Race and equity

Here’s some advice for CPS’ future Chief Equity Officer in year one

PHOTO: Bettmann/Getty Images
A third grade class recites the "Pledge of Allegiance" at Franklin Elementary School, which is now Franklin Fine Arts Academy, in September 1963

When a small group of central office staff met earlier this year at Chicago Public Schools headquarters to discuss a grant, the conversation went from how the district could support students’ social and emotional development to a bigger discussion about the world children are growing up in. CPS CEO Janice Jackson said the talks inside district headquarters at 42 W. Madison St.  soon “blossomed into a full blown commitment around race and equity.” 

On Wednesday, the Chicago Board of Education is expected to vote on CPS’ 2018-19 budget, which lists a new four-person Office of Equity as a $1 million line item. The board also plans to vote on a proposed revision to its student code of conduct to help address racial disparities in suspensions.

Equity officers are a small but growing cadre of school administrators working on diversity and inclusion. Districts in Los Angeles and New York don’t yet have a cabinet-level official who reports directly to the schools chief. But smaller urban districts like Jefferson County Public Schools, in Kentucky, and the Oakland Unified School District, have been doing the work for years.

“This is a good start, we’re excited about the direction we’re going in,” Jackson said.

In a racially equitable school, all students would get what they need to be successful, and race wouldn’t predict any child’s success or outcome. But how does a chief equity officer go about digging out so many deep-rooted problems at CPS?

In Chicago, one of America’s most diverse — and segregated — cities, few institutions illustrate racial inequity like the public school system. About 90 percent of CPS students are of color, but half of all teachers are white. White students, most of whom live on the North Side, comprise just 10 percent of students but are nearly all clustered at top rated schools (Level 1+ and Level 1). Black and Latino students, who are concentrated on the city’s South and West sides, also trail their white peers when it comes to test scores and college readiness.

PHOTO: Sam Park
This chart shows the “racial achievement gap” or “opportunity gap” in composite state standardized test scores.

The consequences of racial inequity in schools can follow students their entire lives. Jackson knows that all too well. She grew up on the South Side of Chicago, graduated from public schools, and returned as a teacher and principal.  

Now chief of the district, Jackson said the equity chief’s primary focus in year one would be bridging gaps in test scores between black and Latino students and their white peers.  “All tides are rising,” she said, citing academic growth at the district, “but the achievement gap still exists.” And while she said it’s too early to pinpoint every equity goal and standard, Jackson detailed some initiatives the new official would work on, starting with diversifying CPS’ workforce, ensuring resources are distributed equitably across the district, and supporting CPS efforts to award more contracts to minority- and woman-owned businesses.

To better understand what a chief equity office could look like, Chalkbeat interviewed school equity experts in several areas. While no school district has eradicated the problem, a savvy equity chief is starting to make a major difference in some cities.

Lessons from the Bluegrass State

PHOTO: Abdul Sharif
Chief Equity Officer John Marshall with students at Mill Creek Elementary’s student Leadership Academy convocation.

John Marshall grew up in a family of educators and attended failing schools in Louisville, Kentucky. After a high school suspension he felt was unfair, he vowed at a school disciplinary hearing to one day change the school system from the inside. Today, he’s the chief equity officer at Jefferson County Schools, which encompasses Louisville and is Kentucky’s largest district with more than 100,000 students, about 46 percent white and 37 percent African-American.

He said that a $3.6 million budget his office assesses the practices, policies, and behaviors of the school system, with a focus on access to academic programs, teacher recruitment, discipline and student achievement. He has spearheaded the creation of an equity institute to train employees and provide professional development. Last year, the school board approved creating a school for men of color with lessons taught “from an Afrocentric lens,” rather than the Eurocentric instruction prevalent at many American schools.

Marshall has some tips for CPS CEO Jackson as she seeks a chief equity officer: choose somebody who is organized, data-driven, research focused, and who understands the business of public education. That means not just hiring a bureaucrat, business person, or political operative — but snagging a candidate with experience teaching at and leading schools.

It’s also important to hire a person who can build bridges between the administration and community groups and enlist help in building momentum for racial equity work.  And, he said, it wouldn’t hurt to have candidates who have experience in the same school district they hope to improve.

