Five Ways to Build a More Equitable Education System

In a series of discussions on education equity, students, teachers, administrators, policymakers, and researchers shared insights about how communities can come together to solve critical issues.

Laura Hoxworth

How can a community work together to build a more equitable education system? That was the focus of Week Five of the Tom Tom Foundation’s Cities Rising Summit, presented by the UVA School of Education and Human Development. In five virtual sessions, the event brought together local students, teachers, administrators, policymakers, and researchers for insights and conversation about critical issues facing our schools. 

“Covid was a stress test for public education,” said Dean Robert C. Pianta, who moderated the Marquee Talk with noted education leader Kaya Henderson.

“I think the pandemic has taught us the value and skill of our teachers,” he said, recognizing educators’ heroic efforts adapting to an emergency shift to online learning, but “we can’t continue to expect teachers in schools to correct all the shortcomings of our society.”

In five virtual sessions, panelists discussed successes and promising progress, as well as the challenges and entrenched barriers that impede movement toward equity. Here are five major takeaways, which lay out a path forward for building a stronger, more equitable education system together.

1. Engage Deeply with Students, Families, and Communities

An equitable approach to education has to begin with those who are most directly impacted: the students and parents in the community. Throughout the sessions, panelists stressed that community members bring valuable strategies, skills, and experience to the table.

Henderson, CEO of Reconstruction and the week’s Marquee speaker, highlighted that hundreds of conversations informed her work as the former chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. Building relationships with a community that had learned not to trust the school system wasn’t easy, she said. It took one-on-one meetings in living rooms. It required asking for feedback – and then responding to it. Through it all, school leaders had to commit to true partnership.

“We strategized together,” she said. “We asked for everybody in the community to weigh in.” Not everyone will be happy all of the time, she added, but if people feel valued and validated – like partners – then you can make progress.

Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras spoke about his division’s recent efforts to engage with local families, which include hiring full-time staff whose entire jobs are to make connections with the most marginalized families in the community.

Outside of school systems, community organizations and their volunteers are valuable leaders and resources in community engagement. According to Daniel Fairley II, Youth Opportunity Coordinator for the City of Charlottesville, the first step in connecting with the community is to show up – and the second is to show up again. Fairley stressed the importance of consistency in building the kind of lasting relationships that effect change. He and other panelists in the session on community supports also encouraged volunteers to focus on serving where you’re most needed, instead of what looks best on your resume.

2. Ensure Accountability with Clear Goals and Standards 

Throughout the week, several panelists raised concerns about equity becoming a buzzword without substance. To that end, many discussions centered on the importance of ensuring accountability through goals, standards, and a focus on outcomes.

The first step is defining what equity means in your context with clarity and intention.

“Our equity mission statement states that we will end the predictive value of race, class, gender, and special capacities on student success by working together with families and communities to ensure each student’s success,” said Bernard Hairston, assistant superintendent of community and school empowerment with Albemarle County Public Schools. Paired with a strong anti-racism policy, he said, that sends a powerful message attached to a clear goal.

Accountability metrics are not one-size-fits-all. Panelists emphasized that a local focus is key, grounded in a vision of what equity looks like in your school or community.

Many participants stressed the importance of tracking outcomes. Ultimately, said Charlottesville City Schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins, true equity only happens when students’ experiences in the classroom have changed. For community organizations, UVA Equity Center Executive Director Ben Allen emphasized the importance of setting goals that focus on impacts within the community, not the efforts of any individual program.

From a school leadership perspective, Henderson advised leaders to develop a strategic plan that sets clear guardrails and priorities – and that holds school systems and structures accountable. She also suggested releasing all of the decision-making data publicly.

Whatever your organization is working toward, transparency is key. Katrina Callsen, Albemarle County School Board member, said an equity dashboard can help the community understand the issues and keep the focus on results. “Having the data front and center helps you realize what’s working and what’s not working,” she said.

