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Building Equity in Oregon’s Classrooms

February 05, 2013

Five-year-old Sierra couldn’t sleep. “What’s wrong?” her mother asked. “I’m too excited to sleep,” Sierra said. “We’re going to college tomorrow with Maestra Perez!”

Sierra’s kindergarten teacher, Karen Perez-DaSilva, had organized a Saturday visit to Lewis & Clark for her students and their parents. Once on campus, the kids took part in informal math and reading sessions set up by Cindi Swingen M.A.T. ’97 and students from Lewis & Clark’s Graduate School of Education and Counseling. While the kids were busy, parents learned about helping their children prepare for higher education. But for many participants, the highlight might have been the campus tour: parent and child walking hand in hand, imagining—perhaps for the first time—a future that includes college.

It isn’t just about raising test scores; it’s about justice in budgeting, resource allocation, hiring, and school placements. If we don’t pay attention to cultural issues and change how we deal with all children, we will never close the gap.Carolyn Carr

Taking kindergartners to college is part of education’s next frontier: the equity movement, which aims to meet the needs of students of all cultures and abilities. “Research shows kids need to envision something before they can achieve it,” Perez-DaSilva explains.

The same holds true for adults. Lewis & Clark graduate school faculty, students, and alumni—particularly those associated with the Doctor of Education in Leadership program, including doctoral candidates Perez-DaSilva and Swingen—are playing key roles in envisioning greater equity in Oregon’s schools. Their goal is to close the notorious “achievement gap” in education—the disparity in academic performance between low-income and minority students and their peers.

Writing Equity Into Policy

In 2005, Oregon became the only state in the nation to require that school administrators (principals and district office staff) demonstrate cultural competency before becoming licensed.

“Oregon didn’t have much diversity,” says Rob Larsen Ed.D. ’08, senior program director at the Oregon nonprofit Education Northwest, of the days when the cultural competency requirement was still just a dream. “But the population was starting to change. Many Latino students were entering our schools, and we were ill prepared to help them succeed.” He cowrote a grant proposal to address school leadership standards in Oregon, and the state received funding. 

“Equity is the most intractable education issue of our generation,” says Larsen. “Today, segregation happens inside our schools. We have more poor and minority students in special education classes and fewer in Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes.”

Lewis & Clark has been involved in equity from day one. All 10 students in our current educational leadership cohort enrolled because of our focus on social justice. We’ve become a beacon in this area.Carolyn Carr

“We believed then, as we do now, that social justice and equity are essential to closing the achievement gap,” Carolyn Carr, professor and chair of educational leadership and current director of the doctoral program says.

Serving a Changing Student Body

Demographic change has powered the equity movement. Rob Saxton, who is transitioning from superintendent of the Tigard-Tualatin School District to deputy superintendent of Oregon’s Department of Education, says that in 2000, just 18 percent of Tigard-Tualatin’s students were nonwhite. By 2009, the number had jumped to 35 percent. By 2018, 50 percent of the district’s learners will be students of color.

In Oregon, 67 percent of high school students graduate in four years, but only 50 percent of Oregon’s African American and Native American students graduated on time. Just 42 percent of students with disabilities graduated in four years. The achievement gap is also a discipline gap. African American students are disciplined three times more frequently than whites, Latino students more than twice as often. “For these students, school becomes a place of failure and shame,” says Carr.

Rather than blaming students for bad behavior, we should ask, ‘What are we doing—or not doing—that’s keeping these students from being engaged in class?’Sho Shigeoka

Along with coordinating district-wide equity teams that help educators reflect on their practices and learn new skills, Sho Shigeoka, equity coordinator for the Beaverton School District, meets monthly with staffers called student supervisors who are responsible for school discipline. They discuss questions such as “What is the purpose of discipline?” and “What role does race play?” New practices evolve from these discussions.

From Color Blindness to Embracing Differences

Graduates of Lewis & Clark’s doctor of education in leadership program use their training in cultural competency and equity to create change in schools in their home districts.

While at Lewis & Clark, doctoral students take courses such as Leading Change through Cultural Competence and Intercultural Community Collaboration. Their dissertations must focus on “an issue of practice relevant to the promotion of social justice or equity.” This research, in turn, adds to a growing body of knowledge on helping marginalized students succeed. For example, current students are researching the best ways to reach African American and Latino boys, autistic students, and others.

After graduating from the program, Lewis & Clark alumni work to increase equity on the ground in their schools. In addition to research, one avenue for administrators has been to sponsor workshops that include “courageous conversations” about race.

Most of us were raised to believe it was good to be color blind. But when you can’t talk about something, you’re paralyzed. Training has given us a vocabulary for conversations with staff, policy makers, and parent groups.Rob Saxton

“Having conversations about race in a safe environment is a good first step,” says Saideh Haghighi, director for the office of equity for the Hillsboro school district and doctoral candidate at Lewis & Clark. “The goal is to embrace differences, not ignore them. We acknowledge that not all students are the same—so let’s not treat them all the same way.”

Outreach to parents helps kids and families feel valued and secure, which facilitates staying in school. This includes extracurricular activities. In Hillsboro, athletic department information nights are staffed by Spanish and Vietnamese speakers so parents can hear about sports programs in their first languages. Helping kids set educational goals early, as Perez-DaSilva did by bringing her kindergartners to Lewis & Clark, is another way to involve families. Parents and students need to experience a college campus before they can help their children prepare for higher education. “Many of my students have families where no one has been to college,” Perez-DaSilva says. Campus visits (the class also visited Portland State University) help kids and parents imagine new possibilities.

Leaders in the equity movement are making progress toward closing the achievement gap, but they acknowledge there is still much work to do. “Currently, race and household income predict success in school,” says Shigeoka. “When I no longer see disparities in test scores, graduation rates, enrollment in advanced courses, attendance, and involvement in extracurricular activities, then I’ll know we’ve achieved success.”

Saxton says raising equity in education is essential to the country’s future. “If we cannot close the achievement gap in a knowledge economy, we’re doomed economically,” he says.

“The U.S. demographic shift is enormous,” Carr says. “Within 20 years, we will be a minority white country. Education is the key to democracy—and in order to protect it, every citizen has to understand what it is. We need to educate all students for success.”

Learn more about our programs in educational leadership. 

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