“Do you need them to be from Chi-Town? Not really, but it’s helped me being from Kentucky,” he said.

One of the most vital qualities a chief equity officer should have, Marshall said, is a deep understanding of race and history. Tackling racial inequity means wrestling with the legacies of colonialism, slavery, and racial discrimination.

“What [equity officers] have to do is look at the system as not broken,” Marshall said, “but as doing what it’s created to do.”

Year one: a scorecard

When Marshall was hired in 2012, he said he focused on creating an equity scorecard loaded with critical data that grades the district via four metrics: literacy, college-and-career readiness, school climate and culture, and discipline. He said the data has helped focus the community conversation and strengthened efforts to improve outcomes for certain students. For example: The district saw some increases in the number of low-income students considered to be college and career ready between 2013 and 2016.

The data-laden equity scorecard has been a powerful guide in other ways, too.

For instance, Marshall said that his office recognized that students of color were being suspended at a disproportionately high rate. He worked with community groups to come up with a remedy, redefining the categories of conduct that were generating suspensions, namely, disruptive behavior. “This subjective infraction was being given to black males of color in alarming and disproportionate ways,” he said.

The disparities in discipline he mentioned are also a problem in Chicago. While the district has revised its suspensions policy and seen a steep decline since 2012, black boys are still the most likely to be suspended.

But none of this will work if the people who run schools can’t speak honestly about race. Lee Teitel runs a program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education that sends graduate students into schools to coach teachers and administrators on issues around race and equity. The students report back that it’s challenging, Teitel said. The problem is that it’s hard for some people to confront their personal issues with race — and comprehend the impact racism has across institutions like public schools. That’s the sort of education an equity chief must bring to school communities, networks, and central offices.

“You’ve got to change attitudes and beliefs, and you also have to give people the tools to do that, because dismantling racism in the schools is just as hard as it is dismantling it in the larger society,” Teitel said.

Listening tours

Christopher Chatmon, deputy chief of equity for the Oakland Unified School District, has his own advice for Chicago’s equity officer. Do a listening tour that spans anywhere from six months to a year, and interview students, parents, teachers, principals, central office staff, school board members, and community organizations.

That’s what Chatmon did after his office opened in 2016. It grew out of the district’s Office of African-American Male Achievement, which he helped found in 2010. Chatmon previously had worked as a principal at an alternative school in San Francisco and served executive director of Urban Services at the Oakland YMCA. Oakland Unified serves about 50,000 students and is 46 percent Latino, 24 percent black, 13 percent Asian, and 10 percent white.

“As we began to go deep into the work, we realized the evolution of that work would have more legs and tentacles,” Chatmon said. “We began to see that not only do we need targeted strategies for black boys as  way to elevate access and performance, we also could benefit from having differentiated and targeted strategies for Latinos, Latinas, indigenous students, Asian and Pacific Islander students.”

In his first year, he drafted an equity policy that declared the district’s commitment to identifying and eliminating racial bias, and outlined ways to reach that goal. Now, his office is laying the groundwork for the plan and thinking through teaching and learning, professional development and curriculum (“the content is still extraordinarily Eurocentric,” he said), teacher recruitment and retention, parent engagement, budgeting, and social-emotional supports for children.

He has about 20 staff, including researchers and data analysts. In a district budget of about $780 million, his office has a $2.1 million slice.

The office spends money on outreach to parents, students, other community engagement events, and training teachers. The office also works on “narrative change,” sharing the stories of diverse students via newsletter, and informing people about accomplishments made by the office.

It’s a subtle way to counteract negative narratives about students of color, LGBTQ students and other marginalized people, Chatmon said. It also lets the public know the district’s values and keeps people abreast of its work.

“Otherwise,” he said, “you can be doing good work but it gets either suppressed or it doesn’t get lifted up.”

“CPS is stepping up”

Chicago’s equity officer won’t have an easy job. This new hire will step into several heated debates around racial equity, especially how CPS plans to spend $1 billion on improving school facilities, adding annexes, and shiny new buildings. He or she will also have to address teacher pipeline issues: The racial makeup of CPS’ teacher workforce doesn’t reflect the student population or that of the city as a whole. 