3. Build Partnerships Grounded in Cooperation and Humility

The value of partnerships arose in every session. A community-focused approach includes school leaders, teachers, families, philanthropic groups, community organizations, politicians, researchers, and more. Equity-focused partnerships put equity first, and individual or organizational needs second.

“The work of equity can never be accomplished by any individual,” said Atkins.

School division leaders discussed how, for example, partnerships are helping to reimagine career and technical education, which has historically funneled marginalized students toward low-income jobs. Thanks to a partnership with local community colleges, Kamras said, Richmond Public Schools leadership are developing a program that leads to an associate’s degree and certification in high-demand fields with a path to management and wealth generation.

In another example, Fairley praised how Charlottesville-area community organizations pooled resources during the pandemic, quickly turning unused gyms at the YMCA into remote learning spaces. “It was so amazing to see the ways in which our networks have worked together,” he said.

“Every single organization that you see working in this space states a very similar goal,” added Allen. “We want better outcomes for students. If we are working at that individually, then that won’t occur. But the more that we are collectively doing it, it will.”

4. Use an Asset-based and Culturally Responsive Approach 

In Charlottesville City Schools, Atkins said the goal is to start building on the strengths that students bring into the school system as early as preschool. “We have to start building the confidence, the aspiration in our students to know that all opportunities are available to them,” she said.

Several panelists championed a general approach to education that recognizes and celebrates students’ unique strengths instead of focusing on deficits. For example, Allen raised the idea of replacing the term “English language learner” with “emerging bilingual student,” which highlights language skills.

Similarly, a movement for increased cultural responsiveness, or cultural competency, stresses the importance of valuing all students’ cultures and voices. Kibiriti Majuto, an organizer with the Virginia Student Power Network, emphasized that all cultural competency is grounded in community – it cannot happen without authentic connection to the larger community that educational systems serve.

Yet, this is one area where teachers in particular have agency. According to Leah Walker, director of the Office of Equity and Community Engagement for the Virginia Department of Education, a pillar of the state’s equity work is increasing the cultural proficiency of Virginia’s educator workforce.

Abigail Amoako Kayser, a Ph.D. candidate in the UVA School of Education and Human Development, said that cultural understanding always starts from within. She teaches her students that the first step is to understand their own cultural perspectives and how their experiences in education have shaped their worldviews.

5. Address Equity from Multiple Angles at Once

Perhaps the greatest takeaway from the week’s conversations is that when it comes to equity, no single solution is a panacea. “This work only moves forward when we can address it from all different angles,” said Amoeko Kayser.

School leaders can employ a range of tactics. For example, Kamras discussed equalizing academic opportunity by ensuring that a range of AP courses is available in all high schools in the division. “I’m often asked, like, what do you mean systemic racism? That’s what I mean,” he said. “Things that are baked into the system to hold kids of color and low-income kids back.”

Panelists discussed several other ways leaders can push for equity, including anti-bias training, diversifying staff, anti-racism policies, and better alignment between research and practice.

While formal leadership is important, however, it is not the only way. Callsen mentioned the role of higher education in training the next generation of teachers with an equity mindset. “Creating good teachers is the first step, and UVA has been a great partner,” she said.

Amoeka Kayser said she wants teachers to see that they can be change agents. “Being a teacher-leader doesn’t always mean having a formal leadership role – in fact, you can take an informal role and make those concrete changes happen in your own classroom,” she said.

UVA Associate Professor of Education Stanley Trent, a decades-long leader in the education equity space, has developed a mindset he deemed “hopeful realism.” In short, the work is not easy. It is challenging and complex. But when communities come together, there is hope.

Despite the challenges thrown into relief by the pandemic, Walker expressed an optimism unique to this moment, buoyed by conversations like these. “There is a new national discourse … about the systemic prevalence of racism across every aspect of American society,” she said. “We are able to have these conversations in honest ways that we haven’t been able to do in the past.”

The Cities Rising Summit was a virtual event series exploring critical issues surfaced by the Covid-19 pandemic and 2020 movement for racial justice. Recordings of all sessions are available on the Tom Tom Foundation’s YouTube Channel.