When Sam Coleman and Superintendent Bryan Davis began collaborating to transform systems within the Shorewood School District to deliver an equitable education for students of all races, backgrounds and abilities, they knew they had to scrap the status quo. Previous efforts to move toward equity for all had fallen short. It was time to get radical and revolutionary.
What that means, says Coleman -- hired in 2019 as the district’s first director for equity and recently promoted to director of curriculum and instruction -- is that the District had to be willing to reimagine everything from curricular approaches and teaching strategies, to who gets to participate in what classes, to hiring processes.
“Over the past 50+ years, despite our attempts at adding solutions or interventions, we have not been able to eliminate the predictability of racial inequity within our system,” Coleman says. “The radical thing to do is to explore the history of racial marginalization and exclusion within our school system and Village, identify it, name it, confront it and then have a plan for unlearning those biases and stereotypes.”
Coleman and Davis decided to convene District stakeholders to do this together, with the goal of building a framework for equity. To facilitate monthly sessions from October 2019 through March 2020, they called on Dr. Monique Liston, the founder of Milwaukee-based Ubuntu Research and Evaluation.
“Ubuntu” is both a word and a concept. The world comes from the African languages of Zulu and Xhola, roughly translated in English to “humanity toward others.” The concept embodies cooperation and harmony within a society in which every individual, as a representative of one’s people, behaves in a way that upholds the society’s standards and virtues.*
*New World Encyclopedia
The sessions ultimately identified seven systems impacting student outcomes that needed to be examined and changed and three key recommendations:
1) Social Justice Curriculum
2) Anti-Racist Pedogogy
3) Address the culture of fear preventing staff/administrators from addressing inequity and injustice
SEVEN SYSTEMS FOR TRANSFORMATION
1) Professional Learning
“The recommendations that came out of this work perfectly align with what we agree, as a district, is important to transform our systems and our approach to teaching and learning,” Coleman says. “I think the priorities really speak to the community's awareness and readiness to confront the way our curriculum has worked for a normed group and has left out a vast range of identities and perspectives and experiences. It was powerful for the participants to acknowledge this and admit that Shorewood has a very homogeneous, euro-centric educational approach that's not healthy for any student.”
EMBRACING DISCOMFORT, AMPLIFYING VOICES
Participant feedback about the sessions showed a general appreciation for being able to engage in uncomfortable but necessary conversations about identity, oppression and implicit biases. During many activities, participants were instructed to hold hands, make intimate eye contact and reflect.
At the first session, says participant Michelle Waite, Dr. Liston told people to pair up for introductions -- with the person who has been more marginalized going first. “So we’re there holding hands with a stranger we’d just introduced ourselves to, and then trying to have this dialogue: ‘What’s your background? Are you more marginalized than me?’ That kind of put everybody in the same place,” Waite says.
Students also shared personal experiences that brought the harm of inequity to light.
“Without question, the most valuable aspect of these sessions was getting to hear my students' experiences around equity, specifically my Black students,” says SIS special education teacher Sam Prystawik. “I think doing the work side by side with the students consistently centered us all on why we were there. It helped us unpack this idea that because our system was created to benefit certain students, the work must start with a mindset shift in how we think about education in Shorewood.”
Rising SHS freshman Litnell Nash says he participated in the sessions because he believes student perspectives help community and staff understand the most urgent issues.
“I felt like I could speak and [the adults in the room] would listen and they would care about what my ideas were,” says Nash. “A Black, male student using his voice and people actually listening does not happen every day.”
A MARATHON MINDSET
Coleman points out that there are no quick fixes to transforming inequitable systems, something sessions participants seemed to grasp based on their feedback.
“For people confronted with a very ugly or uncomfortable truth, there's an urge to address it right away because you want those feelings of guilt, shame or sadness to dissipate,” Coleman says. “This can't be about doing what mitigates shame and guilt. To truly transform an entire system that was set up to marginalize some and benefit others is a collective and strategic process, and we have to commit to the long-term approach in order to be successful.”
He warns that the work ahead requires deliberate effort to combat the potential fatigue that may stymie progress along the long and difficult road to achieving equity. “The recommendations generated require us as a community to actively resist and actively work against racist systems and structures and oppressive systems and structures that have existed for decades,” Colman explains. “As the political tides ebb and flow, as new issues of the day come about, and as competing priorities arise, it’s important for us to remember that equity work is not something we do on the side, but instead it is the lens that we have to see our work and our lives through every single day. The endurance that's needed to sustain this has to be strategically built and very intentional.”
Says Stephone Jordan, SHS social studies teacher and session participant, “I think the biggest challenge [as a teacher] will be adapting multicultural language and themes into every lesson and being able to change and recreate a lesson on the fly to be more relevant to each class you teach. But I’m excited to collaborate with my colleagues and have great brains working together to get the end result we want.”
Coleman says he is optimistic about Shorewood’s ability to sustain focus and accomplish equity goals. “We have a village and a group of teachers who are committed to doing this work and who have answered the call with optimism, hope, energy, and authenticity,” he says. “That’s half the battle, and I truly believe that we will get there.”
A PROVEN GUIDE
The need for an “operating system” to initiate and structure its work has led the District to adopt Integrated Comprehensive Systems for Equity, a research-based approach with an impressive track record: Every organization implementing it precisely by design has seen its systems transformed and inequities eliminated.
ICS will help the District follows a multi-year, multi-step process that reexamines systems, realigns resources and reconfigures collaboration and learning, builds teacher and administrator capacity for “owing” equity, and brings accountability to everyone involved.
“The more we spread that work out, the more we build capacity of individuals, parents, and board members within our system to do this equity work and prioritize it as the lens that we see our practice through, the further we get down the road that leads us to the kind of District we agree our students all need,” says Sam Coleman.
In early July, the District Leadership Team and School Board held a three-day retreat with the ICS founders to learn more. In the 2020-21 school year, staff members serving on the District Leadership Team, supported by ICS coaches, will facilitate monthly staff training that will be extended to the community by later winter or early spring.
For more information on the District’s work in equity and diversity, visit: shorewood.k12.wi.us/equity/