic needs or meeting academic needs, the teacher usually errs on side of basic needs,” Boyd says. “And if we can’t hold high academic expectations, our youngsters will never be able to reach grade level.”

Make the most of the day

Enrollment in Richmond Community Schools, a small urban district in Indiana, has dropped from about 16,000 in the mid-1970s to just 5,000 today. More staggering, the number of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch has soared from 58 percent in 2007 to 80 percent.

But in a sure sign of hope, the district that critics once called a “dropout factory” has raised its graduation rate from just 60 percent to 98 percent, Richmond Superintendent Todd Terrill says.

He attributes that success to intense work in the classroom and about 130 partnerships with community groups that offer after-school enrichment activities, mental health counseling and a wide-range of social services to low-income families.

“You have to identify things that you can do within the timeframe you have when the students are in school—that’s where you have to start,” Terrill says. “From there, the key is finding community partners to provide support. So much of that is getting out in the community and building relationships and letting people know how they can be involved.”

For instance, the district and local business community came together to launch an intensive, four-week reading academy for third-graders who fail the assessment required to move onto fourth grade.

In the classroom, the Richmond district limits the amount of homework given to elementary and intermediate school students. “Students are not going home to environments where that will be conducive,” Terrill says. “We’re trying to accomplish as much as we can during the seven-hour window we have them.”

The number of assessments given to students also has been cut—a list of tests that used to run for three pages is now down to just one.

Now, teachers constantly evaluate students to group and regroup them based on proficiency in different subjects. Such small groups, for instance, can be provided with specific instruction based on whether the students are ready to move ahead of their classmates or need help catching up.

“Many of our students are wondering from night to night where they’re going to stay, what they’re going to eat,” Terrill says. “Those challenges really increase the difficulty they face on assessments.”

Connect with community services

When Boyd was named superintendent in Santa Fe in 2012, the public’s confidence in the school system had fallen along with the graduation rate, he says. To turn the district around, he established a system of “differentiated autonomy.”

Successful schools gained more control to develop curriculum, professional development, teacher collaboration, community outreach, student interventions and other operations.

Principals in poorly performing buildings lost some autonomy but received extra resources to hire instructional coaches to improve teaching quality and to extend the learning day with after-school academic support for struggling students.

But even the strongest teaching staff can’t solve all problems for students whose basic life needs aren’t being met at home. “An exemplary teacher gets a year and a half of growth from a child but many youngsters are further behind,” Boyd says. “Teachers need support to help youngsters who are significantly behind.”

To that end, Sante Fe schools contracts with Communities in Schools, a nonprofit that connects low-income families with health care, food banks, counseling, housing programs and assistance with utility bills to name a few.

“Until you get those basic needs met, kids aren’t going to be ready to pay attention or focus on tests,” says Gary Chapman, executive vice president of the network impact and operations teams at Communities in Schools.

The organization, which works with about 2,300 schools and 100,000 community organizations, places a site coordinator at each school to help administrators determine specific needs of the building and its families—which also sometimes includes finding volunteers to tutor students or to help them plan for college.

“If you don’t have a partner making sure these service are provided,” Boyd adds, “someone in the school will. When teachers are left only to provide emotional support, it takes away from academics.”

Choose the building that fits best

“School choice” has become a tool for creating more equitable learning environments in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District in Ohio and Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky.

Cleveland offers specialized programming at some of its 30 high schools, which include the Cleveland High School for Digital Arts and the Bard Early College High School. For lower grades, it operates a K8 International Baccalaureate school staffed partially by Cleveland State University faculty.

“Being able to access education shouldn’t be reserved for a select group of know-hows,” says Kevin Alin, Cleveland’s executive director of school choice and enrollment. “There are different flavors of a quality high school experience, and we need to provide equity of information so all families know a brand new school has launched and everybody knows how to make choices.”

The district’s easy-to-use enrollment website ( is one way the information is made widely available. The district also has trained staff at public libraries to help families navigate the site, Alin says.

