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K12 leadership network aims to eliminate equity gaps

Autumn Blanchard, director of marketing and communications, says it’s not a question of will when tackling tough equity issues for district leaders in education. It’s a matter of capacity, support, and the time and space to strategize.
Autumn Blanchard, director of marketing and communications, says it’s not a question of will when tackling tough equity issues for district leaders in education. It’s a matter of capacity, support, and the time and space to strategize.

School district leaders in the southern United States looking to tackle equity challenges have some help on the way.

Administrators who want to make changes, such as creating healthy eating initiatives or discipline reform, can apply for a fellowship designed to give them more effective resources to help eliminate racial and economic disparities across their districts.

The Southern Education Foundation will launch the Racial Equity Leadership Network this year to help boost the skills of seven to 10 cabinet-level leaders, including superintendents, assistant superintendents and chief academic officers. Participants can be from any size district in 13 southern states. 

The foundation wants “ambitious leaders who are interested in courting real change,” says Autumn Blanchard, director of marketing and communications. The foundation plans to launch networks every 18 months to train new groups of equity-minded leaders. 

Some statistics that make this relevant: African-American students are 15 percent less likely to graduate high school than are their white peers, according to the U.S. Department of Education. And economically disadvantaged students are 8 percent less likely to earn a diploma. 

Brainstorm, identify team

In a series of two-day events, which are free, participants will gather to identify common equity issues, such as implementing a districtwide health plan or how to audit finances to ensure disadvantaged students are receiving adequate resources.

They will then brainstorm with foundation staff and outside experts, and develop solutions. Leaders also must identify a five- to seven-person support team—including teachers, administrators and community leaders—who will commit to help the district execute its equity initiative.

The foundation also plans to send specialists into districts to provide assistance and to ensure follow-through. 

For instance, the foundation could help administrators publicize a healthy eating initiative to reduce the number of students who show up to school hungry and unable to focus. 

The program should fill a gap in existing leadership development programs. “There are plenty of administrative boot camps, but our focus on race and equity is unique,” Blanchard says.

“And we’ve seen over and over again, when tackling tough equity issues it’s not a question of will for district leaders, it’s a matter of capacity, support, and the time and space to strategize.”

Top-down leader training

These types of networks, which can be scaled and replicated by other organizations, create natural affinity groups for leaders facing similar problems in other districts, says Morton Sherman, associate executive director of leadership and awards at AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

But leadership networks alone won’t solve the most intractable equity problems. Eradicating educational disparities will require top-down district-leader training, combined with bottom-up initiatives such as rigorous teacher training, community engagement initiatives and government-led anti-poverty policies, Sherman says. 

“Districts are facing challenges like inner-city poverty, food deserts, tough environmental and social conditions,” he says. “These are deep-rooted issues. Obviously schools can’t do it alone.”