Source: Chicago Public Schools

A recent WBEZ analysis found CPS’ proposed capital budget invests disproportionately more in buildings serving significant white populations and schools on the north side. And Chalkbeat Chicago reported last week that the proposal shows a skew toward investments in and near high-growth, gentrifying areas of the city. Critics are inflamed by what they say is the lack of an intelligent, fair or transparent process for prioritizing community needs.

At capital budget hearings last week, residents had mixed feelings about how CPS is allocating resources. Some applauded the district, while others cried out for more help.

Jackson said the district already has laid some equity groundwork, such as the Great Expectations Mentor Program, which grooms African-American men and Latinos interested in senior leadership roles at CPS. She also mentioned investments in under-enrolled schools, which tend to be in black communities that have been losing population.

“CPS is stepping up and and saying this is important, and while we have always prioritized equity, it’s important to have a cabinet level official [focused on equity],” Jackson said.

Even if Chicago’s chief equity officer transforms schools, public education is only one expression of racial inequity. Marshall, in Kentucky, emphasized that fixing a school system doesn’t change discrimination in banking, criminal justice, or housing. That doesn’t mean equity chiefs should throw their hands up in resignation. On the contrary, he said they should sit on anti-gun violence panels, address laws that perpetuate mass incarceration, and tie these issues back to schools, especially the school-to-prison pipeline.

“A school system is one link in the chain of change,” he said.

First Person

The SHSAT helps Manhattan families like mine. I finally stood up last week to say that’s wrong.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Parents in Manhattan's District 3 gathered in June to learn about the middle school admissions process.

Choosing schools in New York City can be a formidable challenge. That was evident at a Community Education Council meeting in District 2 last week, when I spoke in favor of a proposal to phase out the exam that governs admissions to the city’s sought-after, specialized high schools — and many other parents voiced opposition to the plan.

In 2011, when my husband and I began to think about where our daughter would go to kindergarten, we realized what a complex educational landscape we would have to navigate. In the years since, we have struggled, as former teachers ourselves, to reconcile our values and self-interests. And sometimes our choices have reflected the latter.

I’ve come to see these choices through a different, critical lens, and I think our family’s story — just one in a school system with more than one million schoolchildren — may shed light on how the system isn’t yet set up to make the right choices the easy ones, and why I’ve come to believe elevating these values is so important at this moment.

The first decision we confronted was where our daughter should go to elementary school. She was zoned to attend P.S. 51 in Hell’s Kitchen. Although State Sen. Brad Hoylman would later call P.S. 51 “one of the jewels in our city’s school system,” in 2011, by traditional measures, the school faced steep challenges. Almost 70 percent of P.S. 51’s students lived in poverty, and only 61 percent of the school’s third-graders passed the state’s standardized tests. This performance still exceeded the citywide average by a significant margin but remained far below the city’s top-ranked schools. In addition, the school itself was in the middle of a construction zone.

As plans were finalized to build a new housing development and school facility where P. S. 51 stood, it was relocated to the Upper East Side, where the school stayed for two years. And so, although school buses were provided, our neighborhood school was no longer in our neighborhood.

We had another possible option. Midtown West, also known as P.S. 212, an unzoned school that accepted children via a lottery system, was a block away from our home. Years earlier, Hell’s Kitchen parents had founded the magnet school based on the progressive pedagogy championed by Bank Street College as an alternative to the neighborhood’s existing public schools, P.S. 51 and P.S. 111.

The combined efforts of school administrators, teachers, and parents led to a strong program at Midtown West. Increasing numbers of middle-class students from Hell’s Kitchen and neighborhoods around the city began to apply to the school, which attracted more resources of all types. By the time we applied to Midtown West in 2011, 87 percent of third-graders passed state tests, and 22 percent of students lived in poverty. In addition, although P.S. 51 and Midtown West were only four blocks apart, P.S. 51 had 73 percent black and Latinx students, whereas Midtown West had 38 percent. The demographics, performance, and resources of the two schools (which parents often look up) were starkly different.

In addition, we had a third possibility. Our daughter tested into the citywide Gifted and Talented program. The closest gifted program was at P.S. 11 in Chelsea, and we attended an orientation. The majority of the parents there (ourselves among them — I am white and my husband is Indian-American) were white and Asian. The gathering was a reflection of the program’s overall demographics; in 2011, more than 70 percent of kindergartners in gifted programs were white and Asian.

