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Building Equity in Oregon’s Classrooms

  • Corbis

Five-year-old Sierra couldn’t sleep. She usually dropped off quickly on Friday nights after a long week at bilingual kindergarten. But tonight she was restless. “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.

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. Cultural competency is the demonstrated ability to understand and work with students of diverse cultures and abilities. The goal? To meet all students—black or white, Latino or Vietnamese, middle class or poor, native or non-native English speakers—where they are, with the resources they need to succeed.

The roots of Oregon’s forward-looking requirement—and Lewis & Clark’s involvement—go back more than a decade. Rob Larson Ed.D. ’08, senior program director at the Oregon nonprofit Education Northwest, was an early leader in the equity movement. In 2000, while serving as the director of policy and research in Oregon’s Department of Education, he heard about the Wallace Foundation’s State Action for Education Leadership Project (SAELP), a $350 million initiative to study educational leadership.

“At the time, Oregon didn’t have much diversity,” Larson says. “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,” Larson says. “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.”

Also involved in developing Oregon’s new standards for administrators were the late Tom Ruhl BS ’71, founder of Lewis & Clark’s doctoral program in educational leadership, and Carolyn Carr, professor and chair of educational leadership and current director of the doctoral program. With Larson and others, they worked on SAELP and founded the Oregon Professors of Educational Administration, a group that was instrumental in rewriting Oregon’s licensure standards.

“We believed then, as we do now, that social justice and equity are essential to closing the achievement gap,” Carr says. “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.”

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 (70 percent nationally). However, only 50 percent of Oregon’s African American and Native American students and 60 percent of Latino and poor 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.

Special education students are also disciplined more, says David Lovelin, a longtime vice principal at Lake Oswego High School who was recently named principal of Barlow High School. Lovelin is a Lewis & Clark doctoral candidate expecting to graduate in 2013. “In my first year as an administrator, autistic students showed up a lot in my office,” he says. Common autistic behaviors, such as taking instructions literally or showing frustration openly, triggered disciplinary action. “A student might have an IQ of 140 but be struggling to get through high school,” Lovelin says.

Oregon administrators’ cultural competency training prompts them to look at the problem in nontraditional ways. Sho Shigeoka, equity coordinator for the Beaverton School District, says, “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?’” Along with coordinating district-wide equity teams that help educators reflect on their practices and learn new skills, Shigeoka 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

From that early grant-funded project grew the Oregon Leadership Network (OLN), now part of the nonprofit Education Northwest. The OLN is funded by its 16 participating districts—including Portland Public Schools—which educate one-third of Oregon students. Today the OLN plays a major role in advancing equity issues within the state. Extending the network’s influence are the many graduates of Lewis & Clark’s doctoral program in educational leadership. Working within their home districts, they use their training in cultural competency and equity to create change in schools.

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 through these proven strategies:

  • Self-awareness—Making administrators and teachers aware of their personal biases about race and class.
  • Collectivity—Bringing staff from all levels together (for example, on district-wide equity teams) to learn and use strategies that promote equity.
  • Research—Collecting data from schools, then sharing the results and using it to shape practices like teaching
  • and discipline.
  • Policy—Adopting formal statements and plans that promote equity.

To make administrators and teachers aware of their own cultures and biases, several districts have hired Pacific Educational Group, a consulting firm whose workshops include “courageous conversations” about race. “Most of us were raised to believe it was good to be color blind,” says Saxton. “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.”

“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. Haghighi is also a doctoral candidate in Lewis & Clark’s educational leadership program. “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.”

Embracing non-English culture and language is another step. “We promote dual-language learning and encourage monolingual students to learn other languages, especially Spanish,” says Haghighi. Courses for English language learners (ELL) have also been made more rigorous. “In the past, the ELL curriculum was very basic.

Students didn’t learn enough to succeed,” Haghighi says. Now teachers and administrators participate in professional development around equity issues. The training helps them work more effectively with the district’s bilingual educational assistants to improve ELL students’ access to higher-level curriculum and coursework and better prepare them for the future.

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.

Working with teachers is crucial to fostering equity. “One of our biggest problems [in working with autistic students] was lack of teacher training,” says Lovelin. The district hired educational assistants with training in autism. “Now, kids have a buffer between them and the principal’s office,” Lovelin says. “Teachers can send kids to a specialist and they can get back to class without being disciplined. They aren’t getting in trouble for their disabilities anymore.” Districts also give teachers professional development options to help them work more effectively with students of all cultures and abilities. 

A Beacon for Social Justice in Education

“Lewis & Clark has been involved in equity from day one,” says Carr. “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.”

As more students earn doctorates in educational leadership from Lewis & Clark, Carr hopes to raise awareness. “Many alumni don’t know we have a doctoral program. But we’re among the leading higher education institutions nationwide in fostering equity and social justice.” As students gather data and publish their findings, the school is expanding its influence as a research center.

Why Equity Matters

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.”

Genevieve J. Long is a freelance writer in Portland.

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