Parents’ choices can also be seen as votes that can raise the quality of all neighborhood schools, Alin says.

When a school is not in high demand, that tells administrators services are lacking in a certain neighborhood. That means the building will likely need updated curriculum, new special education or language programs, or physical improvements, Alin says.

The data can also determine where new schools are built. The district’s most chosen high school is Max Hays, a career and technical facility on the city’s west side that was upgraded to a new, state-of-the-art building in 2015. The district is considering building a similar school on the other side of the city because many of Hays’ students come from those neighborhoods.

“This is where school choice can really help level the playing field,” Alin says. “We allow school choice data to tell the story about what neighborhoods are seeking from their schools.”

In Jefferson County, the district sends its application bus throughout the city of Louisville and surrounding communities to ensure all parents know about the variety of traditional and specialized programs, such as computer programming, performing arts, Spanish immersion and health care. About half of the district’s families choose a school outside their own neighborhood, which creates a more diverse and equitable environment organically, Superintendent Donna Hargens says.

“Students are willing to go to a different part of the county because they want to learn to fly,” Hargens says, referring to an aeronautics program at The Academy at Shawnee. “It moves students around the county—but based on their own choices and interests.”

Use online learning effectively

Many districts ensure equity by providing ample and flexible opportunities to recover missed credits.

In Williams USD in Northern California, a heavily Hispanic district, students from rural farming communities go online on Saturdays or during summer programs to earn credits in elective courses.

The extra work gives them more time during the school year to focus on catching up in core subjects like math and English, says Nicholas Richter, the principal of Williams Junior Senior High School, where 90 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches.

“It’s very hard to learn algebra, engineering or biology in an online medium—especially if you’ve struggled with it,” Richter says. “So we put other supports in place so it’s not sink-or-swim a second time.”

This assistance includes additional lab time in math and English to get seventh- and eighth-graders ready for high school. And when, for instance, a student gets a D in biology in the first semester and a B in the second, teachers can use online programs to help students brush up on skills they may not have mastered.

The district also provides regular counseling for students in dysfunctional family situations, and it has expanded its dual enrollment offerings through a local community college.

It also encourages all students who are academically eligible to participate in an extracurricular activity that keeps them more connected to the school. As a result, the number of students meeting state standards for high school has nearly doubled, Richter says.

Eliminating cultural bias

In Minnesota’s Burnsville-Eagan-Savage Public Schools, the percentage of minorities has grown from just the single digits 30 years ago to about 50 percent, Superintendent Joe Gothard says.

And equity cannot be achieved unless educators embed the concept into every level of its operation. Part of the district’s extensive PD program in cultural proficiency forces educators to reconsider assumptions they may have about certain groups.

One such misconception is that students who receive free or reduced-priced lunch don’t get a lot of homework help from their parents. And teachers, therefore, may not call on these students to answer questions in class as often, says Stacy Stanley, director of curriculum and assessment at Burnsville-Eagan Savage schools.

And equity work must be done outside the school. Gothard stresses the message regularly in meetings with civic groups.

“I heard that families were leaving the district because teachers were spending too much time with English language learners and taking away from their own child’s education,” he says. “My response has been, ‘Have we considered how beneficial it is for non-ELL students to learn beside students who have such different cultural values and languages?’”

Across the country, districts will depend on support from their communities—particularly, from school boards and constituents—to adjust funding and academic programs to serve all students, such as expanding access to Advanced Placement classes.

The wider public, meanwhile, relies on educators to graduate students capable of contributing to society.

This relationship remains crucial because—despite media coverage and research—persistent inequities in the U.S. education system are not universally recognized, says William Parrett, a professor at Boise State University who has written extensively about turning around high-poverty schools.

“Inequity really comes down to low expectations,” Parrett says. “If we don’t have equally high expectations for all kids—and that’s not clear to all teachers—we’re going to see all the kinds of inequitable behavior that still exists throughout the U.S.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.