This stood in contrast to the broader demographics of the city’s public schools, where 70 percent of children were black and Latinx. We were deeply uncomfortable with the racial disparities between the gifted and general education classrooms but were also daunted as parents by the logistical nightmare of getting one child to school in Chelsea and another to daycare in Hell’s Kitchen — and still getting to work on time.

So here were our choices: We could send our child to a school in transition that had relocated across Manhattan. We could send her to a sought-after school that served those lucky enough to make it through a lottery system. Or, we could send her to a gifted program that served a fraction of New York City’s children. Options one and three would place our child outside of our neighborhood and in deeply segregated environments. Midtown West was closer and less segregated than most gifted classrooms, but only marginally so.

Ultimately, we were among the few to make it through Midtown West’s lottery system and we chose to enroll our daughter there. But this choice, I now see, was a Faustian bargain between our self-interest and our values.

As former teachers who had benefited from quality educations ourselves and with remunerative careers, we could have enrolled our child at P.S. 51. We could have become active parents, making positive contributions to a school in need of advocates and racial and socioeconomic diversity. But as two working parents with young children, we already felt stretched too thin. We determined that we needed a school that would successfully educate our child — with or without our involvement. P.S. 51’s relocation across town cemented our decision. So we made our own needs a priority and abandoned our zoned school.

Geography and school performance had combined to shape our choice. Midtown West was a short walk from our apartment and offered a well-rounded program. But in the process, we became inured to a system that lifted our choice about what was best for our child over the needs of the majority of the city’s schoolchildren.

By not enrolling our child in P.S. 51, we divested our zoned school of whatever resources we could have provided. Our values were in conflict with our actions. And we participated in this system again as we made our way through the screened middle school process. Our daughter received an offer from the Salk School of Science, one of the most selective and least diverse middle schools in the city. We accepted the offer, and she is at Salk today.

Now, with our daughter two years away from high school, our city is immersed in a battle over the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT, a conflict that often pits families’ interests against one another, and the needs of the city’s children as a whole.

A small but vocal group of largely white and Asian parents has mobilized to protect the SHSAT, a mechanism that has historically preserved seats in the city’s most selective high schools for their children. Today those schools are comparable to gifted programs in their racial disparity. The majority of specialized high schools’ students are white and Asian; only 10 percent are black and Latinx.

The energy of these parent advocates for their cause could measure on the Richter scale. I know because I felt the tremors when I spoke out at the District 2 CEC meeting in favor of the city’s initiative to make the system more fair by phasing out the test and offering seats to the top 7 percent of each of the city’s middle schools. Education department projections show this measure would increase black and Latinx enrollment at the city’s specialized high schools to 45 percent — still far below the average citywide but a step closer to representative.

If the SHSAT is eliminated, the odds of these parents’ children attending specialized high schools will be significantly reduced. The same will be true for our daughter. Last year, in a school system with almost 600 middle schools, students from just 10 middle schools received 25 percent of the overall admissions offers from the city’s specialized high schools. Salk was one of those 10 schools; 70 Salk students received such offers. If the city’s plan is adopted, Salk’s number of admitted students will likely plummet.

So why did I speak out in support of phasing out the SHSAT? When our daughter was entering elementary school and middle school, we chose what was most advantageous to our family. Why change course now? Some will say the answer is because the hard choices are behind us. Many great New York City high schools exist beyond just the specialized ones. But that’s not quite it.

In 2011, as our daughter was about to enter the New York City school system, this country stood poised to elect President Obama for a second term. A common perception — one that we naively shared — was that the critical mass of American politics and culture was moving in a progressive direction. And in such a climate, my husband and I reflected less on how our choices made in self-interest might undermine the momentum toward a greater public good.

The state of our country in the last two years has increasingly reshaped our thinking and helped us begin to grapple with and develop a new understanding of how our individual actions, however great or small, contribute to the weaving or unraveling of a more just society.

Our evolution is also related to changing family dynamics. During earlier decisions about our daughter’s education, my husband and I had to answer only to each other. We had long discussions during which we weighed our options against our values and could more easily accept and forgive rationalizations and expediency. Now we are making choices in the presence of a highly engaged third party: our perceptive young daughter, who has a keen sense of social justice honed in New York City’s public schools.

How do we look her in the eye and continue to seek privilege in an educational system that is structured to favor some children, including our own, and not others? She is old enough to understand that our choices define and reveal who we really are.

The fervor of the parents at the SHSAT meeting is surely driven by their desire to secure the best opportunities for their children. That’s something we have in common with all parents across New York City.

So what would happen if we united to demand that the New York City public schools genuinely serve the public good? What if we took to heart the words issued by the city’s Board of Education in 1954, in the wake of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision: “Public education in a racially homogeneous setting is socially unrealistic and blocks the attainment of the goals of democratic education, whether this segregation occurs by law or by fact.” What would happen if we insisted that the goals of a democratic education — equal educational opportunities for all children — be realized?

Committing to those values would mean scrapping more than the SHSAT. It would mean rethinking gifted programs and middle school screening, and all the ways we separate and isolate children, which have contributed to making New York City’s school system one of the most segregated in the country.

Committing to these values would mean integrating our schools, so all children can benefit from the enhanced ability to participate a multiethnic, democratic society. It would mean offering well-funded, high quality schools to all children in all New York City neighborhoods. Yes, it would also likely mean more discomfiting conversations, like the ones at the meeting where I spoke — conversations with each other and also with ourselves. And it would mean living in harmony with what we say we believe and what we actually do.

Alexis Audette is a parent of two children in District 2. Portrait photo credit: Mark Weinberg.

Future of Teaching

Tentative contract includes big raises for IPS teachers

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Teachers would receive significant raises under a tentative new contract with IPS.

A month after voters approved a vast funding increase for Indianapolis Public Schools, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration and the district teachers union have reached a tentative deal for a new contract that would boost teacher pay by an average of 6.3 percent.

The agreement was ratified by union members Wednesday, according to a statement from teachers union president Ronald Swann. It must be approved by the Indianapolis Public Schools board, which is likely to consider the contract next week, before it is final.

Swann did not provide details of the agreement, but it was outlined in union presentations to teachers on Wednesday ahead of the ratification vote. The deal would cover the 2018-19 school year, and teachers would receive retroactive pay back to July 2018. The prior contract ended in June.

Raising teacher pay was a key part of the sales pitch district leaders used to win support for a referendum to raise $220 million over eight years from taxpayers for operating expenses. The referendum passed with wide support from voters last month, and although the district will not get that money until next year, the administration can now bank on an influx of cash in June 2019. Teachers could receive another raise next year, once the money from the referendum begins flowing.

The proposed deal would bring pay raises for new and experienced teachers. First year teachers in the district would see their salaries jump to $42,587, about $2,600 above the current base salary, according to the presentation to teachers. Returning teachers would move up the pay scale, with most receiving raises of about $2,600.

The deal also brings a reward for teachers who are at the top of the current scale. The top of the scale would rise to $74,920 by adding several stops above the current maximum of $59,400. That means teachers who are currently at the top of the scale would be able to move up and continue getting raises.

Many longtime teachers in the district also earn additional pay for advanced education, but teachers who joined the district more recently are not eligible for that extra money.

Teachers who received evaluations of ineffective or needs improvement in 2017-18 are not eligible for raises.

The new contract is the second time in recent years that teachers have won substantial raises in Indianapolis Public Schools. After four years of painful pay freezes, Ferebee negotiated a contract in 2015 that included a large pay increase. Teacher pay is especially important for the district because it is competing with several surrounding communities to staff schools.

Health care costs would go up this year, a policy shift that was advocated by the Indy Chamber, which urged the district to reduce health insurance spending as part of a plan to shift more money to teacher salaries.

The contract includes a provision that was piloted last year allowing the district to place newly hired teachers at anywhere on the salary schedule. It’s designed to allow the district to pay more for especially hard-to-fill positions.

Teachers at some troubled schools, known as the transformation zone, would also be eligible for extra pay on top of their regular salaries at the discretion of the administration. That money would come from state grants specifically targeted at transformation zone schools.

The idea of allowing superintendents to pay some teachers in their districts more than others is controversial.